Milt Abel is a stand-up comedian traveling the world, and places closer.

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Watching the Watchers

By Milt Abel | May 5, 2010

| May 5, 2010

Watching the Watchers

Bird-watching puzzled me. What sense of time well-spent can be accomplished by passively observing something so fleeting? This, coming from someone who enjoys a jigsaw puzzle from time to time; at least there you are assembling something. Avoiding another Sullenberger-like pancake landing on the Hudson aside, what’s wrought watching wren?

On the Holland America Amsterdam sailing from Los Angeles to Vancouver April 29 to May 2 there were a group of dedicated bird-watchers out on the back deck every daylight moment of our two days at sea up the coast. Let’s highlight that dedication by mentioning the first day we had 20 foot seas and 40 mph winds -half the ship was sick. The second day was calmer but still windy and drizzly, and cooler. Yet the half-dozen of them were out there breakfast, lunch, and dinner; bundled and cowled, glued to their tripod-mounted telescopes and binoculars.
They were all men in their late twenties to early fifties and could have passed, with their thin physiques and high-end all-weather gear, as mountain climbers planning  an assault, studying ascent routes through their field glasses. But we were at sea and there was nothing to clamber, oh there was always the higher decks but elevators took your up easily enough you could carry coffee and sweets during the ascent. No, these vigilant men were girded and equipped to catch even the most fleeting glimpse of an albatross or petrel: think border patrol agent between Alaska and Canada, as if Canadians ever would dart for Fairbanks.
A very peaceful lot, these birdwatchers. I just sensed that vibe. Has anyone ever been beaten up by a birdwatcher? Maybe someone has but was too embarrassed to admit it. I joked with then on one of my early visits, I said, “I sense a violent vibe from you guys. I get the feeling if you spot enough rare birds, frequently enough, that you’ll get worked up and start smashing furniture throughout the ship.” They did not laugh, or even look puzzled. ‘Disinterested’ would best characterize their reaction. Had I teased them while wearing a feathered headdress, they might have been more interested.
Visiting them was always a show. I’d stand off, behind them and protected from the chilling wind, and watch them watching; after a minute or two one of them, in a loud matter-of-fact voice, would announce a ‘spot.’ “Hawaiian Petrel, 2 o’clock, halfway up to the horizon,”  And the gang would pivot their spyglasses to the 2 o’clock position (The ship’s bow being 12 noon) in unison and start commenting. The others would confirm the species, or speculate on its activities, or say “I don’t see it.” I rarely saw any of the birds they were talking about but all I had to assist my eyesight was my reading glasses. If a bird dropped something on the open book I was reading, I’d spot it.
Those birdwatchers intrigued me throughout the cruise. Anytime I went up for a cup of coffee, or to get some air outside my cabin, they’d be there, searching. Once at lunchtime, a table of food sat near them, unoccupied because some bird had brought them out of their chairs, I notice a partially eaten chicken drumstick on a plate. I wondered how’d they react if I shouted, while pointing at the remains, “Chicken. Right here!” Surely they wouldn’t be gnawing on a black-footed albatross’ thigh. The key, obviously, to what got eaten and what got reverently observed was its rarity. A small part of me began to worry that maybe I was hanging around too much, and keeping my appearances infrequent would be healthful.
Why spend all vacation shuddering against the elements just to see few birds? On cruise ships you have all the free time in the world and these guys spent it all to see birds. The answer was there when they did spot a bird, they got excited and you could feel their sense of reward and accomplishment surge every few minutes when a new spot was called out. It reminded me of the pleasure of a jigsaw puzzles; a slow-paced search of little consequence but you feel rewarded every few minutes when you find your piece. With that in mind, what they were doing fit in nicely.

Topics: comedy, cruise ship, humor, travel | 1 Comment »

One Response to “Watching the Watchers”

  1. TomPier Says:
    May 7th, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    great post as usual!

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