All my life I wanted to get to a place where I never had to get out of bed. In January 1998, I got my wish. I was supine in the bone-marrow-transplant unit of City of Hope. A little case of CML leukemia. Lying there, I frequently looked out the window into the limbs of a silk-floss tree. And more often than not, there were a pair of crested, deerskin-colored birds who ascended and descended the limbs of that tree like acrobats. When I finally did get out of there, I got home and checked Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to Western Birds. I discovered that I had been watching Cedar Waxwings.
I’m not going to push the credential of redemption garnered from bird watching. I just know that when I see my backyard feeder crowded with sparrows, and a sudden flash of orange and black appears in the form of a Bullock’s Oriole, my spirits are lifted. But I also know if you’re interested in birds, you should keep it to yourself. When I mentioned to a friend that I was going to the Outer Banks in North Carolina to bird-watch, he said, “Jesus, could you do anything more dull?”
I met my friend Melinda in her hometown of New Orleans, and from there we drove 20 hours in her new Honda Civic to Raleigh, North Carolina. I’m not one for long spells in the car, and I was apprehensive about Bubba, Melinda’s 14-year-old chow mix, who was accompanying us. During my last encounter with him, he was suffering from an undiagnosed case of mange, and his odor was so strong that if he walked into the room while you were sleeping, it woke you up. But this time out, apart from a few hot spots, Bubba was the back-seat picture of Southern gentility.
At the Raleigh-Durham airport, we picked up Melinda’s former next-door neighbor, Rita, who now lives in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, where she fronts a 20-member accordion band. A six-hour drive from Raleigh brought us to our destination, a beach house owned by Melinda’s brother Benjie on Hatteras Island, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Benjie’s cottage sits equidistant between the ocean and the Pamlico Sound. The sound has an exquisite, still quality like a Richard Misrach Salton Sea photograph, but I continually found myself drawn to the ocean. We soon fell into a loose schedule of beach-going, listening to Melinda’s CDs (Slim Gaillard, the Doc Watson Family, Dr. Michael White), preparing meals and sojourning down to the pier for Newcastle Brown Ale on tap.
One overcast morning we made good on our original intention, joining an 8 a.m. bird-watching group at the Pea Island Refuge Visitors Center. A few minutes after starting out onto the North Pond Wildlife Trail, we saw a Great Blue Heron catch and swallow an eel. We also saw an American Oystercatcher, a Black-necked Stilt, four American Avocets, both Caspian and Royal Terns, Laughing Gulls, 20 Black Skimmers, a flock of Canada Geese, Sanderlings, Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers, Willets, Gadwalls, Mallards and American Black Ducks, a Brown Pelican, a Glossy Ibis, a Tri-colored Heron, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, an Osprey, an immature Cardinal, a Red-winged Blackbird, some Boat-tailed Grackles, a Rufous-sided Towhee, European Starlings, a Prairie Warbler, a Black-and-White Warbler, a Gray Catbird and a Belted Kingfisher. Rounding out the program was a 50-pound snapping turtle, and a river otter that gulped fish like a starving man at a seafood buffet.
Melinda, Rita and I were definitely the least experienced bird watchers in the group. Three couples had their own spotting scopes and made comments like “Honey, is there something wrong with the left eye on that Oystercatcher?” Nonetheless, there is something intrinsically right about bird watching. Throughout the morning, we were beckoned to someone else’s scope to observe some avian nuance. Together we shared the bounty of this place, an emporium of natural wonders. Dull? Perhaps, but two and a half hours later, leaving the refuge in search of coffee, I think we were all a little high. As we neared the parking lot, a guy with a Mount Wilson–size spotting scope walked toward us and said, “How is it out there today?” And I answered, “Pretty great.” And he said, “Did you see the Spoonbill someone saw yesterday?” And I said, “No, I didn’t,” which was true, because I had no idea what a Spoonbill was. But later I checked my Golden Book Birds of North America and read that the Roseate Spoonbill is a flamingolike bird that is only found in coastal Texas, Southwestern Louisiana, Southern Florida and south to Argentina. Fortunately for those of us who like to watch, birds don’t read books.