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Next Stop: Midway

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Hawaii Island , Kauai , Maui , Oahu
Dec 12, 2008

It was another Friday afternoon at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge when a man asked what kind of bird was perched on Moku’ae’ae Island.

I lifted my binoculars and spied the profile of a seabird with a dark-colored body.

My fellow volunteer Lee asked, “What color is it?”

“Dark,” I said.

“It’s a frigate,” Lee said.  Great frigatebirds do not currently nest on the main Hawaiian Islands. They are easily spotted in the air by their brown or black undersides, forked tails and size—they grow to a wingspan of 7 feet.

As I peered through my binoculars, I wasn’t convinced. This bird wasn’t dark enough. It certainly wasn’t one of our resident red-footed boobies. With its dark body, it wasn’t any of the light-colored birds regularly seen around the refuge. Not a red-tailed tropicbird. Not a white-tailed tropicbird. Not even an early-arriving Laysan albatross.

“What color is its bill?” Lee asked.

“Light,” I said.

Lee didn’t bother with binoculars. “Frigate,” he repeated.

“I don’t know,” I said handing my binoculars to Christa, the park ranger who was assigned closing duty that day.

The man whose question started the debate said, “It looks like a cormorant, but you don’t have those here, do you?”

A couple joined the four of us lined up at the fence. The woman asked, “Is it a whale?” This time of year, humpback whales start arriving in Hawai’i to breed and birth their young.

“A bird,” someone said.

“What kind?” she asked.

“That’s just it.  We’re not sure,” I said. “Lee thinks it’s a frigate bird, but I don’t know.”

And, then, the woman cinched it for us. “What is the shape of its bill?” she asked.

The bills of great frigatebirds are long and hooked at the end, so they can snatch prey on the fly as they dip in the water. This bird’s bill, however, was spear-like.

“I’ve got it,” said Christa, lowering her binoculars. “It’s a brown booby.”

Brown boobies do not nest at the refuge, although—we should have known—sometimes they are seen flying around Moku’ae’ae Island.  And they have a pointy, light-colored bill.

Christa turned to the man who originally spotted the brown booby and asked, “Is that on your life list?”

“It is now,” he said.

In the birding world, birders travel the world in search of birds to add to their life’s list of different birds they have spotted. The world’s champion birdwatcher, Tom Gullick of Spain, has tallied more than 8,700 different species of birds in his life. That’s out of a total of 9,500 or so total bird species.

When I hear the words, “life list,” I think more along the lines of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in the movie, The Bucket List.  The two make a list of adventures they want to accomplish before they die. And because they are terminally ill, they decide to gallivant around the world ticking off one adventure after another.

There was a time when I charged through my life as if my time was running out. I racked up one adventure after another. One year in particular—I called it, “My year of living adventurously”—I hiked the Kalalau Trail on Kaua’i. I camped beside the Colorado River at the basin of the Grand Canyon. I backpacked Big Bend National Park in a drought. I biked across Iowa. And I spent the summer water skiing in the mornings and evenings when the water was as smooth as butter. It was as if a doctor had handed me a life sentence or as if I had gazed into a crystal ball and saw the end. But I wasn’t dying of cancer, and I hadn’t seen a fortune teller in years.

Looking back, that year was great fun, filled with many fond memories. I remember running across a string quartet—playing their instruments beside the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. I remember my husband befriending a group of cowboys in Texas. I remember my skittish dog scuttling up my body whenever our canoe grounded on rocks in a shallow river.

At the time, I wasn’t entirely grateful for the experiences, even though I lined them up one after another like dominos. I would stop and look around at the striations of color in the Grand Canyon or at my dog sleeping quietly beside a fire, and instead of exclaiming, “This is so cool,” or “Life is good,” or “I am so blessed,” I would groan, “What am I doing here?” It’s a sentiment most travelers have at some point. Famed travel writer Bruce Chatwin even titled a collection of essay with the question. The idea of gratitude was as welcome as a grizzly bear.

Some time in the past 10 years, my life list got lost. It’s not that I am no longer living adventurously. I still regularly add to my life list—I recently dove with manta rays off Big Island, kayaked Napali Coast and trekked to a remote beach to help tag a monk seal pup.

I’ve noticed that my adventures have slowed down, as well as toned down. I now consider volunteering at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge a thrill—watching as wedge-tailed shearwater chicks grow and lose their downy feathers, edging ever closer to the cliff’s edge and their first flight. And I say things like, “This is so cool” and “Life is good.”

I suppose it’s age. With age comes wisdom, they say. But age also brings insomnia, knees that won’t bend and menopause. Looking back, clearly, I was searching for something in those check-check-check days of list living. But for what? Happiness? The meaning of life? My purpose? And, if that’s so, when did I find it?  When my husband and I moved to Hawaii? When I accepted there would be no children in our marriage? When I went to grad school? When I stopped wearing makeup and coloring my hair?

What hasn’t changed is that I still don’t have the answers. Why was I restless then? Why am I not now, relatively speaking?

Here’s what I do know. I am no longer making lists. I am not carefully checking off events in my life. My adventures happen not because I plan them, but because someone says, “Hey, we need someone to write about diving with manta rays on Big Island; do you want to go?” Or, “We’re looking for volunteers to go to Midway and count albatross nest sites. Interested?”

And, maybe, there is the answer: Let life come to you. Don’t force your way through life with your elbows out. It’s a little like winning over a timid dog or a shy child. Don’t grab their faces and cover them with kisses. Make subtle advances from afar, and they’ll approach you.

Of course, that’s not to say I don’t waste any time saying yes when life offers me an adventure. My hand flies up in an instant. That’s why, tomorrow, I am headed to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge--that's right, the Midway vital to the outcome of World War II--to count albatross nest sites for the next two weeks.

I hear internet access is limited there, but I’ll do my best to post in periodically, so check back. Or, you could always subscribe to my blog by email (scroll down to the bottom of the sidebar on the right), and my updates will appear in your email inbox.

In the mean time, what’s on your life list?

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