Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Bird Count

The interpreter had been asked to lead a Christmas Bird Count in famous Stanley Park. It had been a next to last minute arrangement, only three days before the count, which was to be on Boxing Day.

“It’s a small group,” said the organizer who had phoned him.

“How small?” asked the interpreter.

“Well, so far, two. You and Milt Harvey.

“Oh, great,” said the interpreter.

“You know Milt?”

“Yes, I know Milt.”

“So you know about his....”

“Yes,” said the interpreter. “Please let me know if you hear from anyone else. Preferably someone who can remember the names of birds.”

He got to the Nature House at Lost Lagoon at 7:30 AM, just after first light. His binoculars were around his neck, the signal to others who might be coming that this was the right place. It was snowing lightly, with the temperature just below freezing, which was much better than rain at any temperature. The interpreter was coming down with a cold. It would be okay as long as he stayed dry.

A voice spoke from a tall shadow next to a cedar. “You here for the count?” A large middle-aged man stepped into view.

“Yeah, hi, Milt,” said the interpreter. “Do you know if anyone else is coming?”

Milt’s binoculars were strung high on his barrel chest. He was wearing a cervical collar, which made him look neckless, and large, square-framed glasses. His beige nylon parka bulged in many directions. “Have we met?”

“A number of times,” said the interpreter. He told Milt his name.

Doesn’t ring a bell,” said Milt.

"That’s okay, you have short-term memory loss, from an accident," said the interpreter.

"I have short-term mem.... oh, I must have told you before."

They started with a circuit of Lost Lagoon. Milt birded at Stanley Park almost every day, and knew where to look for rarities --he just couldn’t remember what they were called. Beyond a large, mixed flock of Common Goldeneye and Scaup, Milted pointed out a distant duck, not really identifiable with binoculars alone. “It’s the one with the extra head feather.”

“A Tufted Duck?” That was a good bird. The interpreter wasn’t sure, but nothing he could make out suggested it was anything else. He recorded it, with an asterisk.

“And there’s two of those with the copper neck circles too.” In among the milling waterfowl was a pair of Ring-necked Ducks.

They skirted the forest edge along the road that ran north of the pond. They walked far apart, and met up occasionally to share sightings.

Milt said, “I got five of the friendly small ones with white cheeks.”


“And a flock of twelve little gray ones who fly as though pulled on a string.”

Bushtits. The interpreter was getting the hang of this, and enjoyed the poetry of some of Milt’s descriptions. Were they literal translations of indigenous names they would seem charming.

At the west end of the lagoon they separated to cover more ground. The interpreter headed over to a copse of conifers behind the Parks Board office, while Milt checked the tree line north of the tennis courts. They met up near the old white Fish House.

“Well, did you see it?” asked Milt.

“See what?”

“Big bird, big eyes, tufts. Hoot hoot!” He made ear tufts with his fingers, and looked remarkably like a Great-horned Owl.

“A Great-horned?”

“There’s one lives in those trees. It was your job to find it.”

“Why didn’t you tell me to look for it?”

Milt stared at him. “What?”

“Never mind.”

They entered the towering forest that is the defining feature of the park and walked a well-maintained trail. Milt pointed out several more “friendly ones” and an “orange-black, whistly one,” which the interpreter understood was a Varied Thrush. Then they came to a crazy man lying on a bench, wearing a long leather coat from the 1970s and a dirty red toque. He sat bolt upright and glared at them.

“Hi there,” said the interpreter.


Milt stopped and stared at the man. He said, “If you would trouble yourself to look a bit closer, you would see that these are not cameras. We’re carrying binoculars.”


Milt said, “I think you’re mistaken, we’re….” The interpreter grabbed Milt’s thick arm and pulled him down the path. Thirty yards on, the crazy man went running past, screaming his lungs out. They stopped to let his voice get as far away as possible.

“It’s because of ones like that that we carry the bear spray…and the things we don’t mention, right?” said Milt.

“Right,” said the interpreter without knowing or wanting to know what Milt was talking about.

They continued along the predetermined route, which consisted of the network of trails of the southern park, with Milt describing birds and the interpreter writing them down. The forest was dark and cold, with much snow still high in the trees from a storm a few days earlier. Now and then a branch would drop its load, which would filter down prettily. A few managed to drop snow inside the interpreter’s collar, which was uncomfortable. He shivered. His cold symptoms were worsening. He wanted hot tea-- hot anything.

They went for half an hour without seeing or hearing a bird. The interpreter was of half a mind to curtail the count, go home, get warm. Milt’s on-again off-again lucidness was adding a layer of futility to something that now seemed of questionable utility to start with. He asked, “Why are we doing this?”

“What?” Milt seemed not to be uncertain of the question so much as startled to find someone walking next to him.

“Why are we counting birds?” asked the interpreter.

“Because it’s the Christmas Bird Count!”

“Sure, yeah, but why is no one else out here helping with it? Why of all the thousands of birders in the Vancouver area are you and I the only ones spending Boxing Day counting the birds of the southern half of Stanley Park?”

“Because it’s the Christmas Bird Count! It’s what we always do! What else ya gonna do on Boxing Day? Oh Lord these are getting heavy.” He pulled plastic shopping bags stuffed with mixed seed from the side pockets of his coat.

The interpreter asked, “Why do you have those?”

Whydya think?”

They walked from the forest and joined the seawall path a little south of Second Beach, which was where they met up with the organizer, who had run the count of the northern half of the park. Surprisingly, his party consisted of seven people.

The interpreter handed him his list, written in the standardized four-letter shorthand of the American Ornithological Union.

The organizer said, after quick scan, “Why the asterisk next to the Tufted Duck?”

“I, uh, wasn’t certain,” said the interpreter.

“Milt saw it?” Milt was staring off dreamily over English Bay.

“Yes,” said the interpreter.

The organizer scribbled out the asterisk. Then he said, “You didn’t get the Great-horned.”

He missed it,” said Milt, suddenly back, and pointing at the interpreter.

“I’ll check again on my way to the bus loop,” said the interpreter.

“Text me if you get it,” said the organizer. “You’ve got my number?”

The interpreter said so long and headed south along the seawall, which would eventually get him to the Park Board Office, and with luck, the owl. Milt walked with him for a little while. He asked, “Are you going to the grand tally tonight?”

“I don’t think so,” said the interpreter.

“Things to do,” Milt nodded. “Family stuff.”

“Nope. I’m just not feeling so great. I think I’m coming down with something.” In fact, he now felt feverish.

“Aha,” said Milt. “You seemed a bit out of it today.”

“Yeah, well, I do feel bad about missing the owl. I’ll go have quick look for it, then go straight home.”

“There’s an owl?”


“Oh, I’m going this way.” Milt pointed a mitt across a parking lot to the forest.

“It was nice seeing you again,” said the interpreter.

“I’ll try to remember you for next time, but probably I won’t.” Milt wandered off with his bird seed and bear spray and other more secret weaponry as the interpreter continued on to the woods where the owl was said to be.

By the time he arrived, the light snow had turned to rain. Snow piled on upper branches was dropping at a greater frequency than before, and in larger, heavier, wetter clumps. The interpreter stepped into the trees and scanned the bare lower branches, looking for the characteristic bulky silhouette. He saw nothing but trunks and sticks against the fading western sky. Even in decent light, owls could be maddeningly difficult to spot.

He stood in the geometric centre of the woods and called out, “Where the hell are you, you stupid bird?” A wallop of wet snow landed on the back of his neck. Swearing, he lifted his head in time to see the swinging talons and flashing tail of the big bird as it pumped its wings, flying away. It had been directly above his head.

The interpreter walked to a street light and turned his back to what had become drizzle to type words and numbers into his little phone. He sent a message, GHOW tick. He was tired and not feeling particularly well. The bus loop seemed very far away.

Next story...

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Marvin said...

"A comment about what?" Milt asked.

Great post with lots of chuckles.

PSYL said...

Never met a person with short-term memory loss before, let alone a birder. Milt is definitely a character!

Probably one of the funniest interpreter stories! Thanks for the post-Boxing Day laughter, I sure can use one of those.

BerryBird said...

I often look at CBC data for work, to characterize wintering birds in various areas where projects are proposed. It is interesting stuff, but unfortunately I don't have the birding skills to contribute. I think I need to go out birding with an interpreter ;)

Milt sounds like a real character.