ROGER REAL DROUIN
Under the clouds like gray plates crashing into each other. Here he was, chasing true scientific endeavor.
The photographer of birds hiked further into the 26,000-acre South Carolina pine bluff, the wind heavy with that wet coldness. The rain would be coming soon.
He knew he was chasing a ghost.
He hiked further along the two-rutted park service trail. The rain would come within the hour, he thought, but despite the pale white-gray sky, it felt good to be in the field again. The strong coffee in his thermos and the new snug-fitting hiking boots were the two modest but reassuring checks in the positive column. From the boots to the cotton-canvas pants and the thick flannel and heavy rucksack, the photographer was prepared for the weather, and the movement of the hike kept him warm.
He was searching for the Northern Stilted Curlew, one of the world’s rarest birds, a species last documented in 1961. This arctic shorebird was what is called a grail bird - it may or may not exist. In Samuel’s big four-volume Master Guide to Birding, the Curlew was listed as “probably extinct.” A color sketch showed the sturdy, dull-looking bird capable of flying the longest annual migration of any species, other than a handful of sea birds that can stop and rest on the water. Every September, the Curlew fattens up on crowberries, worms, and insect larvae, before flying south to the end of the continent, logging in close to 10,000 miles on the flyway.
Just about every ornithologist and biologist in the world favored the more unfortunate outcome: the last Northern Stilted Curlew had decades ago made its last annual migration north to south.
Samuel heard the pines crush before he saw the two figures ambling towards him. He expected to see more birders along the trail, at least a few of those semi-retired, Tilley-hat-wearing folks who check the rare birds database on the web nightly. But the weather had kept them home.
Or maybe, most just reasoned it was not worth the trip. A less rare, but much more plausible sighting, such as the Kirtland’s Warbler, or an accidental sighting of a species way out of its range, like the Cuban PeWee in South Florida, would draw dozens in pursuit.
Here in these pines forty hours earlier, an amateur had spotted what he thought was the Northern Stilted Curlew. This same scenario happens often.
An excited birder could easily mistake the long bill, dark brow marking, and the strong, rapid wing beats of the white-bellied, stilted Whimbrel for that of the Curlew. From a distance, it’s also easy to confuse the long stilted legs of the Northern Stilted Curlew to those of the Stilted Sandpiper. The Curlew’s delicate pinkish buff under the wing, the decurved bill, and its unique call would be the most distinguishing features.
“See anything?” he asked the couple.
“Nothing but a bunch of squirrels,” the wife said.
The man wore long pants and a Columbia rain slicker over layers, a hunting style-cap, and a small hiking pack. The woman wore the standard, floppy Tilley hat and shorts with long socks. She had on a fleece on, and binoculars and a Canon SLR around her neck.
“And a few Carolina Wrens and one Ruffled Titmouse,” the husband added. “It’s been pretty quiet.”
“They’ll be out when the rain clears,” Samuel said.
“If it clears,” the man said.
They knew he was here for the Curlew.
“We drove up from Fort Lauderdale,” the woman said. They were die-hards, Samuel thought. “She was seen near here, not far, right?”
The sex of the possibly-observed curlew in question had been unknown. If it was in fact a Curlew, it would be difficult to distinguish the sex - both sexes look very similar, only the female is slightly smaller, and an immature can be mistaken for a female. It would be very difficult to determine if it were a female, unless the bird was seen up close. Samuel had written down the notification from the online Rare Bird Database: Reported Northern Stilted Curlew…unconfirmed sighting… sighted at Darney Bluff National Preserve...four and a half miles northeast of the main trailhead...directly north of the old hunting check-in station along a short loop trail...the bird was observed for thirty seconds before it alighted and flew in a north-north east direction.
“The report said four and a half miles northeast of the main trailhead, directly north of the old hunting check-in station, which is about a mile further,” Samuel said.
“We were out that far, near the check-in station,” the husband said and looked up. “That thunder doesn’t sound good.”
So they were there, Samuel thought. That doesn’t matter. If the Curlew was still in this pine bluff, she could be in the same area, but not the same exact location. After the rain, she would fly east towards the marsh and eventually back out over the Atlantic. She was more than halfway to her wintering destination, and she wouldn’t wait behind here.
Scientists consider sightings of extremely rare species to be only hypotheses that require rigorous examination. A bird presumed by many to be extinct would meet with disbelief, and scorn. For Samuel, a peculiar observation in the Everglades four years ago, combined with a list of other reports, formed his hypothesis that the species was not extinct. There’s a lot of space left from northern Canada to Argentina for a handful of birds to become nearly invisible.
Only true scientific endeavor could reject or accept his hypothesis.
He kneeled in the dark space, took the small tarp from his rucksack and folded it atop the layer of pine needles. He tilted the mug, sipping the last of the coffee, including the crunchy grind sediment the filter didn’t catch. Some of it stays on his tongue, grainy and bitter, before he swallows it down. He put the empty thermos into one of the compartments. He took out the 200mm lens and clicked it onto his favorite camera, an older digital Nikon. The Nikon was a few inches bigger and heavier than the newer models, and Samuel liked the sturdiness of it. He set the 300mm lens on top of the pack where he could reach it. The two plates of egg-and-bacon he had at the hotel would be wearing off soon. He took out two of the granola bars from the side compartment.
Waiting it out, leaning against the back of the old three-walled hunting station, he was grateful for the half-rotten, paint-long-gone structure that stood between him and the ptttt plunk plunk of the rain beginning to fall on the rusted roof.
He leaned back against the shelter, his arms around his knees so only a few drops of the rain slanting down into the black soil splashed onto his boots. The wind came though in an unsteady whistle. It was high-pitched, silencing all other sounds, and then hesitant but rhythmic. Without the motion of the hike to keep him warm, the photographer of birds rubbed his hands together.
His country was being torn apart, and the divide was growing. Out here, he ate the granola bar and sipped some water, and listened to the wind. Out here, he felt right, cold but dry and sure that he was where he was supposed to be.
He hadn’t questioned it, the reasoning for being out in the field looking for the Northern Stilted Curlew, and he wouldn’t let the doubt start now. There were many things he had second-guessed - he had once considered faith. He thought of everything he really had faith in. He had forty-six years to think about religion, and he was still formulating his take on it, but he did have faith in God’s judgment over man. And a judgment would come.
He had faith in dreams, dreams that sank right down into the images and sounds of thought. He had faith in the memories of his dreams.
The memory of his wife when she was disappearing in the hospital, and how she would smile in the middle of the pain when he walked in. That was some kind of faith she had. A friend had told him once that he could move on, try to meet someone new. His friend was only trying to help.
Samuel thought about his son, how when he was just a boy, four or five, all he’d want to do is hide up in his closet and sketch giraffes.
“It isn’t hiding,” Lorine had said to Samuel. “The boy is living. Look at how happy he is.”
Samuel worried because his son could remove himself from the world the way his father could. Lorine would tell him it was OK, their son was a beautiful, extraordinary boy, he was thoughtful and liked to draw, and if that meant he was a little different, who cares if he would rather spend the day sitting by a lamp in his closet sketching while every other boy on the street rode their bicycles in a pack?
She loved Ry so much, and maybe she loved him more because the boy had this different look in his eyes, eyes deep green like the different shades of a forest mixed all together. She loved the boy fiercely. She kept him grounded, but through her respect for him, she also kept him from changing. Even before he could walk, she idolized him. It was her idea to encourage him to apply to the new arts charter high school, and the scholarship to college. The boy was always thinking of his drawings, and in many ways he was just like his old man, but Samuel worried because he knew it would easier for the boy to imagine less and interact more.
And now, thirteen months after his wife’s death, Samuel saw how his son was walking the way a young man would when he was detaching himself further from the world. He was walking like no one could see him. Samuel hoped that his son could stand it, at least get through all the scary parts.
He looked out, through the rain.
Once the clouds cleared, the pines would let squares of sunlight flow through. But now it was a shade between blue and gray under the pines. The high-pitched hak hak hak hak came above the wind, from the east. He leaned outside the shelter to hear the Peregrine Falcon’s coming from the top branches of a Maple tree about three hundred yards off. Placing the camera and tripod on the pine needles and adjusting the aperture to let more light in the lens, through the viewfinder it appeared - the bluish brown feathers and the dark gray malar stripe, and the broad wings tucked along his side. He snapped a dozen photos, with the falcon looking down, towards the shelter, and sharply at the man with the camera before ascending at an angle a jet could never pull off.
He viewed the photos on the Nikon’s screen, and zoomed in on the one gray and blue falcon that came out in perfect focus. In the winter of '95, across an open prairie in Superior, Wisconsin, he watched a Peregrine, only slightly larger than this one, pursue and strike a Ring-necked Pheasant. The speed and power of that bird was truly remarkable. Pheasant feathers exploded from that bird when it was struck. It was one of the photos he was most proud of.
The rain had stopped, as he knew it would, but the gray lingered. There would be no sun this afternoon. He packed up the rucksack, leaving out the camera, which he slung across his neck.
He hiked north on the park service trail, past the Maple the falcon had flown from. He looked up, and stopped every few yards to listen. It was his habit. His son said he always had his head in the clouds. He turned down the narrow singletrack east now. After a half-mile, he heard another call. But this stopped him in his tracks. It was a call he’d never heard before, a call from a bird in flight that he could not locate.
Samuel stopped and listened. He had been walking when he heard it, and he knew sounds heard while walking could be distorted. Please, let me hear it again, he thought. Please, fly this way. The only movement he made was inching his fingers to the Nikon, to feel that it was there. It was a sound that matched descriptions he had read, a sound that no one had ever recorded.
He did not hear the sound again. He listened, standing then sitting under the wrinkled trunk of a tall pine, looking up into the sky. He took his field journal and pen from his rucksack. With the journal to a new, unmarked page, he wrote his location as best as he could describe it, noting how far he was down the trail past the narrow creek bed and describing the pine taller than the other trees.
When he got to writing the sound, he found there was no exact language to describe it. It was a soft whistle - no not a whistle - that was the word that had been imparted in his memory from reported accounts of the Northern Stilted Curlew. In 1949, after the species was already decimated from intense hunting and disappearing habitat, Frank Kerrson saw a pair of Northern Stilted Curlews, and described their call as "a low tremulous whistle." Audubon, who had painted the Curlew for his Birds of America, described the call as a soft whistle.
Samuel scribbled and crossed out and then wrote: It was like someone trying to whistle loudly but blowing air. Like that, but more musical. The bird called in series of threes in the same pitch, not more than three series, before all sound broke off as quickly as it came. I stopped in time to hear, without the distortion of movement, the last series of faint calls tee-teeee-teeee.
He listened, looking up to the rain falling again, the gray lacking light. He listened for the bird to call again. An hour later, he headed back towards the trailhead, still listening.
Rain dripping off his hat low, he walked past the perfectly still fox looking out from his den of green. The man's boot steps were the only sound beside the rain falling on the pines."
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