Birders, like birds themselves, come in all sizes, shapes, and colors with all kinds of songs. There are young birders and old birders, beginners and veterans and then there’s Ted Eliot — a birder in a class by himself.
He’s big and tall and an obsessive birder. That’s why I call him Big Birder. When we met to talk about birds — his favorite topic —the weather report said rain and the sky said rain, too. It had rained every day for the past fourteen days, but Eliot, a stalwart of North Bay conservation, was undeterred. He watched birds most of that day, too.
Like the proverbial postman who isn’t slowed or stopped from his appointed rounds by snow, sleet, or rain, nothing meteorological prevents Eliot from grabbing his binoculars and stepping outside his house on Sonoma Mountain to keep an eye on the local birdlife. At last count, he’d recorded 3,818 different species of birds from locations around the world. That’s a heck of a lot of birds. Counting is a matter of pride.
Birders, a term Eliot attributes to himself, will go nearly anywhere and at anytime to see a bird or two, whereas “bird watchers,” like his wife Pat, wait for birds to come to the back porch before they take an interest in them. With Ted Eliot, crows, hawks, cranes, jays, robins, and even common turkey vultures are much more than a casual interest. He recently took a trip to Brazil — and it wasn’t for the beaches.
“I can’t get birds out of my head,” he told me as he sipped coffee in a plaza café in the town of Sonoma where almost everyone stopped to say hello. “When I can’t sleep at night I don’t count sleep, I remember bird songs. I play them in my head and before long I’m sleeping soundly.”
Eliot was a birdwatcher when he worked as a career diplomat for the United States in the former Soviet Union and in Afghanistan, too, where he served as our ambassador in the 1970s. There were lots of birds to see there in the 1970s. Not so many after a decade of war. To follow his passion, he’s been to all seven continents, including Antarctica. He’s traveled to distant Mongolia, and to Africa, and from California marshes and mountains to the New England woodlands that he first knew as a boy.
Birding didn’t come naturally to him, though his father was an avowed birder and took him on expeditions into the wild. As a boy Eliot resisted. He remembers sitting in a car on a rainy day while his father went tromping through the woods. Ted couldn’t be bothered about birds. But when his father came back raving madly about the rare birds he’d just seen, Ted Eliot decided to step out of the car, plunge into the woods, and find out what the rumpus was all about. By the time he became a teenager he got it, and by college he was a confirmed birder.
As an undergraduate at Harvard, he would have liked to have studied ornithology, but there didn’t seem to be many jobs counting and tracking birds, and the Audubon Society wasn’t recruiting on campus either.
“I found one person at Harvard who shared my interest in birds,” Eliot said. “We were in the stands at a Harvard football game. I noticed an unusual sight — a bird hovering above the huddle — and mentioned it because it was more interesting to me than the game. A student who was sitting close by saw the bird, too, and shouted out the name. From then on we were friends.”
It’s hard to say precisely why he picked birds or why they picked him. His wife, Pat Eliot, is wild about horses and has been ever since she was a girl who grew up in Sonoma, and rode horseback on Sonoma Mountain.
“Everyone seems to have a passion for something,” Eliot said. “I know that my passion for birds led me to become an environmentalist and a conservationist. I try to make my passion contagious by leading bird trips and by introducing young people to birding.”
Jonah Raskin is a contributor to Bay Nature and wrote the Sounds of Silence: Tuning into the Natural Soundscape in the April 2013 issue of Bay Nature Magazine.