Thursday, July 23, 2009

I and the Bird #105

Earlier this summer, I was in a local antique shop poking around, when I came across an old, heavily stickered, steamer trunk with a sign on it reading "$25 - includes contents." I quizzed the clerk about it, and it seems that it had only recently come into their possession, but was locked-up tight and no key was supplied. The business was going to be closing up due to the economy, so they were more interested in simply selling it than working on finding out what was inside. A quick assessment and I was confident that not only was the trunk in excellent shape and worth the asking price, but that it had also probably been last used about one hundred years ago. Romantic notions of what I might find quickly passed my mind, and without any attempt to bargain, I purchased the trunk and brought it home (much to my wife's despair - the last thing she felt we needed was more stuff in our attic or basement.)
It remained in our attic, mostly forgotten about until this past weekend when we were doing some summer cleaning, and when I picked-up the trunk to move it, I lost my footing and dropped it on one corner. Lo and behold - the locked latches sprung open! Sometimes you have to believe that certain things in life are pre-destined - and for me this was one of those moments. Like a child on Christmas morning, I excitedly went through the items inside. The trunk had belonged to an amateur naturalist named Heathcliff P. Sharpe. Like myself, he seemed particularly interested in the avian world, but was open to any experiences the natural world put in his path. (Unlike me, he seems to have had the means to travel to satisfy his desire to see and learn about as much of the natural world as he could.) Amongst the treasures enclosed - clothes appropriate for safari, a Dopp kit, a rusting pistol, carefully-wrapped jars with long dead insects, and an old pair of field glasses, with a star-burst shaped crack in the right ocular (which I fear might have happened when I dropped the trunk) - there was a leather-bound journal, with pages of notes, as well as folded letters, telegrams, and other correspondences from friends around the world that kept him well aware of what each was seeing in their corner of the planet. If you'll indulge me, I'd like to share a bit of what I've encountered in that journal with you.
On the frontispiece, in a thin handwriting likened to that seen on crumbling exhibit tags of museum specimens that haven't been touched in decades (or longer), was an inscription that only strengthened my feelings of kinship to this gentleman naturalist:
"I am not a man of many words, and in fact, those that I do write are read by few with much approval. Nevertheless, I shall endeavor to make note of my experiences in this journal. Where others words may best describe those events that I cannot do justice to, I shall transcribe their lines for posterity, and to aid my own memory when it might fail in future years. -H"

For many years, it seems, Heathcliff was quite content to ramble around the United States. I can only assume that his interest began in New York, where one summer, while escaping a work-a-day life with his friend Mike, they encountered several fledgling birds - an experience that I like to believe was the real impetus to learn more. Within the year, he was travelling to see as much as he could often along the worn trails of our nation in the company of friends, such as one dear friend he only refers to affectionately as "Bev"who was able to show him his first American Bald Eagle. Some time later, while spending time with the Ridger, he would get get additional looks - as well as some wonderful mementos of the experience.

I do not know how he became acquainted with the artist Vicky Henderson, but it is clear that a correspondence had developed and she was well aware of his interest in birds. So much so that she telegraphed him to tell of a wonderful experience she had in Tennessee, and entreating him to do the same.

From Tennessee, he ventured east to North Carolina, where he met a young lady named Catherine at a cotillion ball, who was obviously quite smitten with him, and it seems safe to assume that he felt similar feelings towards her, since there were quite a few letters from her adorned with the typical endearments of the time. Alas, her family felt that she was too young to leave the nest and go adventuring quite yet.

A regular exchange of letters between them grew to be the norm, and Catherine was always sure to let Heathcliff know when she was able to share in his passion for birds - like the time she was able to visit her friend Cindy in Michigan, and she was introduced to the beautiful song of the Wood Thrush.

Without the young lady with whom he had begun a romance, he consoled himself with friends - and birds. And where better to do so than the great state of Texas. Letters of introduction had been sent in advance of his arrival in order to be sure that Heathcliff would enjoy the best of Texas hospitality and bird life. His first host was to be a true southern gentleman and family man, with whom he had shared some correspondence, and a growing passion for photography, which was becoming more prevalent in those days. Kyle brought him to the Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary for a bird and photography tour, and his first glimpses at the extravagant Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Later while attending an opening of Oak Point Park and Nature Preserve, his attention was directed to the resident Belted Kingfishers by another local naturalist, Amber Coakley. And another day he also happened upon another young man about the same age, and together he and Jason, spent the day fishin', and watching a Great Blue Heron do a little fishin' (and a lot of showing off).

It was about this time that Heathcliff received a letter from his dear Catherine, letting him know that her family was visiting friends in Oregon, and that she had discovered, with the aid of her friend Elizabeth, Chipping Sparrow nests and nestlings. Another day's outing with another Neophyte Naturalist in the Willamette Valley seems to show that her passion for natural world was more than just a passing interest due to her love's passion for it.

Heathcliff needed little more that to pack up his things and head towards the Pacific Northwest. The trip overland was a long one, and although not wishing to stop until he could be in the arms of his dearest, he found that he must stop - and chose to do so in northern California by spending some time with noted bluebird enthusiast Larry Jordan, and learned about the threats to local cavity nesters, including Western Bluebirds, and was given the opportunity to peek in on 5 day old nestlings.
Upon arriving in Oregon, he only found this postcard waiting for him - it seemed that he and Catherine, although obviously of similar mindsets and interests, might be destined for different lives.

While Catherine traveled across Canada, first noting odd acting gulls with cousin Susannah and then studying Eastern Kingbirds and their young, and admiring the art of cousin Jocelyn, Heathcliff decided to take himself abroad, and booked passage on a ship destined for Panama.

Upon setting foot on dry land, he advertised for a local guide, as he desperately wished too see some of the avian jewels that Central America is known for - hummingbirds. Jan Axel was more than accommodating, in showing Heathcliff as much as he could. He then continued south taking a tour with an outfitter fittingly know as Wings - the highlight for him being treated to a view of the extravagant Booted Racket-tail while in Ecuador.

While relaxing in Ecuador, taking stock of his life, and deciding what to do next, the post arrived with several letters and also a package from an old school chum, David. It had been posted from Kenya a few months back, and had finally caught up with him. It contained a quick note and a stack of photos:

One of the letters confirmed that a space had opened up on a tour that he had enquired about some months earlier, but had been told that it was full.

The last was a letter from his beloved Catherine, with hope that there might be a future for them yet.

Invigorated by the new prospects, he immediately dispatched letters to Catherine and to his solicitor and made plans to travel to England to catch up with the tour company. Upon arriving in London, and settling into his lodgings for the night, he decided to get out to a local park in hopes of spotting some old world species. There were plenty of House Sparrows to be seen, and quite a few corvids, but the smaller birds gave him a run for the money. Whilst trying to puzzle out some of the birds, he ran into a gentleman named Ian who was photographing them, and although helpful with many of the local species, the warblers remained confusing.

The next day, Heathcliff joined the party at the touring company's offices and set off for his next adventure. They took a ferry across the channel, then boarded a train to take them across the continent. A mix up with the boarding passes found the group bustling towards Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, with it's small population, the trains do not run nearly as often there, and they found themselves in an unplanned location for a few days - so the group birded this area. Completely unprepared for this eventuality, Heathcliff was thoroughly at a loss for where they were, and what they were seeing. Thankfully, another in the group - an impressive young man named Corey who seemed to be part of a network of birders, was diligent in recording the events, and published them in a periodical - the pertinent pages of which had been torn out and pasted into the journal. A few days later, and they were all back on the train, and heading towards Italy. The number and variety of birds was almost overwhelming, and he was almost thankful to see a familiar little sparrow - that is, until Rick, an extremely astute member of the group, pointed out that these Italian Sparrows might indeed be a separate species from their cousins.
At this point Heathcliff was starting to feel a bit out of his league, but continued to take every opportunity to learn from the experience of both the tour, and the local people. He was thrilled by the exotic locations to which they traveled, as well as by the food and culture of the people they met. In Madras, he was particularly struck by a young lady named Ambika who was in Pallikaranai marsh, and helping to point out a rare duck in the area, discussing the differences between it and it's local relations, as well as spying Black-winged Stilts, Pied Avocets, and Pheasant-tailed Jacanas.
When the tour of India was over, Heathcliff steamed to Sri Lanka to meet up with the guide that the tour company recommended, Amila Salgado. A few others joined him at this time, and Amila quickly showed that he was a top-notch guide, spotting not only birds, but also a variety of mammals, all during monsoon. The only real down-side of the trip to Sri Lanka, was that Heathcliff was soundly thrashed by Amila at Scrabble. Nevertheless, he was obviously feeling on top of the world, and the following journal entry certainly showed it:
"I am the luckiest man in the world. I have had the opportunity to travel across a good deal of this planet, meeting wonderful people and seeing the marvels of nature. The only thing I could wish for is to have my love by my side. Soon I shall be marrying the young woman who captured my heart, and together we shall set off to see the rest of the world, and continue to marvel at nature's beauty."

While preparing to return to the United States, another letter arrived from his love:

Nathan's most recent article about birding with his new son was enclosed.

Oddly enough, the correspondence with his "little bird" seems to have ended there!

The next entry in the journal is several years later and finds a more experienced Heathcliff in Australia, birding with a chum named Duncan who is celebrating his 75th birthday, and seeing some real stunners like Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos, and a lovely Red-capped Robin.

Surprised by the ending of this tale? I could say that there seems to be several pages torn from the journal... but I suppose the only way you'll know is if IATB is ever hosted here again...
(and how much and what kind of feedback this generates!)

On a serious note, thanks to all who supplied well-wishes and encouragement for my first time hosting IATB, and especially to all the wonderful bloggers who provided their submissions. I hope you don't take any offense to any liberties I might have taken to keep the story in some vague order.

Oh - and finally, if you wish to see other editions of "I and the Bird" and learn about even more great bloggers and their blogs, visit: