At the Mic: Tom Leskiw
Tom Leskiw lives outside Eureka, California with his wife Sue and their dog Zevon. He retired in 2009 following a 31-year career as a hydrologic/biologic technician. His essays, book and movie reviews have appeared in a variety of journals. His column appears at www.RRAS.org and his website resides at www.tomleskiw.com
Saturday, 15 January 2011. 9:15 am. Estero Llano Grande State Park, World Birding Center, Weslaco Texas. Sue and I once again worked the area where the White-throated Thrush had been seen yesterday. A light rain was falling, as were my hopes for relocating this notorious skulker. Rain jacket and pants seemed a bit overkill for this semi-tropical woodland, but experience had taught me that long hours in damp clothes, well…they dampen one’s spirits. And I was determined to get this bird, even if I had to continue my vigil until darkness fell. I snuck a glance at another birder who was working the far corner of the open area, when a birder wearing flip-flops and track shorts burst into the clearing. “I’ve got the bird!!” he whisper-shouted.
We raced to follow him down the narrow gravel lane that bounded the preserve. A man and woman stood there—not celebrating, but, rather, looking sheepish, nonplussed. Then, came perhaps the most-dreaded phrase in a birder’s lexicon. “It just flew,” they stammered. “Somewhere off to the left.” “How far?” Flip-Flops wanted to know. “Did you see it fly across the lane?” “I don’t know. We lost it,” was the reply. So, we started scanning for the bird, searching high and low in the dense, shadowed woodland. After some time passed, I figured it would be best to not have all eyes looking in the same general area, so I made my way slowly back down the lane. “There it is!” said someone. I moved back to where the throng of birders had assembled. There, wet and sodden, was my life White-throated Thrush. Flip-Flops—sorry, I’ve forgotten your name—smiled broadly, winked at me, and spoke. “And just like that!” And just like that, indeed, I said to myself. Then, aloud: “My 700th bird for the Lower-48 states!”
The birding bug bit me in 1983. At the time I was a landscape photographer who spent a portion of the winter in desert locations that included Arizona’s Organ Pipe National Monument. Before I knew it, I’d purchased a 300mm lens so I could photograph the birds that frequented saguaro “cactus condos.” However, upon my return to California, I didn’t know any birders, and trying to see birds in the low-light, dense confines of redwood forests never caught my fancy. Thus, my interest lay fallow for a time.
Then, in 1987, I read that Gary Lester was leading a field trip to Elk Head to look for Tufted Puffins. I had entered the wrong date in my day planner and missed the trip. However, Gary returned to Elk Head with me the following day, my first inkling into the generosity and sense of sharing within the birding community. Later that spring, I took his bird field seminar that was offered through Redwood National Park. Gary, Lauren and their family lived several blocks from me, so the next several years were frequently punctuated with his impromptu phone calls. “There’s a male Costa’s Hummingbird on our fuchsia.”… “Black Swifts are passing over the house again.”… “I’m looking at a Cape May Warbler in our birch tree right now.”
Following an Audubon Christmas Bird Count (circa 1990), I asked John Sterling and John Hunter if I could tag along to chase some local rarities. A year or so went by, and I began to dream about reaching 300 bird species in Humboldt County. Somewhere along the line, I began to envision that 700 species in the ABA area might be attainable. Later, I began to ponder if it might be possible to reach 700 in the ABA area without going to Alaska. I have absolutely nothing against Alaska, somehow, it just never seemed in the cards to get there.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Throughout this sometimes crazy, (nearly) quarter-century quest, I’ve tried to focus on the experience itself, on the goal of learning—as intimately as possible—about this great country of ours. I saw only one of my ABA area birds in Canada and I’ve still yet to make it to Alaska. It’s difficult to put into words, but my reason for steering clear of the “Land of the Midnight Sun” had something to do with loyalty. Because Alaska’s union with these “united” states is merely a political fluke (Attu being situated west of the east tip of Siberia), tallying the birds there seems somehow unfair, contrived. Furthermore, limiting my search to the Lower 48 allowed me to focus on the amazing biodiversity to be found here.
I’m reminded of lyrics from Dave Mason’s “Can't Stop Worrying, Can't Stop Loving”: “A man needs the challenge or a man couldn’t be.” Not a few times during this past decade, I reconsidered the wisdom of excluding Alaska from my census area. Maybe it can’t be done, I’d concede. At least not unless I drop everything and do a Big Year, which wouldn’t exactly “Play in Peoria,” if you know what I mean.
It’s only human nature to dwell on the one that got away. In this case, the one that eluded me wasn’t a bird, but, rather, a boy—a potential birding convert. I was in Texas’s Big Bend National Park, retracing my steps along the Window Trail, jubilant and basking in the glow of having found my life Lucifer Hummingbird. A group of boys caught up with me. Elated, they recounted the incredible view from the Window and how they’d just witnessed a snake swallowing a frog. One of them pointed to my bins and asked me why I’d traveled to the canyon. I explained that I’d come in search of a hummingbird, as the area—at least at the time—was the most-dependable place in all the U.S. to see it.
As some of the other boys began to sidle off, the inquisitive one asked what the hummingbird looked like. Quickly, I sized up their group. Red-faced and sweating, they clutched their empty (pint!) water bottles. Clearly, the rest of the group wanted to beat the heat, get back to camp. I considered just how difficult it can be to get someone onto a hummingbird and how easy it might be to turn a group of tired, hot boys against birding. Just then, their leaders appeared. “Let’s hit it, guys,” they said. If only there’d been a little more time… maybe I could have gotten the kid onto the Lucifer.
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. I’ve shared this journey with many good friends, birding acquaintances, and guides across the country. I never would have realized this goal without your help. There isn’t room here to mention you all, but know that you have my thanks.
As I studied the Texas Rare Bird Alerts this winter, I realized that I lacked a bird-finding guide for the Lone Star State. So, I contacted my birding compadre, Erika Wilson, who agreed to lend me her brand-new copy of the ABA guide for the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Paper-clipped to the guide was a note: “Have a great trip! Keep me posted on all your bird finding as you go.”
In 1992, an event occurred that prompted me to resume writing after a lengthy sabbatical. Doc Harris, the dean of Humboldt County, California birding was poised to record his 400th species for the county, the first to accomplish what was then regarded as an improbable feat. So, I chronicled the occasion in the Sandpiper, our local Audubon newsletter, starting contributions to this and other venues that continue to this day. My writing has improved during the intervening years. I’ve tackled many subjects, but birds, birding, and bird chases remain at the core of what inspires me to write. It struck me that Erika’s note applied, not only to the Texas trip, but also to my writing in general: recording my experiences in the field—for me, and to share with others.
Looking back, I think of all the out-of-the-way hamlets, urban parks, wildlife refuges, fish hatcheries, sewage treatment plants, sod farms, migrant traps, people, islands, and oceans I would never have experienced, were it not for birds. The images emerge, fade, and are renewed in my cerebral cortex’s own PowerPoint projector: Black and Brown Noddies, Masked Booby, Sooty Tern, and Magnificent Frigatebird soaring above the azure waters of the Dry Tortugas. And later, a Swallow-tailed Kite and Stripe-headed Tanager with Wes Biggs. A Thick-billed Murre in Humboldt Bay—thanks to a timely call from David Fix. Machias Seal Island for Atlantic Puffin and Razorbill followed by the Bluenose Ferry to Nova Scotia for Great Skua and Wilson’s Storm-Petrels with Brian Patteson and Ned Brinkley.
And solo, a long night trying to sleep upright in a Jeep Cherokee near the Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek near Campo, Colorado. Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl with Jeff Gordon in the oak mottes of the King Ranch. Slaty-backed Gull, courtesy of Rob Fowler and Matt Wachs. Running alongside Guy McCaskie after hearing the shout that the Fork-tailed Flycatcher had been relocated. White-tailed Ptarmigan—and Grizz!—at Logan Pass in Glacier National Park with Jude Power. Green Kingfisher along the San Pedro River and Montezuma Quail and Five-striped Sparrow in Sawmill and Sycamore Canyons, with Troy Corman.
The adrenal rush of confirming a beyond-improbable, second-hand report of a White-winged Tern at the Arcata Marsh one sunny Saturday morning. Island Scrub-Jay on Santa Cruz Island with John Sterling and the rest of the merry band of “Vagrants.” Great Gray Owl in a Yosemite red fir forest with John Hunter. Streak-backed Oriole near Tacna, Arizona with Erika Wilson and Elaine Emeigh. Craveri’s Murrelet and Baird’s beaked whale with Debi Shearwater. No one could forget the olfactory affront of the Brownsville Dump for Tamaulipas Crow with Joseph Brooks and Garry George. And a two-fer, the day before #700: a Crimson-collared Grosbeak amid the restored splendor of Allen Williams’s backyard in Pharr and the clockwork-like 4:45 pm appearance of the Black-Vented Oriole at the Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort.
Each phone call, every set of directions I obtained from folks I might never meet face-to-face reinforced my belief that I’d joined a continent-wide community. Some of the fond memories center around birding comrades who are no longer with us. Running into Stuart Keith and Arnold Small while searching for the Crescent-chested Warbler at the Patagonia sewage treatment plant. Chasing the Lesser Sand-Plover with Luke Cole while attending a meeting of the Western Field Ornithologists in Humboldt County. The pilgrimage to Scheelite Canyon on Fort Huachuca for Mexican Spotted Owl with Smitty (Robert T. Smith). Swapping stories with Northcoast Environmental Center’s executive director Tim McKay at a Del Norte CBC compilation.
Yes, 700 stories and more. All tangible, memorable, genuine. No tepid, pixilated, ersatz excuses for real encounters in real places. If the legions of those mesmerized by Wii and Xboxes only knew…