Monday, April 18, 2016

Just call me Ishmael

It all started 8 months ago, when I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young RA, new to the Mara and her wiles. I was alone at the lab table, struggling through one of my early transcriptions, when I looked up and spotted something on a tree just beyond the tarp. A bird was seated there, perhaps a foot in length, decked out in spectacular blues and greens with a crest fringed in white. I think I actually gasped out loud. I couldn’t believe it was right there in front of me. I was used to seeing such magnificent birds in books or zoos, not perched casually in my front yard like a common sparrow.

As is always the case with these things, my camera was nowhere nearby, so I edged slowly to my tent, keeping an eye on the bird and begging it not to fly away. With a flash of red underwings, it hopped to a new branch. “PLEASE stay there!” I said as I ducked into my tent. But by the time I’d retrieved my camera and hurried back, it was gone. I grabbed our camp bird book and flipped through it until I found my new friend: Schalow’s Turaco. “Look!” I told everyone in camp later that day, “look what I saw!” “…Riiiight” everyone replied.

Months passed. I took pictures of dozens of amazing animals, birds included, but I never forgot the turaco. If I could just get one picture of it, I could convince myself that what I had seen was real. But the Mara had given me one tantalizing look at this beautiful creature, and now it seemed I would never see one again.

One day, I was once again seated at the lab table, this time with Robyn and Emily working nearby. My gaze wandered away from my computer to the trees that edged our camp. Something moved in the high branches of a tree, silhouetted against the sky. As it fluttered to a new perch, I caught a glimpse of red underwings. “TURACO!” I shouted, diving for my camera. “What? What???” Robyn and Emily said, as I sprinted towards the tree where I’d seen my quarry. I snapped picture after picture, but the bird remained elusive. The photos came out backlit, blurry, or blocked by leaves. With one final flap, the turaco vanished and I was left with a handful of lousy pictures and a new goal in life: take one beautiful picture of a turaco. I was Ahab, and that bird was my Moby Dick.

Close, but not quite!
This song and dance was repeated several times. Every few days the turaco would appear in camp, flitting between trees and somehow choosing the perfect spot to sit that made it impossible for me to grab a good photo. I kept my camera next to me at all times. I’d memorized the turaco’s call, a raucous repeated “kaw!” that seemed all out of whack with its beautiful plumage. I was beginning to contemplate climbing trees just to get this one stupid picture. During one of these brief visits, I noticed the turaco had something in its beak. It was gathering twigs, and flying to a tree that leaned over my tent. I realized it was building its nest directly above the spot I slept. “I think it’s mocking me,” I told Robyn and Emily. “…Riiiight” they said.

Getting better, but still not what I wanted. Note the twig in its beak!
Mocking me with its nest was the turaco’s final mistake. It had picked a permanent location to sit, and now it was only a matter of time. The turaco perched itself in a beautiful sunlit spot and I took the opportunity that was handed to me. “I got the photo!” I crowed, marching back over to the lab table with camera in hand. I smugly put my memory card in my computer, pulled up that triumphant picture and… it was out of focus. The leaves in the foreground were perfectly crisp, while the turaco remained vaguely blurry in the back. Even so, I couldn’t bring myself to care. The iridescent blue of its wings, the sunny green of its body, the glowing red of its mask – all this was captured in the photo and that’s what I had wanted. I may not have gotten a perfect picture, but I had something to remember it by.
At last!
We still see turacos in camp from time to time. After I got my photo, the nest-builder seemed to lose interest and didn’t return to lay eggs above my tent. Perhaps it was only doing it to laugh at me after all. Since then, I have gotten one more way to remember my beautiful, mocking friend, a way I can be sure it will never fly away from me.


Terry said...

Hey, Ishmael. Great post.

Terry said...
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