Mary and I met an ornithologist while perched at the Hyatt Regency bar in Bethesda a night not long ago, and our conversation immediately took flight.
First off, Mary wanted our new acquaintance, Viviana Ruiz, to know the trick I’d played on her of old, by saying with such conviction, when asked what a certain bird was, “It’s a tufted towhee.” While Viviana smiled, Mary told her she’d since learned the truth, to wit, that there ain’t no such thing as a tufted towhee, that it had been a conflation. Frankly, I hadn’t known whether there was or wasn’t: I’d been asked for an opinion, and, without hesitating, delivered myself of it. That’s what columnists do.
Viviana asked me what I did, and I said I covered local sports. Mary added that I also wrote a column.
“For how long?”
“For a millennium!”
Hadn’t I ever had writer’s block?
“Oh yes. I used to run to Mary and say, ‘Geez, what’ll I write about? My deadline’s nearing.’ And she would come up with at least 10 ideas.”
“None of which he ever used.”
“The best thing, I’ve found, is not to have any ideas. Things often turn out better that way. I let my fingers do the talking, just like magpies. We saw one in Ireland. We didn’t know what it was at first. When I described it to a woman at a pub, a big black-and-white bird, she told us what it was and that ‘If you see one magpie, it’s sorrow. If you see two, its joy.’ Of course, with us it was two. Or maybe it was one and I was seeing double.”
As she laughed, I said, “But I didn’t see any nightingales. I’d been hoping to.”
Then we told her of the time we’d been with Audubon magazine people on Gardiner’s Island, in a truck driven wildly up hill and down dale by the late Lord of the Manor, scattering all the birds (and anything else that moved) before us as Tony Hiss called out to the group in the other truck, which was following behind, “You just missed a golden eagle, a rough-legged hawk, and a snowy owl!”
Viviana said she was primarily interested in tropical birds, which made sense because she was from Costa Rica, by way of Amherst High School and Cornell.
When she heard we’d never been to Costa Rica, she gave us the address of her mother, who was retired now, and said in so many words that when we flew down there we should alight at her mother’s house inasmuch as we all were, it seemed, birds of a feather.