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After Bird No. 5991, a Father and Son Finally Connect

June 19, 2005|Dan Koeppel | Dan Koeppel is author of "To See Every Bird on Earth" (Hudson Street Press/Penguin, 2005).

The "moment" with my father came about 10 years ago. For years, we'd had a relationship that wasn't close. Like many sons and daughters of my generation, I longed for openness and intimacy in my relationship with Dad. But he was reticent and reserved, and mystified by what he perceived as my impulsiveness, the way I and my peers seemed to live with little planning for the future.

There was a difference, though, between my father and my friends' fathers. While many of our fathers seem to be emotionally distant, my father was often physically far away as well. When I was a teenager, he set a seemingly impossible goal for himself: to see every bird on Earth, and he proceeded to leave behind relationships, career and family as he traveled the globe, checking off bird species. He has now seen more than 7,000 of the world's 9,600 species -- a number that fewer than a dozen other birders have reached.

My father's fixation on birds affected our family even before we stopped being a complete one. Even before we started being one. My mother remembers a honeymoon with lots of birds, and little else. I recall, after my parents divorced, spending weekend visits following Dad around, looking for birds. His fascination grew until it appeared to blot out everything else. Me? My brother? We felt like minor players, and we weren't old enough to understand that the pain of being apart from us was one of the things driving him further into obsession's grip.

That changed one morning in 1993. I'd been living in Los Angeles for several years, while Dad was in New York. He called to say he was on his way to a birding expedition to Australia and had the idea of spending an afternoon in Southern California. To see me? Well, sort of. The plan was for me to escort him to see two species: the California gnatcatcher and the mountain quail. Dad called them "nemesis birds" -- species common enough that he should have observed them, but which, through plain bad luck, had eluded him.

The gnatcatcher was first. I brought along my friend, Tom, who had recently forsaken a successful career as a screenwriter to pursue biology. Tom knew about Dad's pursuit and viewed him as a hero: somebody who had dedicated his life to nature. Tom was excited about the chance to see the gnatcatcher, a tiny coastal bird that has become endangered as its seaside habitat vanishes along the California coastline.

I was shocked by Tom's view. "Your Dad" he said, "is trying to be the best in the world at something. You've got to give him credit for that."

We headed south from Santa Monica, stopping at every stand of seaside wild lands. Finally, on a bluff below Palos Verdes, we found it. Tom saw it first -- "gnatcatcher!" he yelled.

Now, we had to wait. I remembered all the times as a kid that I had to sit still while Dad was waiting for a bird to appear. I found myself having a new feeling. At first, I couldn't identify it. Was I actually proud of him?

After five minutes, the little bird appeared. Dad handed me his binoculars so I could get a look. It was Bird No. 5,991.

I was almost as happy as he was.

The next day, we headed into the mountains. I was confident that the Angeles National Forest would yield the mountain quail, a species that even I had seen. It was on that drive into the hills that Dad actually explained the concept of the nemesis bird. I though the idea was astonishing, funny and almost beautiful.

But there was something else. As I asked him about his nemesis birds, he also told me stories. The sighting of one bird in Spain led to a story about the final fight that broke my parents' marriage. The tale of a bird he'd seen as a boy threw light on my ambitious, driven grandparents. They were snippets, to be sure. But I felt like I was being shown tiny doorways. Into Dad's past. Into his triumphs and sorrows. Into being a son, into being with a father. The door would quickly close and we'd be back in Birdland, but over the next decade, as we talked more and more about birds, as I learned more about the passion consuming my father, I found not just bigger openings but more light inside them. The birds I very nearly hated were guiding us there.

On that morning, we waited but the mountain quail never came. It remains a nemesis, even as Dad has checked off other birds that have vexed him -- the ivory gull, peasant cuckoo and bat hawk -- even as he fought cancer and heart disease, and recovered to bird again.

He visited a couple of months ago. We spent a magnificent morning on Santa Cruz Island, and Dad spotted the newly described Santa Cruz Island scrub jay: Bird No. 7,172.

This odd approach we take toward each other isn't always easy, bridging generations of silence through the artifice of a hobby or passion or obsession. But that's the door that was offered. The only door there was. I'm so happy to have passed through it.

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