You see those white things at the edge of the marsh out there? They’re either Great White Egrets or White Storks. I don’t know which.

This story will puzzle those who still assume my ability to fix a broken wing means I can always identify the bird from which it is drooping.

Ten months ago my friend Boris and I arrived in Paris for an eight-day vacation. Boris’s name is not really Boris; unfortunately his given name is the same as that of my last ex-husband, so I felt compelled to re-name him. Boris once told me a hysterically funny story in which he discovered his ex-wife in the process of adopting a Russian orphan without telling him. He told it in a perfect Russian accent, hence the name (and his eventual divorce).

One morning when I was sleeping off my jet lag Boris hit the Internet and discovered La Reserve Ornithologique du Teich, a birder’s paradise on le Bassin d’Arcachon. Amazingly, it even had a bird rehabilitation center associated with it. Off we went.

“What time do you want me to set the alarm?” asked Boris that night. “Don’t you have to get up at the crack of dawn to see birds?”

I was enjoying a very, very rare vacation. “Wake me and you’re a dead man,” I said.

I was fried. Fried, I tell you. So I rolled out of bed at about 11, pulled on my clothes, and paused blearily by the door.

“Don’t you want to bring your camera?” asked Boris.

“No,” I said. “It might fall in the river.”

“What river?”

“The river we’re going to be kayaking on.”

“Kayaking!” said Boris. “We’re walking through the Bird Park.”

By one o’clock we had eaten and were heading for the Reserve. I hadn’t associated a trip to Paris with birds, so I had no binoculars and no field guide. “Can we see your rehab center?” I asked the woman in the booth.

Ah, non,” she replied sadly. “It is no longer here, it has moved to another town.”

No matter. We rented binoculars, and set off into the marsh.

Covering 120 hectares of France’s west coast, La Reserve Orthonologique sports 2 miles of boardwalk and twenty de luxe blinds. At first I peered out apprehensively, just waiting to spot somebody dragging a wing or weaving around drunkenly, suffering from an obvious head injury; but miraculously the birds were all hale, hearty, and minding their own business.

No one needed my help. I could look at birds, yet not have to take one home and spend the night fending off the Grim Reaper.

I was so happy.

We walked beneath the baking sun, spotting herons, egrets, rails, spoonbills, harriers, and kingfishers (don’t ask me to be more specific), breaking all the birding rules and chattering away when we were not hushed and reverential in the blinds, letting out cheerful “Bonjour!”s to the few passersby idiotic enough to be out birding in hundred degree weather in the middle of the day. Two hours later, we realized we were awfully thirsty.

“Uh-oh,” said Boris, an experienced camper. “Guess what we forgot to bring?”

Water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. We didn’t really care, being swept up by the adventure of it all. By 4 o’clock we had almost finished the loop and began encountering the Real McCoys, all wearing khaki bush hats and faded birders’ vests with special pockets for giant water bottles. All carried spotting scopes the size of my torso and regarded my palm-sized Nikon instamatic with bafflement, obviously not knowing it would be responsible for the glorious photo at the top of this page.

tree:birdAs well as the frameable one on the left (see large bird in far-off tree.)

We ended our day with 4 quarts of water, two beers, then retired to the only open restaurant in town. Portugese workers brought in to trim the local trees clustered around the television set, drinking heavily and watching a Portugal-Spain soccer match; during a moment of celebratory elation, a shirtless man raced by with a Portugese flag stuck down the back of his pants, the red and green banner snapping jauntily as he disappeared out the door.

Green-rumped Barskimmer,” said Boris.

A heated argument broke out, and soon fists were flying and chairs crashing to the floor. From the middle of the melee a man glared up at us, as if he suspected we were secretly rooting for Spain.

Non!” I cried, holding up my hands. “We’re just here for the oiseaux!”

Written by Suzie
Suzie Gilbert is a wild bird rehabilitator whose shameful secret is that on more than one occasion she has received a female LBJ, or a fledgling whatever, and has been completely unable to ID it. Luckily she has birder friends who will rush to her aid, although she must then suffer their mockery. She is the author of her bird-rehabbing memoir Flyaway (HarperCollins) and the children's book Hawk Hill (Chronicle Books). Her recent suspenseful, bird-filled adventure novel Unflappable (Perch Press) was selected by Audubon Magazine as one of their Three Best Summer Reads of 2020. She lives in New York's beautiful Hudson Valley and is always up for a good hike.