Strangers in a Strange Land

Strangers in a Strange Land

It was becoming pretty clear that I was a B-class birder compared with my companions.  They were hardcore and they knew their stuff; subtle differences that constituted “races” within the species and tiny differences in field marks that gave clues about the age and sex of the bird.  Their “old world” warblers are notoriously hard to ID, and they take pride in their ability to distinguish between them easily and decisively.  They consider our “new world” warblers flashy, and easy to ID by comparison.  I won’t argue that...our warblers are some of the best jewels of the bird world, and they’re responsible for dragging me into birding as a passion. 

I realized in the midst of this trip that birding for me is primarily a way to enjoy the birds. I marvel at their beauty, their ability to fly, their songs, their expressions.  I watched an oriental skylark in wilderness called the Ovda Valley.  It fell asleep on the ground, his eyes slowly closing, exhausted from the migration.  I love nothing more than when I get to see something of a bird’s soul – an intimate look into their being.  Even better, I love to interact with a wild bird, if only for a moment:  where the bird acknowledges my existence, and I acknowledge his – it always seems a small miracle to me.  Pishing is sometimes helpful for this...and no, it’s not something vulgar.  It’s when you make a sound the birds find interesting, and they fly in to investigate.  It doesn’t take them long to discover the source of the sound and fly away.  But sometimes, I can get a dozen or more birds to fly in, all creating a stir, which brings in even more birds.  They’re nosy.  Titmice raise their crests, and kinglets show off their crowns...it’s just a brief encounter, but it can leave you speechless.

 Oriental Skylark - Photo by Paul French

Oriental Skylark - Photo by Paul French

My six gentlemen (as I came to affectionately call them) were more along the lines of ornithologists by my reckoning; they made a study of birds.  Paul is an expert in his field and a first class leader (world class, really) for such a tour.  His particular area of expertise is birds of the Western Palearctic, which stretches from the Azores and Cap Verde in the west to Kuwait and the Ural mountains in the east. His birding skills were superlative:  he had an amazing ability to find a bird, a remarkable ear for hearing them, an uncanny memory for recalling songs and call notes as well as minute differences in plumage,  migration habits, and an encyclopedic knowledge of all things birds.  He’s led tours in Georgia (in the Caucasus Mountains), Ethiopia, Madagascar, Morocco, Finland, Armenia and Israel: he is a leading authority on the Middle Eastern Flyway.  And he’s also extremely well-versed on birds all over the world. He could tell me immediately the birds I knew in North America who were roughly the equivalent to what we were seeing in Israel.  He’s not birded in the U.S., but he was more familiar with “my” birds than I am.  Paul also had a natural curiosity, so I could engage him on other subjects like geology, mammals, and even religious history to a certain degree and he was happy to go along.  He reminded me of my dear friend, Peter Allen, and I liked him from the start.  The other men were far less tolerant of my bird-attention-deficit.  So before long, the subject always returned to the birds, as it should.  It was a birding tour. 

Paul was the consummate leader, attending to all the things his clients were interested in, as well as providing for our accommodations, meals and other needs.  Generally, on a tour like this, the leader would have a driver to help with the details of the trip, but Paul was on his own.  It was not easy, there were a number of challenges during the week that he handled with aplomb and general hood humor.  He was supremely polite – I never once saw him lose patience with us.  He was tall, good-looking and charming, and had a strong character.  He's a take-charge kind of man. Definitely not a wimp...in fact he might be the opposite of a wimp — but I can’t think of a positive male word for that.   He was decisive and unapologetic.  He kept us on task and delivered the late-night bad news of our next early morning departure time with no sign of remorse.  As the trip progressed, Paul put up with a lot of grousing (pardon the pun) from the Diehards when we didn’t see an ‘expected’ bird.  For example, after seeing twenty plus species at S’de Bokur (the burial site of Ben Gurion) Roger said (from the back of the van) “No blackstarts, no serin...dunno why we bothered.”  That’s the way it is with birding.  Sometimes you see them, sometimes you don’t.  I am certain that if the bird was there, Paul would have found it, so I was especially grateful that he remained unapologetic.  I wanted to say to the other five, “But how great are all the birds we are getting!?” That would not have gone over well.  So I tried to keep relatively quiet, and stay out of their way.  I did not ask repeatedly what bird we were seeing, especially if we’d seen it before.  I didn’t want to fall into any pre-conceived biases they might have about un-initiated birders, Americans, or women, or pastors, whatever they might be.

 A Frenchman and five Englishmen about the important business of birding.

A Frenchman and five Englishmen about the important business of birding.

John was the most openly annoyed with me.  To be truthful, he complained about everything, not just me.  He was polite (I gather that’s important to the British national identity) but he whined a lot.  At dinner one night he asked me, with a tone of bewilderment, was it true that only five percent of Americans held a passport?  And for those that do, do they really only use for travel to Canada and Mexico?  I tried to appear astonished at this question, and declared it couldn’t possibly be right, could it?  Then I pointed out that the U.S. is such a large place and it’s so easy to travel great distances without encountering borders or boundaries, that maybe Americans don’t see the need for passports in the same way Europeans do.  I’m sure this didn’t satisfy John.  Nothing seemed to.

It was an odd journey:  seven strangers thrown together in very tight, intimate circumstances, spending 16 to 17 hours a day together.  The only thing we held in common, ostensibly, was birds.  We were trying to get along, trying to tread lightly, trying to be cordial — but there was not a lot of attempts at personal connection — no chit chat and hardly any personal sharing.  Very early on, I started to feel lonely and isolated, and wanted closer companionship.  I missed the company of women, and even of other Americans.

Bernard and I found ourselves sitting together in the back of the van together on several occasions.  I liked him.  Like the rest, maybe even more than the rest, he was extremely intense and focused on birding: he had traveled the world in search of birds.  His next birding trip, to Honduras, was only ten days after the Israel trip concluded.  Still, even given his remarkable focus, Bernard at least tried to engage in some personal conversation.  As a native French speaker, he did remarkably well with English all week.  Occasionally we had to clarify our meaning, but he was quite conversational.  I enjoyed his accent.  He asked me what I did in the U.S. and I told him I was a pastor (he had not picked this up on the first evening).  This required some explanation, but he understood the gist of what I said. He asked for my business card as a “souvenir.”  Bernard was a retired Civil Engineer.  Perhaps that’s why I liked him...he reminded me of all the engineers in my family.  He kept an eye out for camels for me (by the end of the trip, they were all looking for camels for me).  He knew I loved Hoopoes and Bee Eaters, and would take care to point them out. He often offered me his scope.  Bernard had birded in the U.S. on several occasions, and was able to help me understand if the bird we were seeing was completely new to me or not. (Note:  this was harder to determine than you might think.  Many species are quite similar to our native North American species, like a lot of sandpipers, gulls, ducks and herons, etc.)  So, I did make a couple of friends in Paul and Bernard.  I think the other British gents didn’t know what to make of me, except for Graham, who was immediately friendly.  They were mostly guarded in their interactions with me.   I wondered if I might take on a sort of “little sister” role – one I wear naturally and comfortably.  I wanted so badly to connect with someone at a deeper level, and was finding it hard to do.