Resting in my lap, as we drive through the Mexican state of Sonora, is a large, dangerous raptor zipped lovingly into a backpack. I no longer need refer to The Sibley Guide to Birds on the dashboard, whose cover boasts a convincing illustration of a Red-tailed Hawk. If I open the top of the knapsack, there lies this very beast: its four feet of wings folded up, its psychotic eyes and perilous mouth wide. In a lamentable failure of imagination, we have decided to call him Ethan.
I am on a birdwatching trip — not a poaching expedition. I have come to Alamos, south of the Arizona border, to study at the feet of David MacKay — the guru, should you seek enlightenment regarding things that flap across western Mexico.
I knew almost nothing about birds when I moved to Mexico. I'd met some hardcore birders over the years, and always found them an interesting breed; but I had never been moved to heft the binoculars myself. Nobody told me that Mexico was envied worldwide for its winged diversity. Soon after moving in, however, I discovered at least four species of hummingbird in the garden outside my window — I could birdwatch from bed. Hence my shame, and this pilgrimage. It will be an experience to set avian otakudrooling: a guided trip, one-on-one with Sensei MacKay, through a seriously exotic landscape.
Ethan Hawk is nicely calm. Given the strength of this demon — he would make short work of my arm if perched there — I find the backpack surprisingly light (2.4 pounds of vengeful avian, according to Sibley).
David MacKay operates Solipaso, a small touring company that offers birding expeditions throughout Mexico, but home turf is the state of Sonora, which happens to be utopia if you're a birding beginner or newcomer to Mexican fauna: absurdly varied terrain yields some four hundred species. An expat from Iowa, Dave settled in the 17th-century silver town of Alamos. It is one of Mexico's less-frequented colonial glories, but it is slowly gathering a gringo community — including a handful of celebrities — not least because it's only a short hop from Tucson.
He looks like a cheerful version of the Marlboro man (which doesn't quite fit the birder stereotype). I'm not surprised: the very first article I ever published, many years ago, was a profile of the world's champion birdwatcher: a Brit in Kenya who looked like a matinee idol. I've found that few avian obsessives look anything like the meek and clueless nature-lover Evelyn Waugh famously skewered in Scoop.
David MacKay turns out to be the least clueless person I've ever met. Mexico has about a thousand species, and he knows where most of them live (down to the precise tree, sometimes), what they eat, how they move, where they vacation, and — crucially — what they sound like.
I have no idea what a birding expedition will involve. I am nervous. Will I be made to rappel crumbling cliffs, scale treacherous snake-draped trees, sit shivering in a soggy blind? David MacKay wakes me absurdly early on the first day — not a promising sign.
We set out in his 4x4. I am relieved to discover we'll be birding in comfortable areas relatively close to town. It will involve various stops, in wooded locations ranging from magnificent to muddy, where Dave has particular species to reveal.
At each stop, he sets up his spotting scope — often just a few yards from the jeep — and does ingenious things to lure winged creatures out of the woodwork. He does, for instance, an uncanny imitation of the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. This tiny fierce owl — basically a miniature Ethan — scares the hell out of tiny birds within hearing range. It doesn't scare them away, however: the pretty little things form a lynch mob and descend on the owl, hoping to beat it up and send it packing. Not infrequently they get eaten for their efforts.
As the guru calls — woot woot — brilliant tropical denizens begin to emerge. Dave identifies them with terrifying precision. In a hushed voice, he explains pretty much everything fascinating there is to be known about the species we're looking at.
I have beginner's luck: one of the first birds we spot is a Blue Mockingbird. It is a Mexican "endemic" — a bird found nowhere else — and endemics are why birders jet to obscure places. This suave long-tailed creature is not rare, but is maddeningly difficult to actually see. Dave knows birders who have been stalking Sonora for thirty years, and have often heard this bluish creature mocking them, but have never "gotten glass on it." Within a few minutes of our descent into the forest, I have my posh bins centered on one.
I'm an optics geek, by the way: a card-carrying member of the LUG (Leica Users Group), the RUG (Rollei Users), and the SMUG (Screw Mount Users). I never joined the BLUG, but still: I care deeply about lenscraft. The cult binocular of the moment, if you're not prepared to mortgage the manor, is the discontinued Nikon EII. Before coming to Alamos, I landed a mint pair of on eBay. I can see not just farther, but better — the world is sharper, more present, more complete.
And now this formidable optic is trained on the coveted Blue Mockingbird. Damn. I'm good. Birdwatching was invented for people like me, I've decided. I'm a natural.
I am in fact wrong. Ornithology is immensely deep. The sheer amount of knowledge required to gain any level of expertise is scary. Moreover, this expedition is a pretty cushy affair. Put me on a real safari, and I'd wither in a minute. Birding can be extremely uncomfortable, and — if you're looking for something truly rare — even dangerous. For example, it is a measure of Dave's preeminence that he has been approached by a wealthy conservationist to head up an expedition in search of the Imperial Woodpecker. Like the smaller but more famous Ivory-billed, this woodpecker is not simply rare; it's extinct. But some say it might, just might, be merely on the lam. If it still existed — and Dave is properly skeptical — then it would probably favor an excruciatingly remote bit of Mexico, where nobody disputes the existence of poppies and armed pharmaceutical entrepreneurs. This sort of expedition could leave you not simply disappointed, but disemboweled.
Red-tailed Hawks, on the other hand, are neither endemic nor rare — they are ubiquitous in North America. They are, however, awesome in every sense: they inspire awe, and they'd inspire a teen to say "awesome."
Birding zealotry implies a certain moral stance, and Dave is a scrupulous birder. He does use tapes: recorded bird calls, which he plays in the forest to summon like-sounding rarities. And yes, there is an extremist crowd of anti-tapers, who feel that even this is too unnatural. Dave points out that simply being there is intrusive — these guys should just stay home.
Everyone agrees, however, that picking up large grounded raptors to make them into house pets is about as wrong as it gets. Of course, this is hardly the plan when we encounter the hawk.
We spot Ethan on the ground beside the highway while driving back from a long day shore-stalking the Sea of Cortes. Ethan's standing in front of a graffiti-sprayed concrete wall, like some kind of street thug. Hardly a hawk's natural habitat. We stop for a portrait; I creep towards him with my camera. The creature does not move. This is suspicious.
"Got to be injured," says Dave. "I'm going to capture him with this." He removes his jacket, and holds it out, matador-style. "You approach him from the other side, and distract him. If we don't get him, the dogs will — he'll be dead by morning."
I circle around and approach, loudly, from behind. Ethan turns to fix me with a truly unpleasant expression — he no longer looks like a street thug; he looks like The Godfather. Dave creeps forward, jacket stretched wide. Hawks are nothing if not hyper-aware: when Dave gets close, Ethan turns, outraged; but our hero flies and tackles. Dave wraps him up — then carefully inserts him into a large knapsack.
The legality of our adventure is questionable — one of Dave's friends was arrested for picking up a dead hawk — but the ethics are not. "I don't know any serious birder who would disapprove."
Ethan may yet die before the night is through; he could well be in shock. But possible death trumps certain death. He sure is mighty still in my lap as we drive home. Thinking black murderous thoughts, no doubt.
Back at La Hacienda, I find it difficult to sleep. I don't want to wake up to news that the glorious raptor has expired. I stay up late studying my "life list" of new species (I suspect I'll be birding until my eyesight fails completely). We've done well. I've seen every endemic we could have hoped to see in the terrain we've covered, including the Happy Wren, the Scrub Euphonia, the Blue-rumped Parrotlet, and — a real prize — the Rufous-bellied Chachalaca.
When Dave meets me for breakfast, I ask him nervously about the beast. He shows me his finger, where there is a pinpoint wound. "This is where his talon went in." Eh, not too nasty. He turns his hand over. "And this is where it came out." Oh.
Yes, the bird is healthy. He's eating vast quantities of raw meat and terrorizing the nabe. The MacKay family has already begun to substitute the name "Cabrón" for "Ethan." It's an affectionate Mexican epithet, which — even if it has much the same flavor — does not in fact denote a citizen who performs unnatural acts with a goat.
The diagnosis is uncertain, but one of Ethan's wings might be lame. If it doesn't heal properly, the family will have to take care of him forever, which is a great honor, of course, but doesn't make them happy. You can't keep royalty in a cage. Ethan's mere presence will clear the area of self-consciously edible species, which is not what you want when you run an eco-retreat. Dave and his wife Jen have turned their property into an odd hybrid oasis called El Pedregal: international birders stay in adobe cabins; visiting natural scientists deliver lectures; Jen teaches yoga.
The confluence of birding and yoga is not all that peculiar. This is the lesson I take away from my few days of intensive binocular work. Certainly, birding has a competitive side — you want to fatten your life list (I'm pleased with my impressive beginner's tally: 182 species in four days, including ten endemics). If you're an alpha birder, you can even participate in formal competitions. The guy I interviewed in Kenya had the record for most species identified in 24 hours.
But this is by no means what it's all about. Birding is more than a life list. It's something more than ornithology, even though the breadth and complexity of that vast scientific endeavor is skull-squashing to contemplate. I doubt I'm alone in the discovery that birding, pursued for ten hours a day, is a form of meditation.
I'm not speaking of the meditation I've perfected in my own mystical path through life — chilling profoundly between hot-stone treatments at the most rigorous new-age spas — but the walking meditation that Buddhists call mindfulness: a concentrated awareness and recognition of your immediate surroundings. Spiritually lazy as I may be, I've had no choice these last few days but to appreciate the moment, because that's what I've been staring at and desperately trying to parse before it flies away. These mysterious transient creatures enter your sphere only briefly, and they demand your attention. Unless you're even less enlightened than I am, you'll find that it's not just your eyes that you augment with binoculars, but your soul.