You would think, if you knew my parents, that I would have been a born birder. Some of my earliest memories are of family walks through the woods, pausing frequently to "bish" a furtive warbler into closer view. For the longest time, my father had a picture of a woodcock on the door that he had made for my mother with the caption; "bzeep" means I love you. We used to make barred owl calls to each other when approaching the house after a morning's explore.
But I never had the birding bug and was content to recognize forms but not the subtle distinctions of individual species until I went to Africa, where all my frames of reference were turned on end. Familiar constellations spun with their feet in the air, and the moon waxed and waned from opposite sides of its pale face. Everything - smells, seasons, the rhythms of life and of death - was strange and new. I immersed myself in all the experience had to offer. And I learned the birds.
I learned to tell when the cape turtle doves (Streptopelia senegalensis), perched in the drooping thorns at twilight, would suddenly drop in a flurry of wings to dip and drink and flash up again before a mongoose or rooicat could leap at the trough. I found that one of the best things to do while waiting alongside a dusty track for a ride to come along was to peer into the thorn veld, watch what was high in the makalani palms or perched on a nearby termite mound. I learned their common names in Damara, Oshiwambo, Afrikaans, or Ju/'hoan. I met a woman who loved birds and discovered the joys of birding in love that my parents clearly knew.
Birders in British Commonwealth nations call the pursuit of previously located rarities "twitching", and one of my favorite twitchers was an Anglican priest in Namibia named Michael Yates. Michael was a frustrated falconer and a bander of eagles. One memorable day he and I took the doors off his aged land rover and drove out to the hills above the Namibian capitol, Windhoek, looking for raptors. The best place to spot an eagle in this high arid plateau is perched on telephone poles. When we came upon a great bird of prey keenly observing us from the top of a pole, we would slowly drive past and toss out a wire mesh cage in which a white mouse or dove was contained and with thin snares fastened all along its top and sides. We'd continue on around the bend or into a dip in the road so that we could just see the top of the pole and the eagle dropping to the roadside. Then back we would dash, quick as lightning, and maybe if we were lucky a talon had caught in the snare and the bird was not able to beat aloft. The eagle would be swiftly pinioned, bands attached and measurements taken, then released to soar skyward. On this particular occasion it was a tawny eagle (Aquila rapax) that we managed to band in this way, a bird that ranges across Africa to south eastern Europe, the Middle East and south Asia.
In fact, many of the birds I came to think of as African were migrants from Eurasia and just as much a part of those places as the neo-tropical migrants of our New England summers are to their winter quarters in the Caribbean and Central and South America. The hoopoe (Upupa epops) appears at left on a stamp from Cambodia but was a regular companion during the southern African summer months, likewise the Eurasian bee-eater (Merops apiaster) depicted on the Vietnamese stamp at right.
I had many favorites that regrettably I cannot depict for you here in stamps from my collection. Among these were the Bataleur eagle (Terathopius ecaudatus), whose name is pronounced /wee-sa in the language of the Ju/'hoansi people of the Kalahari where I first saw them gliding above Nyae Nyae Pan. I can still see the pendulous nests of the masked weavers (Ploceus velatus) adorning the acacias and camel thorns in the dry riverbeds, or fastened to the upright reeds of Phragmites australis in its native habitat. I can still hear the "Go-Away" call of the grey lourie (Corythaixoides concolor) creaking like a rusty hinge, and see the Goliath heron (Ardea goliath) stabbing at fish on the shores of Lake Kariba with crocodiles for company.
The one I miss most was an old friend and constant companion: the Yellow-billed Hornbill (Tockus flavirostris), Kipling's kolokolo bird. There was one that used to attack its own reflection, defending its territory from the impertinent interloper reflected in the windowpane. The males wall up their mates and young in the cavities of trees with mud, passing food through the a crack until their offspring have fledged. It is a good strategy for keeping predators at bay.
The twitcher's art has progressed light years ahead of those times in the early and mid-1990s spent wandering the bush with an old pair of field glasses and a worn copy of Roberts Birds of Southern Africa under my arm. CDs, the Internet and a monumental bird atlas of the lower portions of Africa have made identification much easier by sight and song and opened up new areas for birding. Still, I was never attracted to the paraphernalia of bird watching, just the simple joy of discovery and sharing it with someone I love, and that is how I bird today.