On the trail of one of the rarest (not to mention weirdest) birds on earth, one man finds himself unwittingly sucked into the obsessive world of extreme birding
Author STEPHAN TALTY
ILLUSTRATION BY MEGAN BERKHEISER & MIKE CALDWELL
We’d been looking for the white-rumped swift for three hours when John Muddeman told me the story of the orthopedic surgeon. Muddeman, a transplanted Brit who looks like a healthier Sean Penn, lives outside Madrid, a city that bills itself as one of the birding capitals of Europe. He’s been guiding birders for 30 years, and eight years ago he cofounded the eco-tourism outfit Iberian Wildlife Tours. He’ll take you on insect expeditions, wildflower jaunts and rabbit hops, but his main love is birds, as even the briefest of conversations with him will make clear.
Birds, he’ll say. Birds, birds, birds.
Recently, on a blisteringly hot day, Muddeman took me to the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains, 40 kilometers north of Madrid, in search of a very elusive species: the white-rumped swift.
Though relatively common in sub-Saharan Africa, the swift is a rarity in this part of the world. In fact, there have been only two sightings in the last 50 years. But elusiveness isn’t its only appeal: The white-rumped swift is also a very weird bird. It can remain airborne for years at a time, feeding and sleeping on the wing. Half a million miles might go by before it alights. Muddeman swore this is true. “They are,” he said, “aerodynamic machines of the first order.”
Yeah, I’d like to see one of those.
I should say here that I’m not into birding. Birding is for people who wear many-pocketed shorts and rough woolen socks, people who know how to make nettle tea. I don’t even own a pair of binoculars. So, as Muddeman started to tell me the story of the orthopedic surgeon, an American client he guided a few years back, my only thought was: This guy sounds kind of nuts. And by most standards, he kind of was.
Birders are, by nature, acquisitive creatures. They are especially fond of creating checklists — birds they’ve seen, birds they haven’t. It’s when birders get down to the last three or four unseen species that things can get strange. This is when the diehards tend to become afflicted by what people in the game call List Fever.
The orthopedic surgeon had it. Muddeman picked the man up at his Madrid hotel and was immediately subjected to a litany of demands. There were seven birds on the surgeon’s wish list, at the top of which stood the great spotted cuckoo. Despite years of intense searching, the American explained, the cuckoo had eluded him. It wasn’t so much the man’s words that worried Muddeman as the look that accompanied them. A look that could best be described as fearful.
It was the tail end of summer when the two men set out late in the Spanish season for the great spotted cuckoo, which favors Africa in the winter months. Many of the migratory species were beginning to fly south. Getting the cuckoo would be big. Capital B big. Muddeman, a gentle, low-key man by nature, listened to the surgeon’s aspirations with a sense of quiet foreboding.
As the hot sun beat down, the two men tore over the local foothills, training their binoculars on crevices and listening intently for the bird’s distinctive call: cher-cher-kri-kri. By the end of the second day, they’d knocked most of the species off the surgeon’s list, but the great spotted cuckoo was nowhere to be seen, and between his precisely timed power naps in the car, the surgeon was getting more and more uptight.
“I’ll never get it!” he screamed at one point. His tone was accusatory, as if the guide had somehow contrived to kidnap the last great spotted cuckoo in Spain and was holding it against its will.
As he recalled the trip, Muddeman’s knuckles grew white on the steering wheel; he hates to disappoint a client. But now it was happening again. We’d been prowling the outskirts of Madrid for hours, looking in vain for the white-rumped swift, and I was beginning to understand how the surgeon felt.
The swift was my great spotted cuckoo.
WHEN IT COMES TO obsession, the orthopedic surgeon was very much in the minor leagues. The real players are the so-called Big Listers: birders who have made a solemn vow to lay eyes on every single one of earth’s 7,000 or so species. The number of people who have actually achieved this goal is about the same as those who have walked on the moon. These are not your weekend dabblers. These are the guys who disappear into the jungle and reemerge weeks or months later proclaiming they’ve spotted the last surviving ivory-billed woodpecker. Or, just as often, they get divorced, lose their homes and end up never finding the object of their desire.
The white-rumped swift is a bird for extreme birders, if only because it’s also kind of nuts. For one thing, this bird doesn’t go for building nests. Instead, it invades the homes of another species, the red-rumped swallow, fighting and bickering until its victim flies away in terror. There are stories of people finding white-rumped swifts lying on the ground with their claws death-locked into the flesh of an opponent.
I wanted one.
Three hours into our hunt, however, running into one of these thuggish birds was looking like an increasingly unlikely prospect. I was hot, parched and sulky.
“John, do you really think we’ll find it?” I asked as we trudged back to the car after another failed bid.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve looked for it very, very hard with no luck.”
For 14 years, he’d looked for it. We jumped into his little Citroën. I turned away and stared out the window at flocks of non-swifts.
OVER THE COURSE of our day together, Muddeman taught me how to look at birds. It’s not only coloring and size, he said brightly, but things like “hand” — the position of the end of the wing — and the attitude of the head. The bird we were looking for is small and black, with oversize wings and a fringe of white striping at the base of its tail. To the untrained eye, it looks almost exactly like the house martin, except on the martin the white continues all the way up the belly.
Muddeman can spot the difference at 200 yards. And if he doesn’t see a bird, he’ll hear it. Sixty percent of the birds he spots are found by sound alone. It also helps to be able to identify a nest, he said. A telltale mark of a white-rumped swift’s is a rim of white feathers at its opening. “We’re not sure why they do that,” he said. “But they come into the nest at high speed in the dark, so it might be like a set of lights on an aircraft carrier.”
We made our way to a huge reservoir. Fish lazed in the dark green bowl of water and birds fluttered overhead. This rocky, sloping landscape, Muddeman said, is precisely the kind of environment that attracts the red-rumped swallow — and so, potentially, the White-rumped Swift.
Sure enough, there they were: dozens of the apparently unmolested swallows, feeding in the air and swooping down to their cliffside nests. These were joined by a few black house martins that seemed to be toying with us, looking enticingly like our birds until they flipped over to reveal their white bellies. No swifts.
We returned to the sweltering car and headed back toward Madrid, necks craned to look up through the windshield, like UFO hunters. “It’s really a one-in-a-million shot,” Muddeman sighed.
He glanced up.
“A nice Imperial Eagle over there.”
I nodded and brought up my binoculars. It was indeed a Spanish imperial eagle, big and impressive, with a downward hand that made it look like an American hawk.
We spent two more hours crisscrossing hills and skirting small towns, peering into every passing stone structure, culvert and bridge. Muddeman pointed to a pod-like bunker 30 yards from the road.
“That’d be a good spot,” he said, pulling over.
“What is it?”
“Civil War bunker.”
I tramped over and peered inside one of the thin gun slits, seeing nothing but pitted concrete and tangled weeds in the gloomy interior. No white feathers. I took a few steps back and imagined half-starved Spanish Republicans charging the bunker with their bayonets flashing in the sun, the Nationalists hunkered down, waiting for the moment to fire. It struck me then that birdwatching isn’t only about watching birds. This bunker wasn’t on my list, but it was worth looking at.
Our journey was coming to an end. As dusk approached, we headed for a large rocky outcrop called the Peña de Cadalso. Small birds circled the hill’s stony top, riding the currents, catching bugs and aerial plankton as the hot air pushed them up the slope.
“I’ll be damned!” Muddeman cried after about two minutes. “There it is, right there.”
“You’re lying. Where?!”
“There, right below the big cloud, at about 1,200 meters. It’s moving to the left. Fast.”
The blue sky dipped in my binoculars as I scanned the air. Swallow, swallow, house martin. And then I saw it. The black bird was shooting to the east and the base of its tail flashed white. Muddeman was laughing manically. “Bloody hell! That’s brilliant!”
We clapped each other on the back and grinned at people in passing cars. I brought up the glasses again and followed the bird as it looped overhead; then we spotted its mate. Not only had we claimed the third Madrid sighting in nearly 50 years, but Muddeman suspected that the white-rumped swift was actually nesting here, claiming new territory.
“People will be rushing out here from Madrid,” he shouted before getting on the phone to call his partner. I could hear a voice whooping on the other end of the line.
As we drove back to the city, Muddeman told me the epilogue to the surgeon story. The next day, with the disappointed birder on a plane back to the U.S., the guide picked up another client, and they drove into the hills. The first bird that flapped lazily across their path?
The great spotted cuckoo.
STEPHAN TALTY, who currently lives in Madrid, is working on a book about the British double agent and World War II hero Juan Pujol Garcia, a.k.a. “Garbo.”