Halloween is the best holiday. No honoring anything, no family obligations, no guilt trips, no presents to buy, just good old fashioned scaring each other and eating candy. Other than Valentine's Day (which is a baloney holiday cooked up by greeting card companies), Halloween is the only holiday that honors an emotion: fear. It's always seemed incredible to me that we would dedicate a day to scaring the crap out of each other, and that's part of the reason I love it.
I'm not sure what emotion that word "birder" evokes in non-birders. Unfortunately, it's probably "bored" or something. Those people are dumb. Birders experience the full spectrum of emotions: joy, disappointment, envy, lust, hope, anxiety, doubt, and, yes, fear. To prove it, I asked some birding friends to share with me their scariest birding stories. Read them below...IF YOU DARE!
Bill Hubick - Photographer; Operator of Maryland Biodiversity Project; Maryland Birder Extraordinaire
It was March 2008. Jim Brighton and I were traveling in Oaxaca, Mexico with our now-wives Becky and Colleen. I proposed to Becky on the ruins of Monte Alban on this trip. Secretly carrying an engagement ring in my backpack in Mexican markets for several days was nearly as scary as the various "police" shakedowns we experienced trying to get in and out of Mexico City. The following experience was much scarier.
We were staying at a mescal plantation in the foothills of the town of Oaxaca, a little expat community off the beaten path. We were having a wonderful time, enjoying what we'd come to think of as the ultimate balance of birding, local culture, and amazing food. In the evenings, Buff-collared Nightjars were singing justoutside our casita. We imagined - correctly - that we could find much more if we continued up into the foothills at night. We'd explored the rugged dirt road further up into the hills by day and really liked the habitat. Jim, Colleen, and I headed up the road after dark, ultimately finding a perfect spot to get out and look and listen. There were many Buff-collared Nightjars, as well as our only Mexican Whip-poor-will of the trip. The shimmering lights of Oaxaca far below us had a magical quality. And then there were lights. Headlights coming up the road. Oh, that's... not... good. OK, no big thing. It's fine. Let's not panic. The truck stops down the road from us and just sits there with its lights on for an agonizing length of time. The road we were on was a dead-end just up hill, so we could only wait them out or drive down and explain ourselves. We were just out listening to birds after all. We consider waiting, and then break under the anxiety of the uncomfortable situation. As we get in the car and approach them - we had become confident they were waiting for us - we stash wallets and cameras under the seats.
Our hearts sink as we approach. They turn on a big light and a dozen men with guns jump out and approach the car. Jim and I can speak survival Spanish and we used everything we had. "No hay problema!" "Esta bien. Nosotros estudiando aves!" They're speaking quickly and we're struggling to pick up whatever we can. It's not feeling good at all. We're certain we're going to be actively liberated from at least our car and possessions. We can do nothing but stick to the party line, mentioning the specific plantation and its owner by name. We start picking up the word "revolucionarios" and use our best caveman Spanish to insist that we are decidedly not that. And then someone laughs and the tension breaks.
It starts to dawn on us what has happened. Oaxaca had recently been through a very real civil war, and this area was in the thick of it. The expats had told us many stories. When a vehicle drove up into the hills after dark,someone must have called the local posse to go check it out. They followed us closely down the bumpy road back to the agave plantation and we'd periodically hear the boys laughing and yelling from back in their truck. I made a bad joke like "oh, a toad... Should we stop?" In a long moment of silence, I remember Colleen said, "Waiiit til I tell my father." There were definitely a couple stiff drinks when we were safely back at the plantation. Colleen still said yes when Jim proposed to her a couple years later at Machu Picchu.
And that was the time we were accosted as revolucionarios in the foothills of Oaxaca. My heart rate is up a little even after typing the story.
Rosemary Mosco - Artist, Bird and Moon
One summer I was volunteering with an urban peregrine falcon watch. The peregrines had nested high up in an office building (as they usually do). We were watching them from about a block away, using scopes and binoculars, and taking meticulous notes. At one point, an Official Watch Person (tm) asked if I wanted to join him in heading to the roof of an adjacent high rise to get a closer view of the nest. I said, "Heck yes!"
So there we were, looking across and down at the big female peregrine and her huge fluffy chick. It was a stunning and unusual view, but not nearly as amazing as what happened next. The Official Watch Person had been keeping an eye on the male, but somehow the bird had slipped out of his view. "Uh, where's the male?" he said. Uh oh.
The next bit is a blur, because I looked up to see a pound of BIRD RAGE bearing down on me with the speed of, well, the fastest freaking bird on earth. The eyes--those eyes weren't just angry. They were filled with the rage of every bird throughout history who has ever had an egg stolen or a chick nabbed, all that rage distilled and purified and focused on one small and relatively weak ape: me.
I threw myself back toward the exit. I seriously bruised my arm on the way down, but we closed the trapdoor before that bird could decapitate me. I'm pretty sure the Official Watch Person never took someone up there ever again.
Nicholas Martens - Author, Hipster Birders
My nerves were already on edge when the hooting started. It was just after midnight, and I'd finished watching a horror film a few minutes earlier. By myself. Somewhere in the marsh that our apartment overlooks, a Great Horned Owl was calling in complete darkness, and for some reason I'd decided I was going to find it. I threw on my sneakers, grabbed a flashlight, and headed into the hallway. The hall light overhead was flickering, instantly transporting me into the scene of my very own horror film. It was just what my nerves needed.
I proceeded down the quarter mile stretch of unlit boardwalk, and as I advanced, step by step, I could hear the owl more and more loudly. The boardwalk ends when it reaches an island of several dozen tall pines, towering over a thick swath of smaller palms, and cypress trees. Although it was a clear night, there was no moon, and the pitch blackness of the island hung in front me against the the starry sky. By this point, I was able to tell that a second Great Horned Owl was calling from a long way away, and that mine was answering from somewhere within the trees. I didn't dare trespass onto the island, which I considered was rightfully the owl's, but I stopped and listened for several minutes, transfixed by owl's eerie grandeur.
Presently, the calling ceased, and a dark shape glided past me on my left. I heard a tree behind me give under the weight of something large, and I turned back, despite my heart beating so rapidly. Thirty feet away, I could make out a massive silhouette atop a bare branch. I raised my flashlight and carefully aimed it before turning it on, illuminating the entire owl all at once. Although the front of the body was turned in my direction, its head was rotated backwards, 180 degrees. Slowly -- very slowly -- it spun its head around to look directly at me. I turned the light off, and for a seemingly interminable minute or two, we faced each other in the night's quiet stillness.
Thereafter it flew off, but I could perceive it hunting in the distance in the marsh. It was too far to make out with the flashlight, but I watched it pluck some unfortunate creature out of the grasses, and methodically tear it apart from its perch. As I admired this scene, this slaughter in silhouette, I wondered about that minute or two we had with each other. Was it sizing me up? In any case, I doubt it shared any of my reverence. I recalled how uncanny the owl's hooting was at first, in the darkness, and how much more powerfully I felt its presence after it became silent. After nearly an hour, I started on my way back home, but carefully, certain that the owl's prey never saw it coming.
Dr. Jason Hoeksema - Department of Biology, University of Mississippi
1. I was birding in South Texas in late May, 2010, with Tiffany, Rob, and Becca. We were up into the Rio Grande Valley on our last day, looking for things like Muscovy, Red-billed Pigeon, and Green Kingfisher. We were wandering around Roma along the Rio Grande, trying to figure out where the hell you are supposed to look for birds there, and Rob really needed a bathroom, so he was wandering particularly widely through town. He ran into a guy, who noticed the binoculars and offered to take us to his private property nearby along the river. Feeling a bit trepidatious, we obliged and followed him down the road, behind the Burger King, and down a dirt road to the river. When we go there, he told us that we might run into Border Patrol, but just to tell them he said it was OK that were were there.
We hacked our way over to a small vantage point along the river, and almost immediately flushed a Green Kingfisher, just as a helicopter went over us, low and slow. A minute later, it was even lower--really loud and just around the corner. I dashed out of the willows and saw the helicopter hovering about 20 feet over our black SUV. It was a military-style helicopter, with an open side door containing a gunman. He swung around when he saw me, and pointed his rifle right at me, looking at me through his rifle scope. I took off my hat to show off my gringo face, and wildly waved my binoculars, hoping he didn't fricking shoot me. Once they realized we were just dumb birders, the copter sped off. A minute later, a pair of Border Patrol officers drove up and told us they were looking for some "illegals" who had just come through the area, and that they hated to disturb us, and would we mind going somewhere else to bird? Um, yeah, no problem. How about that weird riverside dock at Chapeno that is about to collapse? Or Falcon Lake where that guy was shot by the cartel a few years ago? Or maybe go get lost wandering around, trying to avoid the dogs and find the river access at Santa Margarita Ranch? The Rio Grande Valley away from the coast is a kooky place, man.
2. Birding Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve with Tiff in August, 2009. After an unsuccessful, just-a-few-days-late try for Rufous-capped Warblers, we decided to walk the outer loop on the way back to the Preserve entrance. As we rounded a corner, we spotted 4 guys huffing it through the woods, away from the trail. They each had a gallon jug of water in both hands, and gigantic, cube-shaped back-packs jammed with god-knows-what. They saw us too. They didn't hesitate--just kept moving, hoping or assuming we wouldn't do anything. They were right.
Later that same day, we have just driven through Tombstone, on our way around the southern end of the Chiricahuas, heading for Portal. Rather than go all the way down to Douglas, we decide to cut across the foothills on a state road, from Hwy 191 to Hwy 80. We've been driving along for about 10 miles into the middle of nowhere, heading east, passing perhaps one ranch and nothing else resembling civilization in any way. We come upon a UPS truck, parked off the road with its headlights on, and facing the road. No one is visible in the cab. Now, I don't know what a UPS truck is doing out here, but it is not delivering packages. We hit the gas and speed on past. Have we seen too much already?
Nick Lund, The Birdist
I was visiting Jason Hoeksema this April and we were out birding my favorite of all spots: the north Mississippi Delta. We were peeling down from Memphis, right along the river, looking for - I dunno, Western Kingbirds and Mississippi Kites. Near the river, a big huge levee runs south, protecting the flood-able land from the huge flat agricultural lands (and casinos) that make up the former floodplain and that are so good for geese and migrating shorebirds.
Along the top of the levee runs a dirt road. For Jason and I, access to this road was a little bit uncertain (uncertainty and quasi-trespassing are part of what makes birding the delta so exciting). There were no gates or signs keeping us out, but no clear indication of whether we were allowed on their, either. Jason said that Mississippi birder lore holds that it's only hunters that aren't allowed on the road - birders are fine. We convinced ourselves that we wouldn't be hassled and headed down the levee, scanning the cropland to our left and the thick forests on our right.
Not far down the levee we saw a cropduster working the field at the base of the levee. A bright yellow plane, laying down strips of white powder whatever, going about its business. I took note as it made a pass along the field and flew behind us to turn around (I don't see a lot of cropdusters in Maine or DC), but we kept our eyes out the windows for birds.
Seconds later, a roar erupted overhead. It came up suddenly and was almost instantly deafening. It was the plane, of course, about ten feet over our car, letting go a load of fine white powdery whatever in a cloud over our heads! Dive bombed! I think Jason got off a quick middle finger before we cranked our windows up to avoid inhaling or touching the whatever that white stuff was. We pulled down off the levee (was he trying to tell us we weren't allowed there? Was he just a complete jerk?) and kept moving, keeping one eye in the sky for birds and another for crazy delta renegade cropdusters.