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
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.
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.
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
Leningrad, about 250 miles in the direction of Murmansk, is a large lake dotted
with hundreds of islands. According to the tour brochure. Lake Onega is a
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
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.
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.