Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Terrible Loss: my friend Roger Higson is gone.

Got off the train last Friday, and decided to check my bird emails real quick, before getting into the car. Boy am I sorry I did that. There was an email from Howard King informing the Inland County Birding email list that Roger Higson had died the night before.

I want to write a flowing, articulate tribute to him, but I just keep shutting down, every time I start. For once, I'm at a loss for words.

Roger was an unrepentant Englishman. By that, I mean that he filtered the world through a post-colonial 1960s British worldview. On top of that, as a trained scientist educated in both astronomy and biology, he had the scientist's habit of addressing errors directly.

If he saw something that he disagreed with, he didn't pussyfoot around it--he just said what was on his mind. His motto should have been "Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead."

Every once in a while I would call him on the weekend, and engage him in an hour-long conversation in which we would ridicule The Birding Establishment.  We were of a like mind: we took pride in ourselves for getting locked out of the Birding Elite because of our big mouths.  It was a badge of honor that we both wore proudly.

There were times when I disagreed with him, but even then I understood why he believed what he was saying. He lived a hard life. Why somebody who grew up in a cold, damp, soggy country went to the opposite extreme of living in Hell on Earth (Blythe in July can be described in no other manner) where he taught science is unfathomable to me.

Why anybody would want to teach math or science in any American public school is a mystery to me. Before I met my wife--who is working towards her credential as a math teacher--I had begun the application process to get a teaching credential, and I said, "Forget about it!" I had a strong science background, with years of experience working in various branches of radiology, along with my personal passion for field biology (birds, herps, insects, marine organisms), so I felt that I would have made a good science teacher. Roger may have talked a lot of smack over the years on his blog about drooling students and their idiot parents, but he walked the walk. He stayed in the teaching profession in areas of agricultural, rural poverty. Even after getting stabbed by one of his students.

So, we had a cantankerous English immigrant teaching science to rural poor, Hispanic immigrants in the hottest part of the country. To add to his misery, he had to compete for his students' minds with religious fundamentalists who battled him over topics like evolution.

Recently, one hot summer evening--on the way home from a lightning quick trip to Southeast Arizona, where I had chased some bird--I got off the 10 and stopped at Roger's house in Blythe. I only wanted to say "hi" but wound up sitting for hours. The conversation start with birds and birding locations, but it soon went all over the place. It was the kind of conversation you can only have with a highly educated, well-traveled Renaissance man.

That's what saddens me the most: the fact that I won't be able to do that, again.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Three Dancers, Two Godwits, and a Lizard

Saturday mid-day--while getting the girl ready for her dance recital--got an email telling me that there were two Hudsonian Godwits at the Piute Ponds--a nature preserve on Edwards Air Force property in the desert 105 miles from my house.  Same piece of land has the dry lake bed where the Space Shuttle lands.
I have been birding since 1992, and this is only the second time that Hudsonian Godwits have appeared in any part of Southern California--and the last one was last year: a bird that stayed in the L.A. River for 15 minutes; flying away before anybody had a chance to chase it.  When that happened last summer, I assumed that it would be another 18 years before the next Hudsonian Godwit appears, not 9 months.
Well, I thought, maybe they'll be there, tomorrow.
As a matter of fact, they were!
Whew; what a relief.
The only other Hudsonian Godwit I've ever seen was one April in Texas, many years ago.
After leaving the Air Force base, I hauled the kids to Galileo Hill, an oasis even deeper in the desert.  Didn't see a lot of birds--although the Olive-sided Flycatcher was a year bird (how depressing is that?), but got killer looks at the Desert Spiny Lizards out doing push-ups.  A few hours earlier at the same spot, Steve had found an American Redstart and a Kentucky Warbler, but we didn't find either of them.
Oh, well.  The Hudsonian Godwits will have to do.