Monday, November 15, 2010

The perfect birding book...

Do you have in your mind the image of the perfect book? The one that reading it would bring unmitigated pleasure, that would satisfy your every need as a reader? Consider it the Platonic ideal of the Book, the one that can never exist in the mere pallid imitations of real life.

I have such a book. Actually, depending on my mood and the genre, I have several such books. The inability to actually find them more than once a decade is probably what inspires me as a writer—then, if the book falls short of the dream, I only have myself to blame.

In regards to this blog, my perfect book would be one of those vivid, rollicking travelogues, the kind that make you imagine the place so vividly you could almost be there yourself – not that you’re entirely sure you’d want to go, because the narrative presents the locale dust, beggars, warts and all, not some prettified fluff piece – but the writer seems so engaging, offbeat and funny that you’d sign up for any trip on the globe with him or her—well, except maybe to Guam. I have nothing against Guam, except for the fact that an invasive tree snake has eradicated almost all of the birds on the island, and who wants to visit a place with no birds? I can think of a variety of travel books that meet these criterion—but by and large, they do not mention any birds. My ideal book has all of that AND birding.

To be honest, although I have read many interesting books on birding and birdwatching (the differences are subtle but they exist), some of them discussing the philosophical/spiritual aspect of birding that fascinates me as well, some relaying an individual’s experiences seeking different birds, some biographical, some factual, etc. – I feel that the travel/birding merger is still a consummation devoutly to be wished. (Perhaps one day I will write it.)

The closest I have found is “A Supremely Bad Idea: Three Mad Birders and Their Quest to See it All” by Luke Dempsey (Bloomsbury USA: 2009). In this book, Dempsey and two friends, Don and Donna (who are probably composite characters, if they exist at all) travel to various birding hotspots, including Michigan (to see the Kirtland’s warbler), Texas, Arizona and Florida. The love of birding shines through for most of the narrative, and yes, they do have some madcap adventures.

So how does this stack against my Platonic vision of the perfect birding book? Birding emphasis—yes, that was satisfactory. They went looking for birds, and they saw lots of them. Vividness of description? On the one hand, yes—I could picture the places they went to fairly well, but I have been to several of them myself, and Dempsey’s description did not “jive” with my own memories at all. For example, Pedernales Falls State Park in Texas, home of the golden-cheeked warbler. I actually went there just a month or so before he did, and our experiences could not have been more different. He describes it as being hard to find (I suspect the trio are directionally challenged, let my just put it that way) and overrun with RVs and white-water rafters. I found it easy-peasy to get to, not too crowded – it had just the right ratio of hikers/campers to a solo birder like myself, enough that you don’t feel like you could be murdered by a psycho with no one the wiser, but not so many that the trails felt crowded. And everyone I met was super-friendly. As for the birding – Pedernales Falls will always stand out as one of the best moments of my birding history. Not only did I find the endangered warblers, singing sweetly from the tops of the pines, but I also spend an enchanted hour or so sitting in a bird blind by a feeding station just watching the life birds fly in. Black chinned hummingbird! Pyrrhuloxia! Spotted towhee! Western scrub jay! Every time I wanted to move on, some other wonder flew in, detaining me for another few minutes to admire it.

True, people can have different experiences of the same place. Maybe when Dempsey and Company went there the variables were different than at my visit. (Except for the location – it is NOT HARD to find!) But this seems to happen more than once. For example, I am a native Michigander before I migrated a bit south to Illinois, and I didn’t really think he had a feel for my home state (except for the mosquitoes—that was totally plausible!) It seemed like everywhere he went he met rude, weird people and ended up in a shouting match—well, I am widely traveled myself, and have NEVER gone off on people the way he relates in his book.

This brings me to my last criterion—did the book make me wish I could kick about with the author and his friends? Here is where the narrative fails. It is birdy, and the descriptions are vivid (although I would disagree with them, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t feel that way), but I would NOT want Luke Dempsey as a birding companion. He would probably embarrass me before we got three steps into the woods. Anyone who has traveled much, if honest, will admit to the occasional meltdown—but that seemed to be his modus operandi.

So all in all, I would recommend the book as a fun read – maybe from the library, though. And in the meantime, I’m still waiting for the perfect blend of birding and travel to read.


  1. You probably will have to write this book yourself, and after just reading your account of your birding trip in Texas, I would love to read your book. And, no, I read "A Supremely Bad Idea", and I think going anywhere with the author would be a suprememly bad idea! Mom

  2. Try Kenn Kaufman's Kingbird Highway! I have read it 3 times! It's great - and no angry rants!