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It is 17 days since Leningrad, and we have penetrated to Samarkand. There are stork nests piled crazily atop the mosques and minarets. The nests are empty, for it is early autumn and the storks have long since departed. But there are no complaints from our group of touring bird watchers. We expected birds, of course. But storks? Not in our wildest dreams. After all, we've already seen a lammergeier.
Lammergeiers are large, majestic, falconlike vultures with a bristly black beard below their beaks and a distinct preference for solitude. They spend their time in remote mountain ranges. For many of our birders, the big moment of the trip thus far has been a glimpse of one wheeling high above us in the Caucasus mountains north of Tbilisi.
There have been other moments of excitement, and high drama, not all of them involving birds. For the moment, however, we are sitting in the Samarkand Opera House watching a performance of what the tour brochure had promised would be an Uzbek folk opera. The overture has hardly begun before Mary Hemingway, our tour celebrity and traveling opera expert, leans over to tell me that this particular folk opera is called La Traviata.
Our little band of 26 bird watchers is nearing the end of a headlong three-week tour of the Soviet Union. There have been a few minor disappointments. Such as a general paucity of birds.
But the tour, we keep telling ourselves, has been a great success. Deep in Central Asia near the Chinese border we saw a total eclipse of the sun and one rare species of bird—Pallas' sea eagle. Of course, the eclipse wasn't quite total where we were and the eagle was on display in a cage at the zoo. But both were bonuses in a way, since neither had been mentioned in the tour brochure.
It was the tour brochure, a masterpiece of enticing prose and promises put out by a Canadian travel agency, that had drawn us together. "This is the first tour of the U.S.S.R. on which the bird watcher can be expected to be satisfied," it began. "Due to the presence of two ornithological leaders (one American, one Soviet), there should be no difficulty to identify the birds."
As it turned out, the problem was not "to identify the birds." It was to find them. And it wasn't for lack of expertise that we weren't more successful. Included in our group were a dozen Ardent Birders, all of them very keen for sport and the opportunity to expand their life lists. An equal number, like myself, while capable of distinguishing a barn owl from a pelican, signed up primarily because of the fast-moving, far-ranging itinerary. We were known as the Casual Birders.
In our 20 days inside the Soviet Union we covered 7,000 miles by plane, train, bus and hydrofoil. En route, we traversed seven of the 15 constituent Soviet republics while visiting 15 cities, three major mountain ranges, two deserts, a number of rivers and the great southern steppe. We ranged from Lake Onega, north of Leningrad, south to the mouth of the Don and eventually Georgia. We followed the march routes of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan in Central Asia, jumping about from city to town like players in a mad game of Chinese checkers. At Alma-Ata near the Chinese border we finally picked up our marbles and headed home.
Whether or not the trip served to promote the cause of science or even to advance the art of bird watching is open to dispute. Once back in the U.S., the Peerless Leader checked his field notes, ruminated over his museum specimens and then triumphantly informed us by mail that 108 different species had been sighted by himself and others during the trip.
Including the 9,600-mile round trip from New York to Leningrad, this works out to something like one bird for every 150 miles traveled. There were those who found these results a trifle disappointing.