Spots Before the Eyes

Courtesy of G. Stuart Keith

Spots Before the Eyes

FIeld editor Kenn Kaufman set out to break a big year record in 1973, the year that he turned 19, by hitch-hiking around North America. 

By Kenn Kaufman
Published: 10/20/2011

Excerpted from Kingbird Highway, published by Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. Copyright (c) 1997 by Kenn Kaufman, and still available in paperback. All rights reserved.

Following our Mexican trip I had gone to the Chiricahua Mountains, where I had picked up White-eared Hummingbird and Spotted Owl for my year list. After that I had planned to head up the Pacific coast toward Washington. But my plans were overturned when I stopped by Ted Parker's dorm at The University of Arizona.

Ted was on the phone, keyed-up, firing questions, grinning at the answers. Finally hanging up, he told me, "You're not going to like this. There's a Spotted Redshank at Brigantine!"

"Right," I said. "And I saw a flock of Rowlett's Owlets tunneling into the science library, too."

"No, I'm serious," he persisted. "It was found yesterday. Dozens of birders went over there today and saw it. Too bad it didn't show up a month ago, when we were there, hey?"

So he was not joking. A Spotted Redshank! This Old World sandpiper had turned up only a very few times in North America; there were just a couple of confirmed records then, from the Northeast and from Alaska.

Spotted Redshank was one of those fine species that combined rarity with good looks. A large sandpiper of the genus Tringa, it resembled our Greater Yellowlegs, but it had red legs and a touch of red on the bill. In winter it was silvery gray; in breeding plumage it was a velvety purplish black with a sprinkle of small white spots. In a family of creatures that were so subtle or downright dull, the Spotted Redshank stood out as that true rarity, an unmistakable bird.

I was mulling this over, damning the two-thousand-plus miles that lay between me and the Brigantine refuge in New Jersey, when Mark Robbins walked in. When he heard the news, he collapsed into a chair. "Oh, man," he said. "I've looked at the picture of that in the European guide so many times...Is it still in breeding plumage, this late in the season?"

"Partly," said Ted. "They said it was changing now - still black on the underparts, and still with some black around the head and neck. Maybe halfway through the molt."

"Me, I wouldn't care what plumage it was in," said Mark. "If I didn't have classes ..." He looked up at me. "Guess you're off for New Jersey now, right?"

Up to that moment I had not really considered it. But why shouldn't I go to Seattle by way of Atlantic City? I got up and started pacing the room. "Wonder how long the bird's going to stay around?"

Parker laughed. "There's no way to predict that. But Brigantine's sometimes a good 'holding' spot. Some rarities have stayed for months. Most of them don't, obviously. But if you decide not to go, you'll find out later that it stayed a couple of weeks, and was seen by everyone who went for it."

I continued pacing. "That's a lot of time, a lot of thumbing for one bird. Or for no bird. No logical basis for a decision." Then something occurred to me. "Hey! Ted! Do you recall - last month at Brigantine, you remember how I was talking about Spotted Redshank, predicting that we'd see one?"

"How could I forget? We were all sick of it."

"All right. You know how I just fantasize about one incredible rarity at a time. That day at Brig, there were all kinds of rare waterbirds I could have been babbling about, but the Spotted Redshank was the one I picked. Don't you see, man? It's a sign!"

"If that's your idea of logic, I'm glad you're not the president," said Mark.

But I was already digging into my backpack for the right road maps. "It can be done," I announced. "I can be in New Jersey in two or three days. I'll leave tonight."

It was near midnight Sunday when Mark and Ted drove me out to the freeway. In a way, the scene was a replay of another night eight months earlier: back in January, when I started out to go for the Loggerhead Kingbird in Florida. Once again, the guys were dropping me off at the freeway interchange on South Stone. Once again, I was in a hurry, going for a staked-out rarity that might not stay long. Once again, I was going all the way across the continent to seek a single bird.

As I soon discovered, this was to be a replay of the Loggerhead Kingbird trip in another way. Once again, right when I wanted all possible speed, my luck turned bad. Just as it had in January. The song came back to mind: You'll go back, Jack, and do it again.

Luck on the road could be defined in several ways. For the recreational thumbers, good luck would mean good times, parties on the road. For others, the derelicts who were going away rather than going to anyplace, good luck would mean a level of comfort, so as not to disrupt their hazy dreams. For me, good luck simply meant getting there fast. That September trek from Tucson to Brigantine would have been considered, by any criterion, a bad trip: I didn't maintain any level of comfort, and altogether it took me far too long to get to New Jersey.

When sunrise Monday found me standing a scant twenty miles east of Tucson, I told myself that I was just getting spoiled. This was the first long-distance hitching I'd had to do in a month. Starting in August I'd had rides with other birders and friends from Cape May to New England, then to Tucson, and then to California and Mexico. Between these trips, my sorties by thumb had been short. Now, back on the long haul, I reaffirmed what I already knew: thumbing across the continent was vastly different from driving across.

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Kenn Kaufman

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