For the Birds

The presumably innocent bird that got me in trouble (courtesy of the Audubon field guide and Brian E. Small/Vireo)

The rain ratcheted up in intensity and I aimed the dog for a part of the park/wilderness area where large, old growth trees provided some cover. We walked down the trail, a marshy area on our left, and I avoided eye contact with the dog, Wilson, who was clearly: 1) tired, 2) not a fan of rain, though still willing to sit in a puddle, and 3) out of urine and therefore no longer interested in sniffing trees.

“Come on, boy,” I muttered as Wilson again tried to turn the walk into a sit-in.

He shook his head, sighed a little and reluctantly continued walking.

About a half-mile into this large, wilderness portion of the park we encountered a young woman using her right hand to press binoculars against her face while her left attempted to hold up her bicycle (the kickstand worthless as it just sank into the mud). With very little room to share on the narrow trail, she was forced to lower her binoculars and shove her bike a bit further off the path to make room for us. Wilson, believing that everyone was placed on earth to love him, livened up and encouraged praise and petting. There was, alas, no sale as the woman clearly had no interest in anything other than what she sought with her binoculars.

I’ve known several birders. Many are biologists. Some are guides. A few are just enthusiasts and some of that last group seem to enjoy being alone in the woods with a large bag of weed more than anything else.

This young woman seemed more serious than the bag of weed types. She probably was a biologist or at least a student of biology. More than anything, she was ready for Wilson and me to be gone. I probably should have walked past without comment, but could not overcome the urge to be friendly (four years in Pura Vida on top of ingrained southern hospitality compelled a greeting for every encounter).

“Hi,” I offered.

“Uh huh,” she replied, scooting over even further to avoid Wilson’s pleas.

That exchange having gone worse than expected, I pulled at Wilson and almost made it past the birder before a stray thought pushed its way through the debris of my mind and demanded to be freed.

“I think there’s an eyrie back there just at the entrance to the wildlife area.”

There was audible silence as she squinted and absorbed this information. She frowned, then replied, “I’m looking for something quite a bit smaller.”

Without further adieu, she brought the binoculars back up and trained them on some scruffy plants on the slope above.

I suppose I secretly thought my use of the fancy word for an eagle’s nest would score me some street cred in the birding world. It had not—nor had it compelled her to volunteer the identity of the bird she sought (“smaller than an eagle” eliminated almost none of the possible results).

Wilson tugged on the leash and gave me a look that said, “Leave it. No one cares about your word of the day and that lady wants to talk to you about as much as she wants to rub my belly.”

I nodded at Wilson, recognizing his wisdom, and we continued our walk. The wildlife area of the park was quite large and, after something close to another three-quarters-of-a-mile of walking Wilson and I arrived at an intersection in the trail where we could either turn right to go up to a parking area, or left where we could exit the park and return via a large bike path that ran alongside train tracks (with the corresponding lack of trees).

With no car, and with the rain coming down even harder, I chose door number three and turned to go back the way we had come. Wilson seemed relieved.

We walked in silence through the rain, occasionally stopping to stare at a duck or squirrel that felt no fear at the site of a leashed city dog. I had forgotten all about the birder until we stumbled upon her roughly thirty minutes from our initial encounter in exactly the same spot.

She lowered her binoculars. Her enthusiasm level at seeing us matched that previously conveyed.

“Still going, eh?” I asked. While we have not yet moved to Canada I notice that I’m already trying to blend in.

She nodded and again squeezed against her bike to allow us to pass. As we did I looked up the slope at where she had been staring. I saw no birds.

She was already bringing the binoculars back to her eyes when my curiosity got the better of me. I turned back and asked, “What kind of bird are you looking for?”

The gold ball pierced below her bottom lip wriggled as her tongue worked against its clasp inside her mouth. The question appeared to make her uncomfortable but I could not fathom why.

Maybe she is intimidated because of my clever use of the word eyrie? Perhaps she forgot what kind of bird she is looking for? Maybe she does indeed have a large bag of weed in her pocket and she’s just waiting for me to leave so she can spark one? Maybe she’s seriously introverted—or maybe she doesn’t make a habit out of talking to old men in the park?

Within the confines of my own head, I still think I’m thirty-five years old. Thirty-five going on eighteen. As I stood on the lonely trail with this woman, her bike, and my dog, it dawned on me that I was anywhere from twenty to forty years older than this young women (I can no longer tell how old anyone is and frequently fight the urge to call the police when I see someone who appears to be eight driving a car). Lovable dog aside, I represented the danger in stranger-danger.

An instant before I was about to flee, the young woman fidgeted one more time with her gold ball piercing, then locked eyes with me, straightened up to her full height and uttered, “Bushtits.”

My stomach performed a barrel roll. This uncomfortable interaction had just taken a turn for the worse. Had she just directed profanity at me? Did her father know about her potty mouth?

Were I a pinball machine the paddles would have frozen in place with “Tilt” lit up on the scoreboard. My gaze was drawn to the piercing below her lip, which was again twitching.

I’ve heard of a titmouse (titmice?). Maybe she’s talking about another bird in that family? How lazy, and sexist was the undoubtedly male biologist who came up with this name? Why had I started this conversation and, more importantly, how could I get out of it?

A few moments that felt like an eternity later I nodded, water cascading from the hood of my rainjacket for emphasis, turned and walked away—dragging Wilson behind me. As I walked I reminded myself that I no longer lived in the south and therefore did not need to greet everyone I encountered. I also hoped that the local police would not soon be looking for a somewhat creepy old man with a pronounced lip and a soggy black rainjacket who took delight in making young women divulge the identity of the awkwardly named birds they sought.