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The Farthermost View

Essays and Stories




Violet-tailed Sylph


Late last winter, before Coronavirus appeared to be an issue, I went to Ecuador on a Bird Photography trip. I envisioned myself lounging about on a vine-shaded patio, a frosty glass of beer at my elbow and my camera in my hand, ready to catch the next White- booted Racket Tail or Brown Violetear that zipped in to sip sugar water from the nearest feeder.


Alas, the best-laid plans of mice and women gang aft agley. We had been advised to bring rain gear and rubber boots for the occasional stroll along muddy paths; but the pre- trip information hadn't indicated that all the paths would be muddy, or that the rain would be almost nonstop, or that the steep hills would offer such precarious footing that it would be necessary to use one's tripod as a walking stick.


Nor that the days would consist of heading out after breakfast on a one- or two- hour bone-jarring van ride on the hairpin twists and turns of unpaved roads to seek out strange new birds where many a birder had gone before. On arrival, we climbed out of the van, seized our equipment, and followed our local guide down a slippery path to a bird blind, often built from cinder blocks, where we set up our cameras aimed at a mossy branch, and waited. Usually this was a place that a particular bird – say, a Plate-billed Mountain Toucan, or a Cock-of-the-Rock – was known to frequent.


And the guides were right every time. We saw the aforementioned Toucan and Cock, as well as the Rufous Motmot, the Scaly-throated Foliage Gleaner, the Tawny Antpitta and more. We saw 32 species of hummingbirds, and were actually able to get sharp photos of many of them, including the Violet-tailed Sylph, the Shining Sunbeam, and the Purple-throated Woodstar. Their names are so evocative that you almost don't need to see them – or any of the 5,783 photographs I brought home – to imagine their gorgeous gorgets, their iridescent crowns, or the little cotton balls that the Pufflegs wear on their...legs.


You may not need to see them, but I must now deal with the 5,783 photos. Some are easy to discard – the ones where the bird was a few seconds ago and the ones where the bird is only a blur. But it takes time and very hard work to choose which of the 43 nearly identical photos of a Purple-bibbed Whitetip to keep.

I think I am up to the task. I have self-isolated, and day after day I am lounging at my computer, surrounded by wedgebills, hermits, barbets and guans. And in the freezer is a frosty mug, waiting to be filled with a full-bodied, citrusy, floral IPA at the end of the day.

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