When the reddish egrets dance, Theodore Cross tries to be in the audience, front row center, with his camera. Male reddish egrets remind him of Fred Astaire in Top Hat. Females dance like Ginger Rogers. They put on a show. Click, click, click.
Reddish egrets hop, skip, jump and curtsy when they are hungry. Looking through his enormous Nikon at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Cross gawks as an egret stabs the water and impales a minnow. Now it begins the egret dance, hopping and skipping and dramatically throwing up its wings. Soon, another minnow swims into the shadow of those wings — and certain death.
Cross knows something about mortality. "Ever wake up in the mirror and say, 'I'm older than I was yesterday?' That's how I feel,'' he says. "It didn't happen gradually. It happened almost overnight.''
He is 86. Recovering from a broken hip, he walks with two canes. Still weak from pneumonia, he feels frail as a helpless chick. He nearly topples in the wind as a helper sets up his camera. But then he sits and looks through the viewfinder. Thoughts of mortality fade when he sees nature through a lens.
Still, he has arrived at the stage of life where it is time to sum up. Cross was a boy during the Depression, served his country during World War II and edited the Harvard Law Review. As a young lawyer, he marched in Selma, wrote a book called Black Capitalism and advised Richard Nixon about helping African-Americans become savvy business people. He started magazines, bought and sold real estate and became a millionaire many times over.
But ask him what he'd like to see carved on his tombstone and he says:
He Passed on to a Better World Still Waiting for a Perfect Picture of a Reddish Egret.
Over the last four decades he has taken terrific photographs of reddish egrets. An especially lovely one appears on Page 12 of his latest book, Waterbirds, published recently by Norton. Now perched on bookstore shelves, the thick, $100 volume is creating a sensation in birding circles.
It chronicles Cross' worldwide pursuit of interesting birds, the whimbrels, the willets, the black-necked stilts, the pelicans brown and white. Once he was indifferent about birds. In the Navy, in the Pacific, birds by the hundreds, thousands, millions, flew past his ship. "I never noticed them. I was seasick and had some kind of tropical rash under my arms.''
After Harvard, he practiced law, built a business, raised a family, wrote books, edited magazines and became wealthy. He knew important people, Wall Street brokers and influential lawyers, big-shot authors and fashion models. Richard Nixon, dedicated Republican, listened to him, a lifelong Democrat, talk about black capitalism.
Reddish egrets danced in the shallows.
One day he noticed the world of wild things.
"I don't know how it happened, exactly. Maybe it was subliminal."
They were beautiful and courageous, their motives simple and pure. They sought only clean water, clear skies, trees, bushes, mangroves, minnows. When Cross was 40, he picked up one of those Peterson bird guides, binoculars and camera. He told people, "Photographing birds is a disease.'' His wife asked a psychiatrist friend about her husband's new obsession.
"Well, Ted has skinny legs and birds have skinny legs,'' the shrink told Mary.
"As good an explanation as any,'' Cross grumbled.
• • •
He has homes in Manhattan, New Jersey and Rhode Island. He has winter property in Sanibel because that is where he has the best chance of taking a perfect photo of a reddish egret.
Here at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, the egrets are dancing. But the sun is high, the light too harsh. Not good enough. He shuts down his camera.
Once, he believed he was going to conquer the world. "If someone had asked me, when I was 19, if I would settle for living to be 86, I'd have said, 'I'll take it!' '' Now his hair is white and bones are brittle, but he likes to believe he has achieved wisdom. "I savor in my imagination events of great richness of nature that I was unequipped to understand earlier,'' he wrote in his book.
Sitting behind his camera, he wears a ball cap. The inscription on the ball cap says "AGE AND TREACHERY WILL ALWAYS PREVAIL OVER YOUTH AND SKILL.''
A perfect photo of a reddish egret? It may be unattainable. A still camera can only freeze a moment in time. It can't capture the sound of the breeze, the smell of bird dung and the mangroves. Still. A photographer can try. He can die trying.
• • •
There are two kinds of birders. The first watches birds in the back yard, has a feeder and binoculars and is pretty good at identifying what just landed. If an interesting species shows up at the local park, such a birder may try to get there on the weekend if the kids don't have soccer practice.
The second kind is like the first kind, only more so. The second kind will say: "Sorry, kids. I can't make it to practice today.'' The second kind often has the means to travel at a moment's notice, or, for that matter, a month's notice, anywhere on Earth, to see something unique.
At Christmas Island, 1,300 miles south of Hawaii, Cross photographed sooty terns, masked boobies and white terns with blue beaks, black eyes and feathers like angel wings. On Funk Island, north of Newfoundland, he found impossibly clownish Atlantic puffins. In the Aleutian Islands, crested auklets smelled like citrus if you got close enough.
In Eastern Siberia, after 7,200 miles and a week of travel, he caught a glimpse of the rarest of the rare — a Ross gull! — but failed to get the picture. Weeks later, he photographed one, lost and bewildered, near Baltimore.
He traveled to the tip of South America to look at red knots. A few months — and 16,000 miles — later, he visited the Arctic Circle to watch the same red knots nesting.
Red knots are about the size of a robin. They weigh 7 ounces. Their heart and lungs together are barely smaller than a child's thumb. They fly over the ocean much of the time, out of sight of land. The wind smashes into them. Rain, snow and lightning take many down into the sea. The survivors flap their way north by the thousands to do what they were meant to do: reproduce. By the time they reach their destination they have lost half their body weight.
When someone asks Ted Cross what inspires him, he says, "Red knots.''
• • •
In Selma, where he marched during the civil rights movement, he was nervous, never scared. In the Pacific, where the Japanese Zeros shared the skies with the albatrosses, he suffered a few anxious moments. Talking to Nixon was nerve-racking. Closing a deal, wondering if he was going to lose his shirt, was scary, too.
The best place on Earth to see large numbers of reddish egrets is also the most dangerous place to see them, Green Island off the Texas coast. The 35-acre island is America's great reddish egret rookery.
Reddish egrets are most often the color of a rusty key. When alarmed, they can make themselves look fierce by flaring out neck feathers like porcupine quills. But deep down, they are lovers and not fighters.
So when the diamondback rattlesnakes crawl into the low bushes on Green Island, the reddish egrets squawk but don't fight. The snakes proceed to eat their eggs.
Nature. It's a delicatessen.
"The snakes come out of hibernation, hungry, at the same time the birds are laying their eggs," Cross says.
Years ago — it was April 24, 1978 — he made his first trip to Green Island to look at reddish egrets.
Local expert Friday Fluman advised Cross to exchange his sneakers for a pair of snake boots. "The first person down the path wakes up the rattlesnake,'' Fluman explained, "the second person pisses him off and the third person gets the bite.''
Cross wore his boots and took the lead. Fluman, who never wore snake boots, didn't get bitten. Somehow, he never got bitten. A birder in the party — he must have been the third guy on the path — got nailed. A helicopter flew the victim off the island.
The snakebit birder survived.
The rattlesnakes didn't eat every reddish egret egg.
Ted Cross has the pictures to prove it.
• • •
Green Island might be Cross' favorite place on Earth. He hasn't missed a spring visit in three decades.
Last summer a car backed into him in a parking lot. The broken hip healed, but his strength has yet to return. He feels dizzy. He takes a lot of pills. A nurse draws blood every day. Walking on canes tires him, so sometimes he has to sit. He will not return to Green Island in the spring.
He will enjoy his reddish egrets as much as possible this month and next at Sanibel Island. Somebody will help him out of the SUV. He'll sit and he'll wait with his camera. Perhaps he will achieve the perfect reddish egret photograph.
He'll have to rewrite his epitaph.
"There's one,'' he says, not out of breath. It skips across the shallows, stops, twirls, stabs a minnow with that deadly beak.
What goes through the mind of a reddish egret? Does a reddish egret worry incessantly about the end? Or, living in the present, does it concentrate only on its next meal?
"I'm hungry,'' Ted Cross says. "Let's get lunch.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727. His latest book is "Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators."