Friday, August 31, 2012
The Whimbrel: A Tale of Madness
The best accounts are firmly grounded in a sense of place, and tales of the unhinged are often even more tightly focused, to one claustrophobic and dreary area, a prisoner's dungeon or madwoman's attic; a basement with rat-infested walls or a bedroom with cloying yellow wallpaper.
This tale is no different, although our location is perhaps a bit airier than usual. Still, the wretched summer heat has made it seem most oppressive: an expanse of mudflats along Lake Decatur. As the summer's heat and lack of rain has stretched most pitilessly onward, the water has shrunk back ever more each passing day, creating a mosaic of dry, cracked mud and shallow, stinking water.
And to these mudflats the shorebirds teem. At first our Birder stumbled upon them, almost by happenstance, and stood amazed at the sheer multitude and variety before her. It began innocently enough, with black terns.
The Birder, taking a furtive look at the local bird sightings whilst at work, noticed that black terns had been seen a mere five minutes' drive down the road, and waited impatiently for the work day to be over, that she might travel hence and behold them with her own eyes.
And thus it was, with an ease that was surely deceptive, for in the Birder's experience, the accomplishment of a Life Bird is rarely so simple. The terns flitted over the water with a faerie's grace, so swift and shimmering in the twilight that they seemed to be more like sprites of the air.
And so the Birder returned, day after day, to the Mud Flats, lugging her spotting scope from place to place in the heat of early afternoon, and stumbling upon two more Life Birds in the process: the Baird's sandpiper and the sanderling. Perhaps this was too heady a mix for the Birder, like the first taste of laudanum for the opium-eater, but it seemed an innocent enough diversion, and after a week or so of perusing sandpipers, the Birder's interest was starting to wane, and taking an extra day off from work, the Birder swore to stay far distant from the odious traffic and bustle of the city, and instead stroll the woods and dells closer to home.
The birder had had enough of this:
And preferred instead to search for this:
Until the morning of the aforesaid Day Off, when the Birder checked the alerts of new bird sightings, and saw with horror and anticipation that a Whimbrel had been sighted at the Lake. Anticipation at the prospect of beholding such a splendid rarity as a Whimbrel, but horror at the likelihood--nay, the blind necessity!--of a superfluous trip to Decatur. For a Life Bird as such, would one not willing travel twice, or even thrice as far, and through worse obstacles than the city traffic?
Valiantly, the Birder struggled to remain strong and keep to the original plan, but the lust for the Whimbrel overcame reason, and soon she found herself driving past the vile and stinking corn syrup factory, surrounded by the shaking and rumbling of a dozen trucks, passing the very door of her work place, in search of the bird.
And it was not to be found. The sun was rising closer to its zenith, the air above the mudflats beginning to quiver with reflected heat. Pelicans there were, and cormorants in the distance, and great egrets dotted the lake like a host of phantoms.
Alas, thought the Birder, the quarry has flown, and my trip was in vain. But no matter, other worthy birds are surely in the area. And off she went, to enjoy some passerines in the nearby forest.
And then, like the tolling of an infernal clock, came the report: that very day, the Whimbrel had been seen again! So close, and yet the target had slipped away. This was an affront! The Birder felt toyed with, even betrayed. If only the Whimbrel would tarry one day further!
So the day after that, during the Lunch Half Hour, the birder scoffed at food to scan the lake again. It was drier than ever, the peeps scattered and desultory. A further late afternoon trip confirmed it; through the worst of luck, somehow she had missed the bird again, but with the water now so low and sluggish, surely it had flown for good.
But no! Still more reports came in. The Whimbrel had been sighted again...and yet again! Morning and evening, others were beholding it, adding it to their lists, enriching themselves from the sight of it, while our Birder did without. And she not five miles down the road for most of that time.
A cruel night she passed, tossing and groaning with reproaches. Sleep came fitfully, and when it did, visions of large sandpipers with long, decurved bills flew through each dream. Oh, accursed Whimbrel! Oh, wretched Birder!
There was nothing left to be done. On Thursday, after nearly a full week of infamy, the Birder did the unthinkable: she rose before dawn and drove off to the city a full hour in advance.
The boat ramp attained, she set up her scope, and scanned the lake yet again. And finally, there it was...on the far bank across the water, creeping along with its huge downward curving bill plunging at the water, the bird was seen. But, villainous Whimbrel! To be so clearly in the view of the spotting scope, and yet so far out of reach of the camera!
Still...a Life Bird is a Life Bird! And so this tale of madness pulls back from the brink, to provide the reader with a happy ending.