My New Friend – Travis

by J. Drew Lanham

J. Drew Lanham is a native of Edgefield, South Carolina and a Distinguished Alumni Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Clemson University.  He is an essayist and sometimes poet who has contributed to several anthologies including essays on home and land ethic; travelogues on trips abroad and back in time; introspectives on deer hunting and dog-human partnership; and on the struggles between passion, race and self identity as an African-American nature lover.  Drew’s first solo work , The Home Place, Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (Milkweed Editions), is due to be published sometime in 2014.  Drew views his professional passion and personal missions converging to define sustainability and conservation in new and colorful ways.  A major focus of this effort is to tell the stories of African- American connections to nature in the Southeast and beyond. Drew is an avid hunter, lifelong birder and nature enthusiast living in the Upstate of South Carolina with his wife Janice. They have two adult children; Kimberly Alexis and Donovan Colby. They are also the caretakers of an indoor cat, Zeke and two dogs Kate and Avery. Birds are my life-really. I’ve been birding since I was in the second grade and now make my living as a college professor teaching ornithology and bird conservation. From the beginning birding has sometimes been about the people I’ve been with as much as the birds. In the earliest years a fellow bird-brained second grader named Carl Montgomery gave me the companionship and support to sustain my newfound passion. Carl and I found friendship in feathered things as eight year-olds. Although we never birded together we spent hours talking about the things we saw. One day he called me to proudly report the sighting of a snowy owl near his home near Aiken, SC. For that arctic wander so far was a rare thing. And although I saw painted buntings and a number of other spectacular birds before he listed them, the snowy owl was a twitch I couldn’t touch. In those earliest years I watched birds through taped-together cardboard toilet paper tubes. The birds were only magnified in my mind but back then that was enough. In later years as I graduated from toys to optics that actually made things appear closer. The people I birded with still mattered as much as the birds. There was my mentor, Dr. Sidney Gauthreaux, the father of radar ornithology who taught me the birding ropes and a bevy of fellow graduate students—Jon Plissner, Steve Wagner, Dave Aborn and David Mizrahi, who helped me refine my craft. And then there were the two older ladies who’d stop by my apartment to pick me up for birding excursions to the wilds of a nearby hotspot. Jackie and JoAnne , older and quite a bit whiter than me, would take me away from my duties as a stay- at- home- grad –school- dad for a few hours to scan the farm ponds and fallow fields for a wayward wader or perhaps a lone Lapland longspur among the legions of pipits and horned larks cruising the furrows. There was my friend Vince Pack who chased rarities with me in the days of dial up rare bird alerts and so many others who made birding one of the few social outlets I had. As my circle of friends grew I had the fortune to upgrade the optics I was looking through—from discount store disposables to porro prisms with good glass that made the subtle colors on sparrows pop! And so here I am, mostly grown up with a fairly long list of birds and a longer list of memories. I’ve made so many great friends in my feather quest that I can’t separate those folks from the birds and special places I’ve been. Like many OCD birders I’ve managed to hoard collection of optics-some ultimate high end stuff—that help me see things only a bird in the hand look would offer. And so a couple of weeks ago when I traveled way south—down Mexico way—for the double- dipper Focus on Diversity and Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in McAllen and Harlingen, Texas, I knew the birds would be good and that the people would be spectacular. I packed my bins and all the expectations for what a week in Near Mexico would yield for my list and my soul. Over the years the folks—kindred spirits really-who share the passion are like a feather-lovin’ family. There are so many tried and true friends on the list that I know I’ll miss one if I try to name them all. So I’ll just send a huge virtual hug to all of them. Y’all know who you are! And then there are the new friends I seem to find on every foray afield. This time I found another one. I met Travis, a unique companion, through my new friends David La Puma and Jeff Bouton. They sang his praises and asked if I’d take him out. They assured me that I would not be disappointed to have Travis along as a birding companion and only had one request; they asked me to show him a couple of lifers. With fantastic things like Fork-tailed flycatchers floating around on Boca Chica Road, I thought that the task wasn’t an unreasonable one.

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Drew and Travis’s older cousin, the 7×42 Ultravid… what is that egret thinking??

And so side by side—Travis and I took off for a couple of the hotspots to see what we could see. Our first stop was the Nature Conservancy’s South Most Reserve. It’s as close to Mexico as one can get without getting wet in the Rio Grande. The wandering track around palm groves, fruit orchards and overgrown wetlands  yielded a few birds—an Altamira oriole sitting like a living creamsicle on a ten-story tree; golden-fronted woodpeckers shining in the southern sun and green jays so ridiculously gaudy and loud that they seemed out of place outside of some South American jungle.  Travis helped me see them in a new kind of clarity and appreciation that in a way, made birds we’d both seen before new in a different sense. Off to Boca Chica and the beach!  One of the most famous roads in North American bird-dom, it’s haunted by Harris’  and white-tailed hawks. The lagoons are peppered  with peeps and the prickly-pear studded prairie pulses with possibilities of Aplomado falcons.  Zooming along the blacktop in the tour bus forty sets of eager eyes were peeled looking for the wayward fork-tailed flycatcher. A scissor-tailed cousin—modestly endowed by fork-tailed standards– caught some eyes but wasn’t the super-twitch many had hoped to gain.

A white-tailed hawk, one of the many South Texas specialties

Travis didn’t get any life birds on the Boca trip either. I tried in earnest to find something new for him but in the end he showed me more than I could’ve hoped to show him! I saw things more clearly through his powerful eyes. Something as common as a meadowlark singing atop a cactus turned into living art magnified eight times through Travis’ “eyes”.  A piping plover pausing and probing on the beach  was more than spectacular in its sandy-colored plumage. With Travis’ help the hulking forms of Harris’ hawks and  tuxedo-like tones of black -necked stilts and American avocets seemed almost within reach. Travis and I have so much in common—our love of birds, our desire to see things in a new light—and our blackness. Funny thing is he never said a word to me. He just showed me birds and nature in a new , clearer light. As we made the way back to Harlingen, we sat in silence and maybe somehow in mutual appreciation of one another. Of course I guess I shouldn’t have expected Travis to ever say anything, because he—it—is a binocular. Travis the Trinovid is a Leica 8 x 42 binocular that has seen time with a litany of esteemed birders whose  joyous job  was to take as many lifers with “him” in a year as possible. I happened to become friends with some pretty cool people-David La Puma and Jeff Bouton—who connected me to Travis and so much more. I made the decision a little while back to carry Leica binoculars because of a commitment that the company has towards expanding bird study beyond traditional birding and the largely white audience that needs some color infused to make it more like the future of birding should look.  In supporting the Focus on Diversity III: Changing the Face of American Birding conference and with a long history connected to social consciousness, I saw something more clearly in living the Leica life. And so Travis and I—both black birding aficionados—struck up a relationship that will go beyond the lifers that we missed. I’m proud to be a  part of Leica’s  team of field Professionals. As a lifelong birder and conservation ornithologist  I finally have a partnership that will help me see the birds and beyond more clearly than I ever have.  I look forward to a brighter, clearer future with Leica by my side.   Thanks for the great times Travis!  I’ve decided that my new Leica 7 x 42’s  will be named Ursula. Yep. Ursula Ultravid. I’m sure we’ll have some great times together!

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Sunrise in South Texas