ning to behold. Discovered in 1819 by British naturalist Cassian Drim-ble, also known for first sighting the species of sea cow and massive cormorant that also bear his name . . .” He spoke like he was reading off ateleprompter. The whole time he stared at my head like he wasn’t certainwhere my eyes were.
As he continued his presentation, I looked at the pictures, whichshowed a very peculiar creature. Something adjacent to the sandpiperfamily, I could tell (my rote memorization had given me at least thismuch), but with different coloring, more like that of a rail or gallinule.Most of it was covered in black or—depending on the photo—indigofeathers, with a few ternlike white markings around its plovery beak.But it was its chest that let me get a sense of just what made this creature such a find. It seemed to wear a shimmering cummerbund, a shadeof purple that might have been extracted from a 1980s neon sign. Itsfeathers, fanned in flight, were indigo after all, in brilliant bands like thewings of a dyed osprey.
I nodded automatically as Stilt concluded his lecture with Drimble’s
tragic death from syphilis in Paris, the “extinguishment of the bright
flame of an unbearably beautiful life.”
That evening Coot made us a dinner of a murky and mysterious soup,
and afterward Stilt took us to the beach to stake out what would become
our daily patrol route. As we got ready for bed, it was decided that the
nuns would get the mezzanine. I was relocated to the living room couch,
and my mom moved into Stilt’s master bedroom.
The next morning Coot and I made our first patrol of the shore. Stilthad paired us all off—Godwit and Yellowlegs, naturally, and he and mymom (unnaturally, if you asked me). Coot and I were the odd men out,and since Coot was, by his account, incapable of sleeping in past six am,we were given the dawn watch. Coot led the way, calling in to Stilt everyfifteen paces and reciting the Latin names of every species we encountered, repeating the same name over and over if we stumbled across, say,a cluster of ten sanderlings (Calidris alba, Calidris alba, Calidris alba. . .) or half-a-dozen ruddy turnstones (Arenaria interpres times six).
I’d woken up even earlier than Coot to search the condo for signs ofits true owners. Stilt’s story was that it belonged to “Black Skimmer,” anelderly man currently visiting his girlfriend in Branson, Missouri, butall signs pointed to a much younger family with little or no ornithological passion. I was in the early stages of collecting evidence against Stilt,