October 24, 2019
Laughing Gulls across sunset
Laughing Gulls across sunset
I have always been fascinated by, and have written more than once in this column about, the great diversity of those of us interested in birds.  So, if you’re more than a casual birder and you’ve traveled out of your home state to find birds, “bird toured” with a group of total strangers, here’s a question for you.  A conundrum, if you will, which has always flummoxed me more than any avian identification problem.

The question, mind you, is not meant to make your next trip a guilt trip.  It’s just that it was recently brought to mind again by an article in the July/August issue of Outside, andI want to see if posing the question might somehow exorcise it from amongst all the wonderful memories I have of the birding adventures we’ve experienced.

Have you made any lifelong friends of the birders you’ve met for the first time on any of your trips, or do all of them languish in the BFFN folder, people you thoroughly enjoyed at the time, but have never contacted or seen since, Best Friends For Now, now meaning while you were on the boat, in the jungle, or up the creek with them?

On a pelagic excursion to the Dry Tortugas in Florida we met a friendly and knowledgeable wildlife biologist from the Midwest who helped us out with some keys for aging various gull species, and I later emailed with him a few times about flash photography issues.  A year or so ago I discovered he had committed suicide.

On a trip to the Aleutians, in wet and wretched Alaska weather conditions, we shared a terrible room and two bunk beds with a delightful couple our age, he a businessman, she a housewife, from Colorado, and when I phoned him several years later to inquire about photographing Golden Eagles in the Rockies, I learned his wife had passed away.

In consecutive years we stayed at the same guest ranch in south Texas with proprietors who were gracious hosts and committed environmentalists.  I subsequently wrote up an article about their operation, intending it for a national magazine, and sent it to them for approval and proofing, but they never responded.

All these people had two things in common with us.  They loved birds and we never saw or heard from any of them again.  Was it us?  Was it them?  Or is it the nature of the beast, “adventure friendships” with people from other walks of life with whom you don’t live in proximity and have only one thing in common?

In a recent column by Pete Dunne, the widely read, well respected bird writer who was producing wonderful birding pieces before I even knew “bird” was a verb, he touts an Audubon camp for adults as “an immersion in birds and birding in the company of like-minded, soon-to-be lifelong friends.”  I humbly beg to disagree with Pete.  They will probably be “activity friends” and you’ll form “adventure friendships,” but unless you live in fairly close proximity, “lifelong” seems a huge stretch.

The author of the Outside piece looked for answers from a couple psychologists.  Here, paraphrased, is what he heard:  the first said our brain tricks us into adventure friendships when we are taken out of our normal social milieu and are forced to seek a “social security support net;” the second suggested our adventures are “all about us,” and activity friends are just part of the context of memorable challenges and accomplishments.

The bottom line for me, going forward, is that I still and always value and cherish these ephemeral relationships that shape and shadow wonderful lifelong memories.  In the long run it may speak more to our humanity that we are able to befriend those who share seminal experiences in our lives even though we know we may never meet again.

Oh, and did I mention a couple decades ago I emailed Pete Dunne for advice about getting a book published?  He never responded.  Right here is where I’d place a smile emoji.