Pete, the birder, cleaned out his car recently. He does it every five years or so and his friends crowded around to watch the ornithological equivalent of an archaeological dig. Five years is about all a car can take under Pete’s care. He’s a swamp lovin’, dirt road cruisin’, go-where-the-birds-are kind of guy and his cars pay the price. So whenever trade-in time rolls around, the birders’ hotline crackles with anticipation. Word spreads like wildfire that, once again, he’ll be transferring a lifetime’s accumulation of bric-a-brac from one vehicle to another.
Antiquarians exhibit a special interest in this great unearthing. Having witnessed past exhumations, they’re well aware that items dating back to the dawn of binoculars often surface when Pete probes the netherworld under his seats. Birding neophytes show great interest as well. They can watch the entire history of ornithology flash before their eyes as he digs through layers of paraphernalia that lie stratified in his trunk like sediments on an ancient sea floor.
What did he find this year? All manner of fascinating things. Some of it he even knew was there. For example, he knew there would be rumpled, unused checklists, two or three plastic cups that had lost their Thermos companions, and a hand lens for ogling the working parts of wildflowers when birding moments turned slow. He also knew there would be maps-dozens of topographical maps, stuffed randomly into a clear plastic valise so as to defy all attempts to figure out which one was where.
Two hidden maps did surprise him. Digging through a layer that hadn’t seen daylight for quite a while, Pete came upon one that showed the boundaries of his territory during the 1958 Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Buried just below that, another map pinpointed the dark, soggy woods where a water thrush sings every spring.
“Keep digging!” the assembled birders entreated. He was on a roll, they sensed. He had struck an unmined vein. Out came a pair of pruning shears no one had seen for decades. “I remember now,” said Pete, racking his brain. “I used them to borrow a little bittersweet from the cemetery.” After the briefest of soul-searching moments, he also confessed to having blamed his wife, Carolyn, a saintly, patient woman, for misplacing the shears when they turned up missing.
Unafraid, Pete dug much deeper. As the frost-heaved ground pushed stones toward the surface, so did more treasures bubble up. From nowhere came the paring knife he used for cutting watermelon on those hot summer field trips when the breeding bird atlas took all of his time. Then a camp ax appeared. A camp ax?
All those assembled thought back fondly on Pete’s ax phase, a skull collecting phase, when his car would stop at all road-flattened creatures to assess their suitability for what was fast becoming an impressive collection of animal skulls. Next to appear was a very old Peterson Field Guide. The first 30 pages had eroded away. Then came a lens cap, dusty and splotched with grape jelly. “Isn’t that Sam’s lens cap?” a birding friend asked.
Pete and his friend, Sam, had been birding the river on a winter day several years ago. Way out in the middle, quite far from shore, a duck drifted by. It was not your average mallard, not your black duck, not your scaup. A ruddy duck, perhaps? The fellows’ pulses quickened. Their eyes itched for optic assistance. The duck was drifting away, slipping downstream. Quick, Sam, your telescope! In the hectic shuffle that followed, Sam’s lens cap went the way of so many small things: down between a crack in the seats. Allowed to languish there, it wedged its way under a blanket. This wasn’t just any blanket, it was Pete’s emergency blanket, the one he used when lying on his back fixing flat tires in the mud or on the ground gazing up at passing clouds.
Pete and Sam have had some very good times in the mud. Seeing the blanket brought two of them back.
One time, it was late in the fall when all the warblers had gone. They got a flat in the boondocks and couldn’t get the lug nuts off. Pete jumped up and down on the tire iron, but it just wouldn’t budge those lugs. Finally a dose of WD 40 and a hammer did the trick. Another time, they got mired in ooze on a back country road that seemed to be going somewhere but wasn’t. Bogged down to the axles, the pair trudged three miles to a farm. The farmer was busy but promised to come when he could. ”I’ll be there as fast as I can,” he assured them. The guys could trust him, he added. He was Presbyterian.
As they moseyed on back toward their car, Pete and Sam saw thrushes like you wouldn’t believe-Swainson’s thrushes, gray-cheeked thrushes, thrushes you don’t often see bogged in mire.
Oh, the memories that emerged as Pete dug deeper. Each item brought back pages in a book of birding days. Remember when Pete hooted like a barred owl into the pre-dawn blackness, and the damned thing nearly perched on his head? Remember all the heron rookeries, the migrating loons, the snowy owl in that windswept horned lark field?
Watching Pete dig deeper, we all remembered well. “Keep on truckin’, Dad,” Andy said. We’ll dig out again about five years from now.
Peter Dring is a retired natural biologist and phenologist who lives in the Land O’ Lakes area. To comment on this story, visit the “Outdoors” section of StarJournalNOW.com.