The Wisdom of the Ages…
This article first appeared in Birds Illustrated
Hear me dearly beloved younglings and harken to my words… despite what you may have been told on your grandfather’s knee, or by that wise old owl of a teacher, there are no, (as in zero, zilch, nada and zippo!) repeat no compensations to getting older! Naturally I have accumulated more knowledge than I know what to do with, and learned more at the University of Life than I have time left to forget, but this does not in anyway compensate me for rheumatism, cellulite, a grey beard and a weak bladder.
In birding terms, the fact that I have seen 10,000 Black Kites soaring over Delhi and three hundred Carmine Bee-eaters six feet from my nose on the Okavango River; White-necked Jacobins sipping nectar from a feeder at Asa Wright in Trinidad and had King Parrots land on my head outside O’Reilly’s Lodge in Australia, does in no way detract from the fact that I am no longer fit enough to slog 1 kilometre up a jungle track in 35 degrees of heat and 100% humidity, in the hope of catching a fleeting glimpse of a Serendips Scops Owl. Nor does it help me over the frustration of being in earshot of a Blue Magpie but not, as it were, in leg shot.
Those among you who by inclination or lack of means have not birded overseas will, no doubt, be ready to beat me about the head with your copy of Birds Illustrated or at the very least chastise me for my ungratefulness. How dare I whinge when I’ve been able to see some of these avian wonders; what right have I to complain? Well I am just back from one of those tropical paradises. Sri Lanka is truly a beautiful country with charming and friendly people. Indeed not only is it a birder’s paradise but nirvana for the epicure too. There is little in world cuisine to compete with a simple ‘village’ curry of okra or aubergine with fresh coconut, rice and chutney washed down with a Lion beer. Well I do dare complain as my infirmities have prevailed and prevented me from bagging all the endemics usually seen by any able-bodied birder.
Take the National Park at Sinharaja; lush and fecund where the clearings are full of enormous butterflies and swooping tree swifts. Given that this is still a developing country there is little to spare for infrastructure and only forest tracks lead into its interior. Having been given special dispensation and being allowed to ride in on a jeep could still not get this overweight ornithologist close enough to see the Ashy-headed Laughing-thrushes, Red-faced Malkhoas or White-faced Starlings. Indeed a red-faced Bo found it impossible to ride up a 1 in 4 slope pebble-paved like a river bed, in a jeep with neither seat-belts nor doors. The choice was brace myself and suffer agony, or fall out, or give up several endemics, and this weak flesh had to opt for the latter course.
I was under no illusion when I arranged the trip. I knew I would dip out here or there and, indeed admit that we were very fortunate to see more than 200 species and three quarters of the endemics and nearly 50 endemic races. But that’s never enough for us is it? Twitch for one bird and see it, is our yardstick of success; go twitch for three birds and get two and we are in despair.
And what do we do when we see that new lifer? When a bogy bird is found after years of searching and you ‘grip off’ your oldest friend by seeing a bird he hasn’t? Well we do a little dance or take a celebratory nip; we smile inwardly or even, if sufficiently alone, punch the air in glee and triumph. A day later and the triumph is forgotten, all we can recall is a bird we dipped out on 10 years ago!
An hour after we landed in Sri Lanka we were driving north and stopped at a local shop for some bottled water. As we alighted a group of half a dozen babblers hopped down an alley and we grabbed our guide demanding instant ID – Yellow-billed Babblers, our first lifer… but within the next hour we saw them every mile or so and over the next two weeks saw them virtually hourly… the exciting lifer had instantly become the every day. Why are we so fickle? How can something become mundane because we see it constantly for two weeks when we are unlikely to ever see it again? I saw more than 50 bird species I had never seen before but still bemoaned the birds I didn’t see. Obviously I’m older, but clearly no wiser!