Yesterday we had a brush with some "enthusiasts." I'd always been curious about the Tijuana Estuary Nature Preserve in Imperial Beach, and since we'd been gifted with an 80 degree day in November, I pushed a visit onto the weekend agenda. Since I control the weekend agenda (David and Jarrah's would read "tinker with electronic things" and "watch Phinneus and Ferb" respectively) it was sort of a done deal.
After a yummy lunch along the IB boardwalk (my, how that area has changed!) we made it into the Estuary parking lot about 2:40. "Why do all these vehicles seem to be Parks Department trucks?" David wanted to know. "Maybe we're the only ones who had this great idea today," I firmly replied. The Visitor Center was swank but deserted. "Why are we whispering?" asked Jarrah. "Um," I said, "So we don't disturb the...exhibits?" Which were a lot of stuffed former animals. Our favorite spot was a little nook that was designed like a nest. Jarrah did a "photo shoot" of us in there, and was quite bossy about it.
We were approached by a friendly ranger who asked if we were going on the 3:00 bird walk. When I said yes, she was giddy with delight, and offered us three pairs of binoculars. Before we knew it, the clock was chiming 3:00 (would you believe me if I said it was actually tweeting quite realistic bird sounds?) and we were joined by a guide whose name I didn't catch. He was very swoopy and enthusiastic, with a Russian accent and a slight whiff of alcohol, and he fixated on Jarrah to be his "scout" and the keeper of the laminated bird guide. Something happened between that introduction and his heavily enunciated attempt to fascinate her with the stuffed birds we were likely to see, and I could see he had lost her. She handed back the guide. "Oh, but you get to carry this!" he trilled. "No, I'm good," she said. That kid knows her own mind.
Two ladies joined us, and then suddenly appeared Mary Ann, another ranger uniform-clad type whom the Russian said "would probably accompany us." Uh-oh. Five tour takers and two tour guides. Smelled like a smackdown in the making.
First, they established their credentials. He, a former molecular biologist. She, a retired middle school principal. He claimed to know every inch of these wetlands. She claimed to have seniority. Let the games begin.
Quickly, it seemed we would have to choose who to follow on the trail. The Russian forged ahead, darting his eyes around. Mary Ann hung back, pointing out Lemonade Berries. Mary Ann chit-chatted; the Russian urged us on with stage whispers. The sun dappled across the waving grasses all the way to the Tijuana bullfighting stadium and beyond.
Soon enough, I spotted a Snowy Egret. What, are you daft? intoned the Russian. That's a Great Egret. Lo, the majestic size! And see the color of the beak! And what? Could it be? Are we receiving a winter visit from a Northern Grebe? Yes, yes, yes!
A word about my predilection for birdwatching. When Mary Anne asked why we were taking the tour, I answered, I thought, honestly: "I love birds." But I must sheepishly (birdishly?) admit that perhaps I don't really understand that statement. I think maybe I love birds like the ones I saw in Australia, where they all have coats of many colors and multiple heads. I like my birds flashy. They gotta work hard for the money. I need plumage, baby.
The birds of the estuary were lovely, I'm sure. I'll bet if we went out for coffee, we'd be the best of friends in the time it took to share a molasses cookie. But I must confess that they were all rather...brown. Various shades, to be sure. Some touches of white. But will bird people turn away in disgust if I admit that they all kind of looked the same? Please, Bird People! Don't forsake me! I am ignorant but I can be taught! Education works on me!
At one point I spotted some sandpiper-like thingos foraging in the mud. "Mary Ann!" I whispered. "What are those?" "Ah, yes..." she said seriously, adjusting her glasses. "Those are birds...they are definitely birds...indeed, I believe they are known as Yellowlegs. That's right--Yellowlegs."
I had a brief flashback to riding the rain forest cable car in Cairns and telling Jarrah that the white butterflies she kept seeing were "The Common...Cloud. The Common Cloud butterfly. Often seen in these regions. Yes, indeed."
At the end of the bird trail, there were various lookouts for spotting birds, of various sizes and shades of brown, who were dipping and feeding around the brackish pools. The Russian had worked himself to a fever pitch now. "IS THAT ANOTHER EGRET! QUICKLY, QUICKLY! AH, THE BROWN WILLET! SO CHARMING, QUICKLY, MORE PHOTOS! AHHH, THE LIGHT, THE LIGHT!" When Mary Ann would get a bit enthusiastic about her finds, however, he'd shush her dramatically. "You will scare the birds!!!!"
Right about now Jarrah had had enough. "I want to go," she sulked. "This is the end. My binoculars show only blackness." (Not true--I checked.) Somehow I couldn't bear to hurt our intrepid guides with an early departure. Or maybe I was just worried a slap fight would erupt in our absence.
Eventually we did make our slow way back towards to the visitor center. Along the way, I had an opportunity to disappointment the Russian, after we discovered we'd both done graduate work at UCSD. "You are in Literature," he pronounced. "do you know the origin of the expression 'thin as a rail?'" "Well," I said, "since that was kind of a leading question, I'm guessing it has something to do with the bird?" "It does not!" he exulted. "It is from Mark Twain, in 1874, and refers to fence posts. However! I have been trying to prove that he was not the first to say this, and that it will, in fact, relate to the bird! I thought you might have been the one to help me." "Sorry," I said, "not my area." It came out sounding gruff and ungracious, but weirdly, I was quite sincere.
Just then the Russian commanded that we stop at the bridge and look down, claiming that we might discover all sorts of bird shenanigans this way. We watched idly as some small feathered friends tripped the light fantastic down there. Then David spotted the fluffy brown chicken emerge from the embankment grass. "What's that?" David asked mildly. He and I later agreed we were fully expecting the answer "A wild chicken!" "SILENCE!" bellowed the Russian to the chattering woman next to him, "YOU HAVE FOUND WHAT YOU SEEK! THAT, MY FRIENDS, IS THE LIGHT-FOOTED CLAPPER RAIL, RARE AND ENDANGERED!!!" David's camera shutter clicked and clicked.
"YOU MUST TAKE MANY, MANY PICTURES! DO YOU KNOW WHAT PEOPLE WOULD PAY TO SEE THAT BIRD? THEY WOULD FLY HERE FROM ESTONIA FOR THIS PRIVILEGE! THEY COME FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD! AND THE LIGHT! IT IS PERFECT FOR SHOWING THE DETAIL OF THE FEATHERS! THAT, MY FRIENDS, RIGHT THERE...IS THE MONEY SHOT!!!!"
The little chicken bobbed and weaved in and out of the grass as we all stared reverently. If anyone started to say something, the Russian screamed "SILENCE!" again. It went on for so long I wondered how many photos we were required to take to avoid offending him with a rebuke to this magical moment.
So, Dear Readers, the day was made. Would I go again? Sure, I'm all about cultural enlightenment. And maybe, just maybe, some day I'll make my peace with the fact that our birds only come in one color and have just the one head.