One Day in the Life of a Big Year
A short Story by
A short Story by
By Robert Baumander
(Based on the true events of July 22, 2012)
It was a day like pretty much every day during his Big Year. Awake early, hotel breakfast, spilled his coffee all over the coffee station. Humble Apologies. On the road again with a fresh cup and a banana that he would forget about in his vest pocket until late afternoon.
Steven Furca was on yet another quest for,(at least for him), the elusive Fork-tailed Flycatcher. This pesky little freak of nature with its split, ridiculously long tail, had outwitted Steven in Florida more than once this year and had seemingly, purposely, shown up on sides of the country he was too far away from to get to on a moments notice, since he did not have the disposable income of a Major League Baseball Player, or say, John Vanderpoel.
This time around, the good folks at FLARBA were kind enough tease Steven with reports of the flycatcher showing up five days earlier on a bike trail adjacent to Lake Apopka, near Orlando, Florida, when he set out on a journey through Lansing, Las Vegas, New Hampshire and Boston for his consulting job that had allowed him to even attempt a Big Year. Naturally, Florida and Tampa Bay, was the last stop on his trip, and Steven had to fret about the possibility that the flycatcher of his dreams would have moved on by then. Little did he know that five days hence Steven would be down to his last thimble sized swig of water on a day hotter than anything he’d experienced this year, and he had already been to Texas, Arizona, Florida and even Alaska in June, so he knew from hot.
Back in February when he was in Florida, FLARBA had alerted him to a Fork-tailed Flycatcher that was perfectly situated betweenTampa Bay, where he was staying, and some of his other birding destinations, so it was not out of his way to go after it. He tried for it both on his way from and returning to Tampa Bay, and on both occasions wandered around in scrub grass for over an hour in the hot sun, somewhere in the middle of nowhere Florida, and on both occasions missed the bird. Yet he would get FLARBA repots that the bird had been seen on the same day, either hours before he had arrived or minutes after he had left, empty handed. No bird in the hand, but one likely giggling somewhere in the bush.
Big Year birding wasn’t meant to be easy. No one is handing the birds to you in a gilded bird cage. A Big Year is a 12 month quest to see as many species of bird as possible and takes an obsessive personality to survive. Most birders who undertake such an adventure have been birding and thinking about doing a Big Year for many years. Most of all, it takes experience. After all, if you are going to identify the birds you have to know the birds. Steven didn’t know the birds when he started. He was a rookie with not a clue as to the identities of more than a handful of birds. He knew the Blue Jays and the Cardinals and the Orioles, but mostly because they were on the emblems of Major League baseball teams. To Steven, there were just seagulls, and he only knew of albatross’s from a long ago Monty Python sketch.
But now, more than six months into his Big Year, Steven had seen more than 450 species of birds and had become ever more obsessive with each passing day, and though his original goal had been around 300 birds,(not bad for a beginner), and had escalated to 500 by mid May, he now was setting his sights on 600 for the year and he didn’t want to end up with 599 because he failed yet again to find the Fork-tailed Flycatcher. So, of course, he would have to hope against all hope that this time it would stick around until he arrived.
From the cryptic e-mail he had received from FLARBA, Steven knew to head to Magnolia Park and take the loop trail to the pump house. Sounded easy enough in print. Didn’t look like too much of a walk from the map, but maps are very tiny compared to real life distances and sometimes it’s hard to judge. After a two hour drive up from Tampa Bay, where he had been working the previous day, Steven walked into the Magnolia park office and from the way he was dressed, the ranger knew he was there for a Fork-tailed Flycatcher. She had been fielding requests for directions to the bird since Monday and Steven was just another nerdy curiosity in cargo pants, “birding” vest and silly birding hat.
When he explained to her that he really hoped the bird was still there,(she had no clue as to the Fork-tailed’s whereabouts), as he had been chasing one of those devilish birds since February, she smiled with glee at the possibility of him finally finding it. Or, perhaps, she was she secretly mocking him, as she actually knew the bird had already fled for the Bahamas or South America and she had made the travel arrangements herself, somehow knowing he was coming. Steven’s imagination could sometimes run away wildly on him, as we shall soon see.
Standing at the desk in the office, Steven was already geared up,(that’s birder talk for binoculars, camera, multi-pocketed vest, funny hat), and ready to go when the ranger explained to him that he had to get back in his car, drive across the street, park the car and walk past the bathrooms, to the paved path, and continue on to the trail head and then on to the pump house along a path of hard packed sand and gravel. So, back to the car he went, unholstered his camera,(it was on a gun holster-like device that made him feel like Wyatt Earp), took off the binoculars and hat and drove across the road.
As he was getting out of his car, yet again, he spotted two men returning from the tail, on bicycles, both with binoculars around their necks. Bonus! Any birder on a chase for a particular bird loves the sight of a birder who has been there before him. It’s like instant intelligence. Birders have their own secret code phases that instantly produce a response. “Seen anything good?” is one, but in this case, all Steven had to ask was, “Did you see the bird?” The two men, who were soaked with sweat so badly that their chest hair could be seen through their shirts, knew exactly what he was asking. Was the Fork-tailed Flycatcher still around?
“Didn’t see it,” the sweatier of the two gentlemen said.
“Oh,” said Steven. This was not the answer he was expecting. “How long did you spend looking for it?” he asked.
“About 45 minutes,” was the response. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Might just be a late riser, or it wasn’t buggy enough this morning.”
This wasn’t encouraging news. Still, he was here and the other gentleman told him it was about a 15 minute bike ride to the pump house, so Steven incorrectly estimated it would take 30-40 minutes to walk there. After all, he had walked many miles in the heat of Texas and Nevada in the past month, and this was only Florida.
So off he went. Without his binoculars. Luckily he had only gone about 10 feet from the car. Binoculars retrieved, he set out again. Made sure he had his bottle of water and was about 200 yards along the paved path that led to the gravel path that led to the pump house that led, hopefully, to a Fork-tailed Flycatcher, when he saw a couple returning from the trail. He waved and nodded. Continued on. Something about the man nagged at his brain. What was it? Oh, he didn’t have binoculars, so wasn’t a birder. But he did have a camera.
A camera! Steven had forgotten his camera. How could he be so stupid? Easily. Steven could forget pretty much anything, and it was a wonder he could even get himself out of the house in the morning, sometimes. People told him to make lists. He effortlessly forgot to make lists. He bought a book on improving his memory and promptly forgot to read it. So, nearly 300 yards into his forking chase, he had to return to the car and get his camera. He didn’t want to claim his saw this bird without photographic proof.
Finally, nearly half an hour after he began his walk, he reached the actual trail head. He was relieved to get off the hot asphalt and hoped there was a little bit of shade along the trail. No such luck. No shade and it was hot. Steven estimated it was about 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity. Did that make it 200 degrees?
It sure felt like it.Within minutes he was sweating from every pour in his body. He was even sweating, he thought, from his eyeballs. He could feel the sweat trickling down his legs into his hiking boots and socks. He was on dry ground but felt like he was sloshing through puddles. It was getting hotter. It was so hot, he imagined, that he might see a Scarlet Tanager burst into a Flame-colored Tanager. That made him giggle, forget the heat for a moment and try to remember that one for his Blog. Of course, he would not.
And, it wasn’t just the heat. There were also dragonflies. Hundreds of dragonflies, swarming like the mosquitos that had plagued him on the Snake Bight Trail back in March. This is kind of like that he thought, trying to ignore the ever present sun that was trying to bake his head, like so many chocolate chip cookies, even through his funny hat. Instead of walking about a mile for an American,(pink), Flamingo and fighting off mosquitos, he was walking nearly 4 miles for a not often seen flycatcher but at least he didn’t have to fight off the dragonflies.
Soaring and gliding above his head, like a child’s kite on a summer’s day were Swallow-tailed Kites, not just one, but nearly half a dozen. This, too, reminded him of the Snake Bight Trail, as he had seen his first Swallow-tailed Kite of the year that day too. Though he knew better than to stop to take a photo when chasing a rare bird, he figured a ten second delay was not going to make or break finding the flycatcher. And did not the Swallow-tailed Kite have that same freakishly split tail? So Steven took a few shots, as he had no photos from his earlier sighting.
And on he went. Mille after brutally hot mile. He had started at a rather quick pace but realized he might waste all his energy getting to the pump house and have nothing left in the tank to get him back to the parking lot and his car. And he was not rationing his water very well either. Mistakes were being heaped upon mistakes and little did he know the peril he was in.
The heat was getting to him. The sweat was stinging his eyes. But on he went. At one point he thought he must almost be there, so he pulled out his map and then his iPhone, as he was not very good at reading maps, and was lost more often than found when using them. The little blue dot that showed his progress on the map app nearly made him drop to his knees in disbelief. In about half an hour he had only covered about a third of the distance to the supposed location of the bird.
He was hot, sweaty, tired, and he wasn’t even halfway to his destination. He took a swig of now warm water. It actually tasted pretty good. It was raspberry flavored and make the him imagine he was drinking tea. He pulled himself together, straightened his crooked spine and soldiered on, telling himself that he’d done it before and he could do it again and if he saw the flycatcher it was all worth it.
Along the way he flushed about a hundred Red-winged Blackbirds from a tree, which was kind of exciting, and he saw Great Blue and Little Blue Herons, and Great Egrets and White Ibis and more Swallow-tailed Kites. He heard what sounded like a Limpkin laughing at him from the reeds. And then came the gnats. Thousands of millions of them it seemed. They got up his nose and in his eyes and attempted entry into his ears and any other orifices that might be open to invasion.
This was not fun anymore. He needed to see the bird and get the heck back to civilization. He hoped that maybe some cyclists would come along with cold water and a side cart to take him back to humanity. No such luck. Steven was now imagining himself as the last birder on earth. The heat hallucinations were just tickling at his brain. If he was the last person left on the planet, this desolation at the edge of a mirror smooth lake was probably what it would feel like. And as the last birder on earth it was up to him to find the last Fork-tailed Flycatcher on earth.
Then up in the distance was a mirage, perhaps. No. It was... Yes, it was the pump house. Steven shook away the daydreams and focused on his surroundings. He need to be alert and not miss the bird. He felt like he was about 100 yards from the pump house and though he kept walking, it didn’t seem to get any closer for the longest time. Above his head the Swallow-tailed kites showed off their split tails as he searched for his nemesis bird.
Nothing. No flycatcher. Wait, what was that? He pulled his binoculars to his sunburned and sweat stained eyes and examined the bird on a ledge above the pump house door. it was an Osprey. And that was it. No flycatcher. No other birds to speak of either. He was alone, tired and ready to just sit down and take a nap. Except, he was nearly 4 miles into a trail that had only one way out. The way he had come.
Steven milled about, walked, turned pointed his binoculars, expectantly, at anything that moved, bird, bush or dragonfly, hoping to resolve the shape of the bird he was now beginning to believe he would never see. He didn’t exactly want to cry, but he wasn’t smiling either. Remember, he told himself, it’s the chase, not the bird. Oh, screw it! he thought. Of course it’s the bird. It’s always about finding the bird.
For the next twenty minutes he slowly and, yes, dejectedly scanned every bush and twig, but with no success. Now the Swallow-tailed Kites were beginning to mock him. “We have split tails!” they sang in his head, “why don’t you just enjoy us!” As he walked back all he could think of were the kites and their forked tails. And what kinds of forks have only two tines. You can’t eat with that kind of fork, he thought. You’d put holes in your tongue.
Steven’s brain was now on auto pilot. He’d walk back, take his time, not expend too much energy and keep an eye out for the flycatcher. Wait! Was that it? He turned to the bird, pulled up his lens and sighted, yes, it was a young Cormorant. Figures. He looked up. The Kites laughed, “Don’t you like our forked tails?”
He was also down to about an inch of water in his water bottle. He had maybe bitten half a mile off his nearly 4 mile return trip. His feet hurt and the sun was relentless. But walking south, he had a slight breeze in his face and it felt good. Occasionally the sun would even go behind the clouds for a few moments to give him time to rest and get back his strength, what little he had left.
Even then, he did not give up searching for his flycatcher. Yes, it was his flycatcher now. He swatted away bugs and gnats and walked. Slowly. One foot in front of the other. And yet, as slow as he was walking, he imagined he was still walking faster than people in front of him on a crowded sidewalk, or in the halls of airports, or anywhere where he wanted to get in a crowd. Except, now Steven didn’t want to get anywhere. He wanted to lay down in the grass. But two things kept him from doing that. One, he was allergic to some of the native Florida bugs and if he got bit and went into anaphylactic shock, he was not sure he was brave enough to stick himself with the inch long Epi-Pen needle. And secondly, he imagined that if he lay down to rest, the next time anyone saw him, all they would find were his dried out, mummified remains. And he wanted that less than he wanted to stick himself with the needle.
He walked. Was that Bigfoot? No, it must have been a mirage or, in fact, a river otter running across the path. “Of course it is,” Steven said allowed, “more likely a river otter than a Bigfoot. I don’t think they have those down here anyway.”
He also kept thinking he saw alligators in his path about a hundred yards ahead, but when he got there, it was just a shadow or a discoloration of the and and scrub. “Can I even get cell phone service out here?” he asked no one in particular. He was now thinking everything out loud, even though no one was there to hear him. If a crazed birder talks to himself in the woods, do any of the birds hear him making a sound?
He wondered what he’d do if a ‘gator did cross his path. “Should I call 911? I’d sound like an idiot asking for helicopter evacuation." And what if he collapsed from heat exhaustion? Wait? Was that a flycatcher in the bush? He wanted it to be, he really did. But it was not. He didn’t even care what bird it was at this point.
Steven took a thimble sized sip of his now hot raspberry water. It was the yummiest thing he had ever ingested into his body. He knew this was getting bad. He checked his iPhone through blurred eyes. He was only halfway out of the woods, though these really weren’t woods, just a scrub path on the edge of a lake. No one was coming to his aid and wait, was that shade ahead? Yes it was. Just a small patch, as the sun moved across the sky.
He was thankful to the shade and said so. He stood there with his hands on his knees, pain in his right foot that he would later discover was a severe blister on one of his deformed toes,(long story-for another time). His fingers ached from dehydration and he had to go to the bathroom. Funny, he thought, how no one ever needs to use the potty in fictional life. But in real life it can be a huge bother!
Steven started questioning this whole birding thing. Who would put themselves through this for one bird? “Me,” he said to whatever was out there, which was not much. Well, above there were the Black Vultures, waiting for him to die so they could have a feast for dinner. And, of course, those Swallow-tailed Kites, who sang “Who’s got forked tails? We got forked tails,” to the tune of that classic ’70’s Neet hair removal ads.
Short steps, Steven told himself. “People in worse conditions have walked out of the desert. I will make it out.” He was unwilling to be a victim of a Fork-tailed Flycatcher chase. “If at first you don’t succeed,” he told himself, “sometimes you just don’t succeed.” He didn’t want to believe that. There would be other reports, other Fork-tails.
He walked, he limped, he drank small bits of water and rested in the shade when there was a patch to rest in. His back ached and his foot was nagging at him, but he was getting close to the end, he knew it. At one point he started to hallucinate. Was that Sandy Komito coming down the path? Or was it Owen Wilson, who played Kenny Bostick in the movie, The Big Year.” Or was it beloved character actor Berry Bostwick, known for his now cult role in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” An odd choice of hallucination, Steven thought, considering he never even saw the movie.
Turned out to be dog walkers. Turned out he had made it back to civilization. He still had 400 yards of paved path to traverse, but there was a water fountain at the end of this bleached out rainbow. He downed the last thimble full of water in his bottle and toasted to his survival. No Fork-tailed Flycatcher, but he consoled himself with the nice photos of the Swallow-tailed Kites he’d post on his blog, when he got home.
Eventually, he got to the water fountain, took a long, long, long drink. Used the bathroom facilities and returned to his car, where he had dry socks and shirt waiting for him in his luggage. How convenient that he was heading to the airport. His vest was soaked through and seemed quite heavy. Shouldn’t be that heavy from just the sweat. No. It was not the sweat. It was the banana. Quite worse for wear. It was nearly black on the outside, but what was on the inside was a welcome snack. A bit mushy, but he couldn’t complain.
Steve let the air conditioning blast and cool him down. It was time to return home again. He had added 6 new year birds on this trip, all in Nevada and stood at 452 for the year. There would be another Fork-tailed Flycatcher to chase, and with a little luck and determination, another 148 birds still left to find before his quest was complete. This, he told himself, was what Big Year Birding was all about. It really was the adventure, the quest and surviving a 12 month birding marathon with your sanity intact.