He had grown up in a lush, beautiful neighbourhood in Atlanta, where all families fed the birds in their backyards. Seeing such delights as Cardinals, Pileated Woodpeckers, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Blue Jays, and Purple Finches, Gil had got hooked on birds by the age four; he had reached a life list of 100 even before getting his first binoculars.
A prolific birder, Gil had seen “way over 4,000 species of birds,” but since his birding comrades had become jealously competitive and secretive, he had rejected the numbers game altogether and stopped counting. And he never reports his numbers to the official lists now. I was told that his ABA list to be somewhere in the region of 800, and a CA list to be over 500, but he wouldn't tell these things, if you don't ask.
Gil frequently joins group birding tours of the “big three” bird tour companies in the U.S.: Bird Guides, VENT, and Wings; and have travelled with them to such birding hotspots as Panama, Venezuela, Galapagos, Peru, Namibia, Bhutan, Brazil, Indonesia, Madagascar, Kazakhstan, New Guinea, Ethiopia, and. Chile. He'd also been to Alaska 13 times. Six of these trips have taken him to the North American rarity hotspot Attu.
During the journeys between birding sites, I probed his birding anecdotes. And weren’t they fantastic! My favourite was his Peruvian birding adventure, when he’d sighted a Jaguar during a daytime vigil in anticipation of a game bird, deep inside a Peruvian rain forest. This doesn’t make to the top because of this extremely rare big cat sighting. Instead, it was made special by of a web of stories to do with the people on that tour: serious birders, and the bird tour leaders. All I can say is it was definitely more intriguing than The Moment of Truth.
He had me gasping in shock and awe at some of the incidents that had happened on that trip. I think it would make a spellbinding documentary, in say, Discovery Channel. I asked Gil to write it up one day. Being the busy professional and the modest person he is, I doubt he will ever do it though.
Touching on the tour period, April was the only month Gil could travel to Sri Lanka.
April, incidentally, is a very special month for nature enthusiasts in Sri Lanka. First, it is the last of the “high-yielding” birding months in the birding season of Sri Lanka that starts in October with the arrival of migrants. Second, it is the best month for spotting Blue Whales off the southern coast of Sri Lanka—with almost 100% success rate of seeing them. (Gil was not keen on this, as off CA, he’s seen Blue Whales a plenty.) Third, it is one of the best months for observing rare and seasonal insects, most notably, butterflies and dragonflies.
On the bird watching front, we did well for late April, seeing 216 species of birds, with all 33 endemic birds currently recognised. I showed 12 out of the 15 resident night birds—equalling my record, set a month earlier. Interestingly, the tally of night birds was identical to that of March. 101–108 species of birds (depending on taxonomy) were life birds for Gil. He wrote to me that “… night birding experience was amazing, especially when compared to the past trip lists …”
Gil’s favourite Sri Lanka bird was the Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, followed by the Serendib Scops Owl that I showed at the endemic hotspot Kithulgala.
My top birding highlight was the Oriental Scops Owl that I found at Sigiriya. On the night that I found it, we also heard an Indian Jungle Nightjar, but it was stubbornly uncooperative once again. (I need to work hard to break its "code.") As in March, we saw the Spot-bellied Eagle Owl well. (I could have photographed it well had I got a decent flash.) We also heard it again at Sigiriya. A howling of a terrified dog each time this massive owl gave out its blood-curdling scream was a creepy yet stimulating auditory experience.
Yellow Bittern’s status in Sri Lanka is “Breeding resident and regular migrant.” We had good sightings of it at the Bundala National Park. While birding with Pete Isleib in Attu, Gil had been able to locate an errant Yellow Bittern—a first for North America. This was after Pete had seen an unidentified heron-like bird flying off. After this, Gil and Pete have gone in separate ways to locate this mystery bird. And during that, Gil had managed to find it, and had identified it positively.
Gil had found me through this blog, after trying to identify some dragonflies and insects that he had photographed in a birding trip to Indonesia during last year with VENT. Although he was a serious birder, he certainly didn’t ignore such "other forms of life," and several seasonal delights seen during birding walks were appreciated well.
His top non-birding highlight was a Green Pit Viper that we found at a stake out at Sinharaja. For me it was the rare lycaenid butterfly Aberrant Bushblue. Not many serious butterfly chasers in Sri Lanka have photographed this one, let alone seen it, so it was a big catch.
Gil is also a grammar
We had two sightings of the one and only tree-climbing fresh water crab in Sri Lanka, Perbrinckia scansor.