Birding Baghdad


(This 713th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 28, 2004.)

The recently coined word "blog" represents "a shared on-line journal where people can post diary entries about their personal experiences and hobbies." Thousands of them now appear on the internet.


The blog I find most attractive and recommend to you is titled "Birding Babylon". It is maintained by an American soldier who does not identify himself.


His first posting appeared last March: "I'm a soldier in Iraq. I've been mobilized for up to 18 months, which includes a definite 12 months in Iraq and Kuwait. I've been birding since I was 12, which makes it 24 years now. I serve in a New England medical unit. I plan to write about my nature observations during my time here, both birds and other critters. Birding on base doesn't usually elicit any undo attention from the MPs. I think everyone thinks I'm doing security work when I'm looking into the distance with binoculars. I'm not sure what they think when I'm looking up in a tree."


What is so stirring about his postings is their "life goes on" character. There is no question whatsoever that this soldier is representing his country in an extremely dangerous region, but he refuses to reduce his life to conflict. I am certain that, when he returns safely, he will not be one of those whose lives are compromised by post-traumatic stress disorder.


"On our convoy up from Kuwait we had to stop because one of the humvees had a flat. We all piled out of the vehicles and set up a defensive perimeter with our weapons pointing out. It was a surreal scene because, as I'm lying on the ground with my eye on some guy racing around in a pickup truck wondering if he's going to take a potshot at us (which would have been suicidal), a pair of crested larks were not even ten feet from me with the male displaying and dancing around."


"Easter Sunday I was up at 0530 to meet one of our doctors for a little early morning birding. We've had a lot of rocket and mortar attacks in the last few days. One day we had eight or nine hit inside the wire. As a result we need to go everywhere in body armor and helmet. So it was a day for birding in 'full battle rattle', weapon included of course."


Sometimes the conditions are not good: "It was 115 degrees and my gear adds 5 degrees. I was completely exhausted after about a 4-mile walk. It would be easy to get heatstroke here."


But even crossing the barren lands Saddam had drained "to destroy the traditional home of the Marsh Arabs," he continues his hobby: "I haven't had so many life birds in a day since being in Indonesia in 1990. Birds were everywhere, waterbirds and shorebirds in the pools, landbirds flying by or sitting on fences. Their number was in stark contrast to the dearth of birds in Kuwait. The pools had so many shorebirds that I could only identify the large and distinctive ones as we whizzed by. There were lots of black-winged stilts, avocets, red-wattled plover and black-headed gulls. Lots of hooded crows and rooks."


Birds are not his only interest: "Today I caught a brown and black colored skink that ran under the air conditioner unit. When I picked up the lizard, it promptly dropped its tail in an attempt to get away from me." In one of Saddam's former palaces he finds tomb bats and a strange insect. It "revealed itself to be a webspinner. Though some members of this order are found in the warmer parts of the US, I've never seen one. I brought it inside and made quite a fuss about it. The people left in the clinic thought I was crazy."


A single late-July break makes his experiences even more poignant: "I've taken a 6200 mile change in venue for a few weeks. I'm back in the northeast US for R and R. My kids and I took a drive yesterday and stopped by a large field to watch a coyote padding around. We hiked in the woods a few days ago and found Indian pipes. We collected a big variety of mushrooms and brought them home to make spore prints. The goldenrod have started to flower, a sure sign that summer is half over. I'll be back in Iraq soon enough."


I am certain that readers join me in praying for the permanent safe return of this soldier and all of his comrades. You can follow his experiences at his Birding Babylon website. You can also listen to Scott Simon's October 30th interview on the NPR Weekend Edition program at this site.-- Gerry Rising