Eyes On The Prize
Chester ignored the stupid sign. He was a twitcher, and twitchers knew not the meaning of fear.
The air was frosty and sharp around the little lake. It had rained that morning, and the grass was sodden and cold now, at dusk. Perfect time for birds.
Birds, you see, are peculiar halfway creatures, drawn to states of transition and change. They favor the fading light of dusk over the dual states of night and day. They dwell on the border between two environmental zones; lake and forest, for instance. And just after the rain, when the air is neither wet nor dry… that’s when they come out and play, and sing their little hearts out.
Chester knew all this. Chester knew everything about birds.
He was no ornithologist – God, no. Just a man like any other. A man who owned seven field guides, a pair of camouflaged pants, half a dozen birdsong tapes, and four different pairs of binoculars (close-up, medium-range, long-range and oceanic). A man who knew the juvenile moult stages and phenotypic sub-species variations of all twenty-seven endemic species of North American thrush.
Chester was a twitcher, and proud. And Chester needed one more bird to complete his checklist. For four long years, the Variegated Shrike-Tit had eluded him… but not today.
He’d had a hot tip. One recorded sighting, buried in a forum post on avianity.org, the invitations-only message board for those few elite twitchers with sightings lists of over six hundred species.
The others had read the sighting and laughed. Surely the poster had seen a Rufus Shrike-Tit and mistaken it for the Variegated – an easy mistake for all but the most gimlet-eyed expert. But not Chester. He’d had a feeling about that post, deep in the pit of his stomach. He just knew.
This was the real thing.
He’d been here hours already, and the light was fading, but Chester was not a man to give up easily. He’d once spent seven days in a ditch near the Cambodian border waiting for a Giant Ibis to walk past, and when it did, the angry thing nearly took his eye out. No, Chester would not give up so easily.
He waited and he listened and he watched. The sun’s light turned burnt orange, then sugar-pink, and still Chester watched the stand of reeds by the old lake. He could sense it. Any minute now…
He sighed and lowered his binoculars. As he wiped the sweat from above his eyebrows, there came an unusual sound. Pipit, pipeeet, like a miniature slide whistle. Chester looked towards the reeds, and there it was – the dullest bird he’d ever seen.
A plump little mass of grey and brown, with darting black eyes. To the untrained eye it looked like nothing so much as a fat, loud, awkward sparrow. But Chester held the secret knowledge of the bill stratum, the crest reticulation and the primary feather stratification, and he knew it for what it was. It was the Variegated Shrike-Tit, all right.
But he had to be sure.
Breathless, shuddering, he reached for his binoculars. Grasping them, he raised the lenses, carefully positioning them over his eyeline, never taking his eyes off the bird.
Nothing but a blur of colour – he’d misjudged the focus. Swiftly, with great care, he turned the knob. Easy. Easy…
He breathed in once and held it.
He focused. Focused again. The shrike-tit swam into view…
His phone rang.
The bird disappeared in a twittering flash of brown feathers, lost in the treeline. Gone.
Mechanically, he lifted the phone to his ear.
“Sweetums?” said his wife. “It’s me. Did you remember to pick up the kids from piano practice?”
Chester’s face was blank, his voice toneless. “Honey?” he said.
“I want a divorce.”