It was one of the half-dozen most strange, almost surreal, and unlikely scenes that I had ever seen in a natural setting: a whimbrel, alone, standing on a beach log, looking out over the Caribbean south of Manzanillo, Costa Rica. My camera was a Canon SX50, upper-end point-and-shoot, my go-to equipment for situations requiring minimal size and weight coupled with maximum flexibility and zoom power. How close can I get and not scare this one away? That was my question. When you’ve been a professional biologist for nearly sixty years, spending forty of those years in the field, you capture images first, as many as you can, then start asking how close you can get, how long a bird will stay in a particular place, and why this scene is happening. Thus my whimbrel is not in as sharp a focus as I would like for social media, mainly because I had to use digital zoom, and was so far away, to get it on that log. However, thinking back on that morning, this bird seemed so totally occupied with its thoughts, watching the breakers, that I probably could have walked up and touched it.
What were the thoughts that I put into this whimbrel’s head? The answer is: a bunch of questions. Should I fly back through the United States during migration, given that its leaders are so determined to reduce the environments that I need on my trip to northern Canada? Will I be welcomed, or will I be disdained? Will the scientific illiteracy that is so characteristic of those in charge of that piece of North America make it more, if not fatally, dangerous for me when all I’m trying to do is get to a place where I can rear a family? Will I be considered an undocumented immigrant? Will I be arrested? Will there be a pipeline break and a bunch of crude oil in the South Dakota marshes? Will someone shoot me, like they used to do my relatives, just because they have so many guns and want to try them out on something alive? But most of all, will my human friends, the ones who get such pleasure out of my passing in the night, be ridiculed because they like, no, love, nature, try to understand nature, and read about nature, instead of just tearing up the land because they believe it has some minerals of value? What will happen to me if I just decide to quit going to the United States, like some of those folks living in San Jose, retire in Costa Rica? I know what I’ll give up, but is it worth the cost, just to avoid that part of North American that is nothing at all like I remember it three years ago on my first flight from the Arctic tundra to Costa Rica? I don’t know the answers to all those questions. Maybe I’ll just stare at the Caribbean for a while.