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For many of us, however, if there weren't many birds to watch there were always the birders themselves. The Casual Birders were given nicknames which became a part of them, much in the way that barnacles become attached to a ship's bottom. First and perhaps foremost was Buffalo Bill, a physician from Buffalo, N.Y., who seemed to embody some of the mordancy and flamboyance of his namesake. The Whirling Dervish was a retired Midwestern sales executive who was fond of dancing, shaking hands and pounding strangers on the back. Then there was Little Doc, a smallish, Vienna-born lady eye surgeon; Idaho Doc, an outdoorsy general practitioner from guess where; and the Red Baron, a California zoology instructor of German extraction. The Red Baron took methodical field notes on his clipboard. But he seemed primarily interested in tracking down the present whereabouts of the Volga Germans after their dispersion early in World War II.
We also had the General, a retired stockbroker whose courtly bearing earned him our promotion from his wartime rank of reserve colonel. All this, plus a supporting cast of Charming Widows and Maiden Ladies. Finally there was the Peerless Leader, a big-bore museum ornithologist who had been recruited to lead the tour and flush up the birds. He was assisted by the Peerless Leader's Wife.
Leningrad billeted us in an enormous new hotel called the Sovetskaya located some distance from the center of town. First morning: we are awakened at 6 o'clock. At breakfast, excitement is running at a high level. Our first day of birding lies ahead. We are already on the second day of the tour and, save for some lapwings, a crow and a large flock of starlings sighted at the Amsterdam airport, we haven't seen any birds.
The morning's itinerary doesn't look too promising at first sight: a tour of the city. Determined bird watchers can overcome any obstacle, however. At Palace Square, hard by the Winter Palace, our group bristles with binoculars.
The local guide is explaining about Alexander's Column, a gigantic 600-ton granite shaft topped by a statue of an angel commemorating the victory over Napoleon. Suddenly, cries of "crow, crow!" break out. A flight of hooded crows has been spotted circling over the old General Staff Headquarters. An Ardent Birder next directs our attention to a flock of sparrows. The guide abandons her lecture. We leave for a visit to the cruiser Aurora.
The Aurora, an old-fashioned cruiser which fired the Soviet version of the shot heard 'round the world—signaling the attack on the Winter Palace in 1917—now lies at anchor in the River Neva. We do not have time to go aboard because an argument boils up over identification of a number of gulls which are circling in the vicinity. A minority—or Menshevik faction—holds the birds to be great black-backed gulls. The Bolshevik faction steadfastly insists they are lesser black-backed. The argument is finally settled by the Peerless Leader—in favor of the Bolsheviks.
We are zipping along on a large meteor-class hydrofoil, making a breakfast of beer and hard-boiled eggs. The local guide is telling us that Kizhi, the particular island for which we are bound, is called "the wooden Florence of the north." It holds an ensemble of ancient wooden churches and farm chalets. Kizhi is world famous, the guide tells us. She doesn't say anything about birds.
We spend the day on Kizhi. The island itself is a delight. Low, with marshy verges, it is still green and lush, although autumn is already well-advanced. Somber skies and a keen north wind stimulate deep thoughts and hearty appetites.
Determined parties of Ardent Birders range up and down the island. By evening their bag includes several wagtails, assorted gulls, a smattering of crows and jackdaws. A Lapland bunting and a lone grey-headed woodpecker are sighted in the weed-filled cemetery. Grave doubts are cast on an uncorroborated sighting of a high-flying cormorant. Whatever it is, it is heading south.