Ron Smith likes all birds, owls especially, even if they never return the affection. If owls loved him, they might come out during the day so he could see them better. They might land on the nearest tree branch and wait patiently for him to focus his camera.
Owls have no mercy. They like the dark. They like wet nights and places teeming with mice and rats. When he goes owling, Ron Smith often wears a raincoat and rodent-thwarting trousers. Forget about the camera — he totes a flashlight.
Standing at the end of a road, he peers into a fetid field that smells of old garbage, decay and possibly rat feces. Life is sweet.
In other parts of his hometown, normal folks are settling down in front of TV, maybe the football game. They're eating oatmeal cookies, drinking chocolate milk. Perhaps they're listening to holiday music while decorating the tree.
Smith's call goes out into the dark.
If an owl is out there, it keeps its beak shut.
No problem. He knows of another nice dump with plenty of rats. His Jeep station wagon — 190,000 bird-watching miles already on the odometer — rolls down the road.
Smith, 54, is one of west Florida's most dedicated birders. When he goes out, he expects to see something interesting, perhaps a long-billed curlew or a magnificent frigate, red knots or peregrine falcons, American oystercatchers or fork-tailed flycatchers.
In 1987 he bought a guide during a Maine vacation and began paying attention to whatever landed on the bird feeder. Back at home, he took Audubon-led bird walks to St. Petersburg parks. Soon he was shadowing the most accomplished birders in the area, including Jerry Shrewsbury, Lyn Atherton, Dave Goodwin and Larry Hopkins.
During the day he carries a gun as a police officer; after work he's quick on the draw with binoculars. If something significant with wings shows up nearby or even far away, he tries to see it. He and friends, taking turns behind the wheel, once took advantage of a holiday weekend and drove to Arizona to look at birds. Then got back in time for work on Monday.
Birds are beautiful, graceful and mysterious; serious birders can be obsessive, obnoxious and competitive. They want to see every one of the 10,000 known species in the world or die trying. The most determined birder of all time was Missouri's Phoebe Snetsinger, the daughter of an advertising magnate. Snetsinger chased birds while sick with melanoma and continued even after enduring rape in New Guinea. She saw 8,400 species before her death in a car accident during a birding trip to Madagascar in 1999.
A working stiff, Smith has managed to see most of North America's known species after work and on vacation. This summer he hopes to add another bird to his list of 638 American species, the gray partridge in Minnesota. In Florida he has seen 416 species and is one of two Florida birders who have seen at least 100 species in all 67 counties.
He birds in the morning before heading to his job at Pinellas Secondary School. In the parking lot he keeps his eyes on students and on the trees. On the drive home, nothing feathered escapes his sight. "No one in the world knows habitat for native and wintering species like him," says Lorraine Margeson, a passionate birder herself.
At movies, he is distracted from the plot because he can't stop listening to the birds in the background. "They always get them wrong," he says of moviemakers. If he hears a roadrunner calling at a point where the story requires a song from a thick-billed vireo, the magic is ruined.
Some people wonder if he ever sleeps. He maintains a computer website for serious birders, pinellasbirds.com, and leads a monthly bird walk at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve. Next Saturday, he will begin looking for owls in the wee hours for St. Petersburg Audubon's annual Christmas bird count.
Some participants will carry A Birder's Guide to Pinellas County, the 200-page bible Smith put together on behalf of local Audubon clubs. "It's written with passion," says Judy Hopkins, Audubon's St. Petersburg president.
Some friends believe his most impressive list is his shortest. In the world of big-league birding, where divorces are all-too-common, he has been wed to the same woman for 32 years. On the day after Thanksgiving, Lori and Ron headed for Pinellas County's Fort De Soto Park to see a rare Franklin's gull, sped to Myakka River State Park near Sarasota for a northern pintail duck and managed to see a Swainson's hawk in a hay field near Hillsborough County's Sun City Center. Their total for the day: 77 bird species.
• • •
The phone rang.
"There's a snowy owl at St. George Island State Park," shouted another hard-core birder.
Snowy owls belong on the Canadian tundra. They aren't supposed to be found on a sand dune in the Florida Panhandle.
It was just past midnight on a Saturday morning about a decade ago.
Smith jumped in the station wagon and stepped on it.
Seven hours and 320 miles later he was waiting at the gate when the park near Apalachicola opened at 8 a.m. He drove 3 miles along the sand dunes, stopped and got out his binoculars.
It was a snowy owl. Other birders arrived. They saw the snowy owl, too. Smith and the other birders exchanged pleasantries. Then Smith climbed back into his Jeep and drove home.
At 5 p.m. he led an "owl prowl" at Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St. Petersburg. He was able to show off a few tiny screech owls.
• • •
"Don't slam the car door," Smith whispers. "We have to be nice and quiet."
A light rain continues to fall. In the distance, cars rumble along the interstate. Smith hears a helicopter and an ambulance. Years ago, a birding friend who was hunting for owls was shot by a drug seller who apparently mistook him for a narc. Smith hears crickets and his own footsteps as he pads through the pitch black in a deserted area of town.
Behind the fence is a deserted field, a good place for mice and rats, which means it might be good habitat for barn owls.
Big, sneaky owls, they perch on fence posts or stumps after dark and wait. They're famous for their extraordinary vision and hearing. In a famous experiment, a scientist once placed a barn owl in a dark room. Then the scientist introduced a mouse. The barn owl pounced on the mouse within seconds.
"You can never be sure you're going to see an owl."
One more try.
The pale-colored owl swoops out of the dark like a giant butterfly, flapping in a big circle, dipping down, then rising, then circling again.
The pair, probably mates, float through the mist and show up occasionally in the beam of Smith's flashlight. Barn owls, bewildered barn owls, probably expect to find another barn owl intruding on their territory. Instead it's a tall guy in a ball cap with a pounding heart.
"Nice!" Smith yells. "Really nice. Barn owls. I still get excited."
They give him the once-over twice, thrice, four times.
Then they're gone.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.