Sunday, December 7, 2008
Truth is Bittern fiction.
I'd never been to the Deep South before moving to Gainesville, and I wasn't sure what to expect. But I had some ideas, many of which were pretty close to the truth: Moss hanging from trees in a sinister manner? Check. People calling me "ma'am"? Check. Iced tea sweet enough to send hummingbirds into a diabetic coma? Yup. Locals spinning improbable but true yarns worthy of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. God yes...
Like the story a birder told me one day about a relative of hers who had survived the storming of Normandy: He was invited back to Normandy as an honored guest to commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day—and upon seeing that beach again, had a long-delayed flashback, suffered a heart attack, and died on the spot. On the beach at Normandy. On D-Day.
And the story of what I hope was Gainesville's one and only serial killer: he targeted young woman, and one local student was so frightened, she had a burly male friend move in with her for protection. A few days later, the killer found and dispatched them both, ceremoniously placing the girl's head on the TV in the living room for the benefit of whoever found them.
I heard this story while standing by the girl's grave during the fall migration count.
Now here's my story: like the others, too weird to be true—and also, too strange for anyone to make up.
It happened at the Alachua Audubon field trip yesterday. We were having a productive morning: we had two very bold American Bitterns only feet away, both Glossy AND White-faced Ibises, and thousands of Sandhill Cranes. There were lots of good passerines, too: we were treated to sightings of Blue-headed and White-eyed Vireos, a Black-and While Warbler, a pair of Loggerheaded Shrikes, and flocks of Chipping and White-crowned Sparrows.
At one point on the trail, our leader pointed out an area where he had recently encountered a pair of out-of-town birders playing a recording of an unfamiliar bird, and asked them what they were looking for.
Oh, they told him, we're looking for a Harris' Sparrow.
Did you hear of one around here? he asked, his curiosity piqued. He explained to us that the last known sighting of one in Alachua County was in 1973.
No, they said. But we drove all the way up to Louisiana to find some, and didn't see any. So we thought we'd stop by here on the way home to see if we got lucky.
We all got a good laugh out of this. Hey, why not play an Ivory-billed Woodpecker call and see what we could scare up? Ha ha.
We continued down the trail, and stopped to check out a flock of feeding White-crowned Sparrows just off the trail.
"Hey, what's that?" one of the birders asked.
"The one the left."
"The big one. With the black throat."
Our trip leader trained his bins on it, as did the rest of us. It was bigger than the White-crowned Sparrows in the group. It had a black throat and buff cheeks...
"OH...MY...GOD!" he gasped. "IT'S A HARRIS' SPARROW!"
Stunned, we stood frozen in place as it twitched for several seconds, then dove into the brush. None of us with cameras had a chance to capture it.
You really can't make this stuff up. Strange things just happen here, just like that.