Tuesday, October 7, 2014

We want YOU, on Team Sisu

Team Sisu (note the Finnstick-equipped binos, visible at far left), with an uber-cheerful Dr. Moores on the right
It was weird to have all these birders in 'my' park
Moments before spotting the vaunted Pacific Reef Egret
Checking out the Yellow-billed Loons at Seongsan (Nial without gloves of course)
Pacific Reef Egret Egretta sacra
  Way back in February of this year, Dr. Nial Moores led a group of Finnish birders on a whistle-stop birding tour of South Korea, and on the 9th, the circus came to Jeju, tour bus and all. I should mention that this wasn’t your average group of Finnish birders (if I had a Markka for every average group of Finnish birders...), it was essentially the Finnish rarities committee, some real heavy hitters. These were the kind of hardcore birders that watched a juvenile Pale Thrush for 40 minutes then had a lengthy discussion on the finer points of ageing the species in the field. Legit.
  Keeping this in mind, when I was kindly invited to join the Jeju leg of their tour, ostensibly to offer some local knowledge, I kept repeating: Don’t say anything stupid in my thick head. The proceedings got off to a tense start when I boarded the rented bus in the pre-dawn gloom of Jeju City. It seems that the Finns each had their own favourite seat on the bus, and this seating order was written in stone (it was, I saw the tablets), and not to be trifled with. I floundered on and sat in the first available seat, which was earmarked for a Finn who had yet to embark.
  “HiyaI’mMattI’mtheguyNialknowsIliveonJejuhehhehheh,” I blurted in a thin voice. Icy glares. Goatees twitching.
  “I’m a birder,” I added helpfully, pivoting my shoulders to display the bins slung around my neck, assuring them that I wasn’t just some random foreigner who had decided to jump onto a tour bus at five in the a.m. to see where it was going. Nothing is icier than a bus full of testy Finns. They were an intimidating lot - at least half of them looked like members of a badass death metal band.
  Nial defused the crisis by hustling me into another seat, but I felt I had to make amends. At the first stop, a park in Jeju City, I bore gifts. I ran into a GS 25 and grabbed an armload of cans of hot iced coffee from the heat fridge (try figuring that one out), and meekly passed them out to every Finn I could find. That gesture melted their frosty demeanors in a Helsinki heartbeat, and soon we were laughing and making cracks about how all Finns are reputed to carry knives in their boots (“Not all of us, haw haw haw!”). They were impressed by the fact that I had been to Finland and knew of the uniquely Finnish concept of Sisu, which translates more or less to “grim determination against all odds.”
  We semi-circumnavigated the island that day, as we birded east along the Jeju’s north coast towards Seongsan, south down the east coast, and back west to Seogwipo, where they spent the night. A stressful development arose when the bus driver goofed up his ETA for a prime Pacific Reef Egret location, and advised us that we wouldn’t make it there before the sun had set. The ash-grey Pacific Reef Egret was one of the crucial Jeju target species that the Finns wanted to get look at, but hadn’t yet caught up with.
  “Matt, we need another site for Pacific Reef Egret that is within an eight-minute drive of here,” Nial casually informed me. OK, no problem, sure, no pressure. I whipped out my taped-together, falling-apart tourist map of Jeju and spread the pitiful fragments out on the seat beside me. There was only one suitable town with a harbour within range.
  “Let’s go to Pyoson, it’s a good spot for Reefies,” I said with confidence. I had never before seen Pacific Reef Egrets there.
  The bus braked to a noisy stop in the tiny harbour, and the Finns fanned out towards the ocean. You could tell that the few startled locals felt like they were under attack, as 15 tall foreigners wearing khaki and bristling with optics clinked town through like a bumbling SWAT team. I liked that. That’s how I roll, I mused, banking that feeling for all those times when I get glared at while solo birding in Korea.
  We all ended up in the backyard of a boarded-up house, studying the horizon. I summoned my inner Sisu, and was fortunate enough to pick out a large dark bird flying low to the water. I yelped: “Pacific Reef Egret!” but tried not to point, as Nial had already reprimanded me twice that day for pointing. The Finns got on it quickly, and a row of smiling goatees gave me nods of benediction. I walked back to the bus with an “Of course there are Reefies here,” swagger to my step. The birding gods had slipped me a little Sisu for once.
  Besides being some of the best birders around (watching Nial’s gull ID getting mercilessly questioned was a shock – it’s just not done!), most of the Finns had a unique piece of kit: the Finnstick, a foot-long handle slung under their bins, opera-glasses style. All Finnish birders use them, for extra stability. They explained that Finnish soldiers started using this device on their optics during the Winter War with the Soviet Union (to mitigate shivering), and Finnish birders have carried the practice forward. Neat-o!


  1. Best post award.
    first chapter of your forthcoming book, yeya?

  2. Heh thanks. Just trying to flex my prose-muscles. Book? Book! Book.