|Freezing my damn hands off at Seongsan Ilchulbong Sunrise Peak (and test-driving some real binoculars)|
Minutes before disaster
|My lamentable redneck Bushnells|
While the Finns all had flashy Swarovski and Zeiss optics strapped to their Finnsticks, I was using a pair of redneck-camouflaged Bushnells that I had plucked out of the “50% off” basket at Canadian Tire. They weren’t terrible at first, but I’m rough with my gear, and by then they were in sorry condition. The two barrels were no longer synced up, or “dejumelee”, as the French say (binoculars are known as jumelles in French, which means “twins” - so my bins had become “de-twinned”).
During a lull, I made the mistake of asking to look though Nial’s pair of Swarovskis. The instant confidence and lens envy they instilled in me was dramatic. It felt like birds could no longer hide from me. With just a gentle twist of the focus knob, impenetrable layers of foliage melted away. I was omnipotent! Spartacus! Spart...oh yes, here are your bins back, Nial. Dammit, I needed to get me some Swaros.
To further truncate my optics stature in the eyes of the Finns, the strap mounts on my bins were broken, and the strap itself had been fraying to threads for months. Instead of trying to fix it all properly, I had been emergency mending it with a growing collection of safety pins, zip-ties, strips of duct tape, and even a rogue staple or two.
The strap situation came to a head while we were on Jeju’s northeast coast, near the iconic Seongsan Ilchulbong Sunrise Peak, probing a beachy area in small groups, or in my case, alone. I hadn’t often birded this particular corner of the island, but I was hoping to beat the proverbial and literal bushes and turn up something interesting. I was the “local expert” after all, and I had already looked useless once that morning, when Nial had led us to a cliff he knew of in Seogwipo that held several ghostly Grey Buntings...almost in my backyard. The late February day was tormented by icy winds, and my tanks of birding resolve were very nearly depleted. We spent most of the morning hunkered on some cliffs, lashed by obscene ocean winds. Nial went gloveless of course, which seemed to impress the Finns – they sent approving looks towards his burly skin-mitts. His hands had Sisu.
I, on the “other hand”, was sporting an altogether embarrassing pair of checkered blue, black, and silver gloves, which drew worried glances from the Finns. The gloves were not only goofy-looking but also scandalously thin, and as a result my hands were frostbitten to the marrow. I was reluctant to even get my bins up for a bird, as that would have meant unballing my fists.
Helly, my girlfriend at the time, bless her, had heard me whining about how I needed new gloves for birding, so she purchased this ludicrous pair for me, strongly recommended to her by a Korean golfing website, of all things. As I was heading out the door to meet the Finns, I went for my holed, but warm, pair of old gloves, but as Phoebe was watching, I picked up the golf gloves instead with a confident smile.
“Thanks again for the cool gloves,” I croaked on the way out the door. How cold could it get out there?
Oh, it got cold. It got Old-fashioned Cold. With body and mind numbed, I staggered inland towards the shelter of some small grassy dunes, which were gathered behind a derelict seafood processing plant.
“How are we spodesda find any birds in this fuggin wind?” I muttered through fwozen wips.
Some of the Finns had the same idea as me, and were funnelling into the area. Oh shit, Finns! Gotta look sharp! I snatched up my bins as best I could with my frosted ham hocks and scanned a nearby tree line. This action caused the Finns to perk up as well – I peripherally sensed their bins coming to attention around me. Then, as if willed into existence by my desperation, a streamlined, medium-sized bird flashed over my shoulder.
“Kestrel!” I bellowed, regretting it instantly. As the Finns turned to get a bead on the bird, I realized with a sickening lilt of the stomach that this was no Kestrel. The bird wheeled hard and dropped behind the trees, but I caught a clear glimpse of the fat belly and distinct thick white tail tip of a lowly Oriental Turtle Dove. Not the first time I had made that schoolboy error, but why now?
Had they seen it yet? They hadn’t! The bird’s outline was barely visible as it zipped along behind the trees.
“That’s it, keep flying, get out of here!” I pleaded in a whisper. “Good, keep going...” The dove did a quick 180 and flew back towards us at a rapid clip.
“...no...NO! Don’t come back here you bastard...turn around!” The bird popped over the trees and did a lazy circuit over our heads, showing perfectly, no binoculars needed. Humbled, I shrugged at the Finns, who were all glaring at me with expressions that ranged from deadpan to pity. My face felt hot, and I wanted to sink into the sand.
“I uh...it looked like a Kestrel. Wasn’t. It was a dove...” I muttered. Silence, as Scandinavian heads bowed and shook.
As we headed back to the main group, I jumped off a small dune in a poorly executed attempt to avoid getting sand in my shoes. When I landed, the safety pins on my strap gave out with an audible snat, and the woeful Bushnells flung themselves into the sand, just as I had wanted to. The Finns all saw this and just kept walking, bowing their heads solemnly as though I was a leper grasping out for their pant-legs. I did my best to look dignified as I blew sand off the lenses and fished more safety pins from my bag.
While the Finns must have looked upon me as some neophyte birder with pathetic opera glasses, I like to think of it differently. I would argue that my binoculars, and the choices I made on the rest of my birding gear prove that I did in fact have Sisu. I made do for ages with crappy gear, and managed to do well with what I had. We can’t all start off on our birding path with Swaros and 600mm lenses, innit.
Those damned gloved though? Zero Sisu.