Published by In Her Place on November 29, 2011

Once in a Lifetime

by Terri Elders

In l990 when I first moved to Antigua, Guatemala, my birder knowledge was…for the birds. Or at least my housemate, Kelly, saw it that way.

I knew enough to feed spinach greens, not stale muffins, to the domestic ducks at Recreation Park in my hometown of Long Beach, CA. Enough to avoid annoying the thirty-pound swans in London’s Hyde Park. Enough to understand that silence is golden while trailing knowledgeable birdwatchers in the woods near The House of the Doves at Uxmal. And once, at my grandmother’s house in Los Angles when I was ten, I learned the hard way that it’s wise to avoid poking a thumb inside a budgie’s cage.

But I never quite understood birders like Kelly, who hiked the John Muir trails with binoculars, packsack and pen. Or who toted notepads to record every winged creature that soared overhead. Now Kelly tried to recruit me to share his obsession.

I’d heard about “The Bird Man of Alcatraz,” but never a bird woman. Batgirl didn’t count…bats were flying mammals, definitely not birds.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m not really interested. Is birding a ladylike activity?”

“Of course it is. Just think of our sundeck as a portal into a world of magic,” he answered, patting the bench beside him, inviting me to join him staring out at our neighbor’s coffee finca. Kelly could sprawl out there for hours, tallying the varieties of feathered creatures that fluttered among the overarching trees.

“Yeah, right. Like Disneyland.”

But Kelly persevered. “Birding is the number one sport in America. It even beats basketball,” this lifelong Lakers fan declared. “And here there’s over 700 species of birds. You gotta pay attention. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

One afternoon he dropped in at Un Poco de Todo, the bookshop nook that faced the Parque Central, and bought me a guide to local Aves.

“Thanks,” I said, “I guess it won’t hurt to give it a try.” So that sunset we sat on the deck together, sipping Gallo, the local beer, right out of the bottle. I’d ceased to care if that were ladylike or not.

After a while Kelly cocked his head toward the flame-hued bougainvillea vine draping the brick wall separating our sunken garden from the finca. “Just listen to that warbler!”

When it came to bird clatters, I scarcely could distinguish a skylark’s carol from a barn owl’s screech. Now I heard a harsh, persistent trill, okey dokey, okey dokey, tweet, tweet, tweet, followed by a cacophony of raucous caws and kissy sounds.

“It sounds like more than one bird.”

Kelly shook his head. “Just one.”

“Is it a crow?”

Kelly laughed. “It’s a mockingbird! Most likely a bachelor. The males without mates usually are the ones who sing at night.”

He winked at me. “The ladies are much more silent. A rare feat of nature.”

I chuckled, and then took another swallow of my Gallo. “All right, Mr. Ornithology, I’ll learn. I promise.”

So I studied my manual. Here in the highlands, I read, we had brown-backed solitaires and black-headed siskins, gray silky-flycatchers and blue-throated motmots, white-winged tanagers and green-throated mountain-gems. I loved the rhythm of the names, and hoped soon to be able to single out some of these rainbow-hued creatures.

Gradually I grew defter at identifying the feathered guests plummeting through our gardens. From time to time I’d point out the iridescent beryline hummingbirds, locally called “garden jewels,” as they darted on nearly invisible wings among the fuchsia shrubs. I’d identify turquoise bushy-crested jays nesting in nearby trees.

Sometimes we welcomed more exotic visitors, an occasional orange-fronted parakeet or emerald toucanet, attracted to the peachy scent of plumeria in the sunken garden. Neither of us hoped ever to spy a parrot in the wild.

The manual said that scarlet macaws, las guacamayas, the national bird of neighboring Honduras, preferred rainforests, but had been known to frequent higher elevations. Because of poachers and deforestation, the macaws were in population decline throughout Central America, but on rare occasions had been spotted in Antigua.

“I’d love to see a scarlet macaw,” I confided on New Year’s Eve. “That really would be something, like a total eclipse of the sun.”

Kelly eyed me strangely. “Funny you mentioned an eclipse,” he said. “In July we’re going to have one right here in Antigua, and we can watch it from the sundeck.”

Soon the Guatemala Times carried warnings against looking directly at the sun. Next we heard it might be better to watch the eclipse on television to avoid eye damage. Kelly laughed and asked if I thought we should just listen to the eclipse on the radio to ensure complete protection.

We marveled at our luck. Thousands were trekking to Hawaii and Baja for a chance to stand in the shadow of the moon. We had merely to pop out to our sundeck to witness darkness at noon. The totality of the eclipse would be nearly seven minutes, the longest for the next 141 years.

I wondered how wild birds would react to “the day of two dawns.” Ex pat friends puzzled over whether roosters would crow at midday. Local gossipers focused on how Maya in the remote rural areas would behave. Would old superstitions prevail, even in l991? Would pregnant women fear miscarriages? Would shamans predict earthquakes, droughts, or other disasters?

On July 11 Kelly and I settled into our deck chairs, with shaded eclipse glasses, macadamias and mimosas at the ready. By noon dogs begin to bay as the moon bit into the western edge of the sun. Birds on the finca floor drifted upwards to roost in the trees.

Tiny spots of light shaped like crescent moons showed up on our deck as the daylight began to fracture. I glanced at the stucco walls of the Hotel Antigua across the way, entranced by thin wavy lines of alternating light and dark. I later learned these “shadow bands” are created by the sunlight being distorted by irregularities in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Suddenly the sky grew dark. We knew this was second contact, so we raised our eyes to the full glory of the sun’s shimmering corona. The petals of the hibiscus in our sunken garden began to curl inwards. The birds ceased their chirrups. I shivered as the temperature dropped. We watched the stars emerge, and singled out Venus.

Moments later as the sky began to lighten, we looked away. Sure enough, roosters crowed. Then Kelly whispered, “Slowly, slowly, turn your head to the right.”

I casually swiveled my head until my eyes fell on a scarlet macaw outlined against the magenta bougainvillea bracts. From its crown to the tip of its bright red tail feathers it measured about three feet. It had to be a male.

“Offer it a nut,” Kelly prompted. I carefully extracted a macadamia from the dish. The silent macaw watched me closely. I rolled the nut gently along the brick wall in the bird’s direction. He reached out his left talon and snatched it up. Then he emitted a low-pitched throaty squawk, bobbed his head, spread his wings and flew back to the finca.

I blinked and shook my head, transfixed by the otherworldly moment.

“Unbelievable.”

Kelly smiled. “Like Disneyland? And something that ladies would appreciate.”

By the time I left Guatemala a year later, I had traded my birder manual for a Spanish textbook, since I was heading to the Dominican Republic to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Kelly, who remained in Antigua, wrote me occasionally. No scarlet macaws ever showed up again, he said. Just parakeets and toucanets.

Years later I experienced a second total solar eclipse, this one on the Black Sea. Terns and other confused seabirds flapped around us, but, alas, not a single scarlet macaw appeared.

Not that I was expecting one. I’ve finally learned enough about birds, and ladies and life, to realize that some things might happen just once in a lifetime…and are well worth waiting for. And that a simple wooden sundeck in Antigua, Guatemala, might indeed turn out to be a portal to a world of enchantment.

Read Dr. Terri Elders’s bio »

2 comments

I enjoyed your birding story.
Maybe you should come on the bird tour to my camp in Feb.
A Tody is a small green bird in the DR!!

by Kate Wallace on December 4, 2011 at 6:58 pm. Link

Interesting, informative story. Terri certainly has stories to tell.

by Charlotte Dahlen on December 5, 2011 at 6:32 pm. Link