There’s a sad sort of clanging
From the clock in the hall
And the bells in the steeple, too
And up in the nursery
An absurd little bird
Is popping out to say coo-coo
~”So Long” from Sound of Music
Once upon a time, I had the unique opportunity to go twitching (birding) with one of my academic crushes (of which there are a number of illustrious scientists), Hugh Possingham. Dr. Possingham heads the Spatial Ecology Lab at the University of Queensland and even has his own Wikipedia page.
In addition to his brilliant work on adaptive management and conservation biology, Dr. Possingham is one of the most avid birders/twitchers I have ever met. He once told me after a trip to Africa that the only value in elephants is that birds like to perch on them.
His lab is enormous, with almost 50 PhD students, Post-docs, and PIs, and he manages it all by having 15 minute meetings all day, every day, and a brilliant secretary who manages his schedule constantly. Fortunately, he is brilliant enough to be able to think about many things at once, as I learned during my own 15 minute meeting with him.
We went walking on UQ’s campus and he pointed out bird species in between direct and sharp questions about the validity of my research. It was all I could do not to respond to his question of, “And how do you think your research is unique?” with “Guinea Hen, of course.”
Dr. Possingham regularly takes visitors and guests birding/twitching at Oxley Commons, which is a natural area in Brisbane proper with plenty of birds. He invites everyone along, so while I was about in Brissie, I took him up on his offer, traveling via train and then on foot to meet him and his group at the commons.
After birding/twitching regularly in the Commons for years, and being a scientist, Dr. Possingham is able to predict almost to the exact number how many birds you will see in a given day (depending on weather and migration patterns, of course). I believe he was only one or two species off on the day I went with him.
Most of the others with us on that day were beginner birders/twitchers. As we were walking along and Dr. Possingham was pointing out finches, I heard a noise off to the right, near the river. My ears perked up, and I could see his perk up too. We glanced at each other and I said, “Was that…?”
“I think it was,” he responded with a small smile.
“Would you mind if I just…?”
“Well, what are you waiting for?!”
With his permission, I left the group behind and darted into the bush, chasing after the elusive song. After about 30 minutes of slogging through mangroves, I finally got a good look at the bird, a Shining Bronze-Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx lucidus). They are beautiful birds, so it was quite the treat!
I returned inconspicuously to the group, a little muddier than before. Dr. Possingham glanced at me, “Well?”
I nodded with a stupid little grin on my face and he said, “Well done!” And we shared a little moment. Sometimes I am such an absurd little bird.