I don’t understand love or how it works. One day I was talking to Ol’ Grizzles. “It ain’t that hard,” he drawled. “Ya see, love, well, it’s kinda like a big ol’ ball of twine.”
“Well, ya start out with a big ol’ ball, that’s your startin’ love, so to speak, like how it is when ya pick it up at the five-and-dime. And over time ya fuss and ya fight, ya cuss and ya bust a plate or two, and ever’ one of them dustemups, well, it shortens your ball of twine just a tad.”
“It is. Damn gloomy. But as long as ya know that’s what it is, ya can take yer countermeasures.”
“Yep. Ya gotta allus remember to keep addin’ to yer ball of twine. Ya shorten it up a bit after that fight over the toothpaste cap or who wiped his ass with the last square of TP and didn’t replace the roll, well, then ya gotta lengthen it a bit with sumpin’ else like a movie or dinner or she lets ya buy a new derailleur. That’s how ya keep the ball of love nice and big. But ya can’t ever stop addin’ to it or yer permanently fucked, and ya wind up starin’ at each other over breakfast hatin’ how the other one chews his cereal.”
In 2001 I was with famed naturalist Buddy Hollis, birding in Newton County in deep East Texas. Buddy Hollis has nothing to do with Buddy Holly, and in my opinion, even though both were from Texas, Buddy Hollis is way cooler. We heard a massive hammering, like a chisel being driven into a tree with a jackhammer. “Man,” I said, “that is one loud woodpecker.”
We trained our binoculars on what was a pileated woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in North America, with a massive bill, a brilliant red cockade, and a manner that bespoke total ownership of the pine tree he was splintering into bits.
“Back in the day we didn’t used to call ’em that,” Buddy said.
“Really? What did you call them?”
“Well you know most folks who’ve never seen one before–and keep in mind that the pileated is a tiny cousin to the ivory-billed, long extinct, so you can imagine how loud they were–and they’d hear this noise reverberating through the forest, and then they’d see the bird, and because it’s so dang big and so dang pretty and so dang loud they’d ‘most always say, “Goodgawdamighty!’ That’s what we called ’em back then, a ‘goodgawdamighty.'”
I never forgot that bit of natural history. Buddy was not only the finest naturalist anywhere, but it bespoke the incredible power of nature to call out to the human mind, to shock with beauty, with wonder, good God almighty, what in the world is that?
Unfortunately, despite my chops as co-author of a book on birding in Texas, I never really graduated from the amateur birding level, more of a masters hacker, actually. And over time, as with anything else, my skills have decayed through neglect and cycling. I can still fumble my way through a bird sighting but it’s often a lot of guesswork, a lot of guidebook-thumbing, and a certain percentage of bullshit mixed with “I give up” if it’s going to take too much effort.
Birding is that way. The pros know all the birds, their habitat, their range and distribution, their seasonal and age-related plumages, their calls, their songs, and the fine details that differentiate them from similar species. Real birders, good ones like Buddy, go birding to see what they know, and they pick up the rarities that go along with the activity.
They don’t go looking for rarities, “chasing birds,” toting up lists. They go to see what they know is there. Looking for a Swainson’s warbler? Buddy can tell you which road to turn down, and which tree to look behind for the little puddle in which you’ll likely find it.
I was riding my bike the other day along the Kern River, headed towards Fairview just past Ant Canyon. I glanced up and saw a raptor, a big one. His head was pale and he was soaring. “Huh,” I thought. “Bald eagle? But where’s the white tail feathers?” I watched him, bigger than big, as he floated down the river and out of sight. “Probably a juvenile eagle whose white tailfeathers haven’t come in yet.”
A real birder would have known that juvenile bald eagles don’t have white heads awaiting “white tailfeathers to come in yet.” Juveniles are dark throughout, and their heads and tails both become white when they become adults.
A real birder would have had zero questions about what had just flown over because real birders already know what’s there, or what might reasonably be there, and, if it doesn’t fit what’s supposed to be there, would immediately know the rarity they were looking at, because the number of birds that fit that description is exactly one.
A shitty birder would at least have gone home and checked the field guide.
But a lazy ex-birder who mostly enjoys looking at stuff pedaling would have done what I did. Look, scratch head, invent something, keep pedaling.
The next day Kristie and I were riding the same route. Whatever level poor birder I am, Kristie is much worse. However, like most new birders, she’s curious and not afraid to be ignorant. “That was weird,” she said.
“The one that just flew overhead.”
I glanced and shrugged. It was gone now. “Oh,” I said disinterestedly.
“I wonder what it was?”
Now I had to engage. “What did it look like?”
“A flying velociraptor,” she said.
My mind clicked. “It was really fucking big, wasn’t it?” Like the bird yesterday.
“It was huge. It blotted out the sun. It was like a dumpster with wings.”
“Fuck,” I said. “I saw that bird yesterday. It had a white head, right?”
“Not really white. It was pretty far up. It was kind of pale, though. But it was so fucking big.”
It’s hard to admit that you don’t know something, but with birds I’m used to it. I went back to my bald eagle hypothesis. It sounded plausible, but we now both wanted to know for sure.
We got back to the shanty and I flipped the book open to raptors. There it was. Biggest bird in the sky. Wingspan of almost 10 feet. Less than one hundred of them in existence. And we had seen it. A juvenile California condor, hence the pale head (let’s ignore for the moment that neither of us noticed the head was featherless.)
We hugged each other with excitement, shivering. “Oh my god,” she said, “we saw a condor. We saw a fucking condor.”
“Only thing better would have been to have seen a condor fucking,” I added. We squeezed each other and jumped on each others’ toes by mistake.
But still we couldn’t believe it, so I looked up Tulare County sightings on eBird. Sure enough, our condor had been seen and photographed two days before, 120 miles away by car, but a mere 20 miles as the condor flies. It had also been sighted nearby in Kern County.
There we had it. Our first goodgawdamighty, the real goodgawdamighty, the flying dumpster, the airborne velociraptor, the bald eagle that wasn’t. And … another little piece of twine added to the ball.
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