For the Birds Radio Program: Kowabunga!

Original Air Date: April 29, 1996

Today Laura Erickson talks about how she’s spending her family’s discretionary income for 1996. (4:18) Date verified.

Audio missing


For nine long years I’ve been saving up to buy a spotting scope. Not just any scope—I already have a beat-up old Bushnell Spacemaster that isn’t too bad, but I’ve been yearning for one particular scope ever since the first time I looked through birding guru Kim Eckert’s Kowa. I’m not exactly sure why I needed or wanted this particular brand over others that have equally good optics, but once my mind was set, it was set. I saved my money diligently, but every time I came close, we suddenly needed something more important for the kids or the house. But two months ago I happened to mention to a birding buddy of mine who owns the Wild Birds Unlimited store in Bozeman, Montana, that I was going to go birding in Colorado in April, and two weeks ago he unilaterally decided that he didn’t want me to see my first Lesser Prairie Chickens and Sage Grouse without appropriate optics, so he sent me my dream scope. All he’s charging me is cost, and he’s giving me till next September to pay him back.

It took all the self-discipline l could muster, but I managed to not look at a single bird through the spotting scope the day it came—I wanted the very first thing it saw in the sky to be the comet, figuring that if the very first thing a spotting scope lays its eyes on is a comet, it’s sure to be a magical scope. The sky was beautiful and clear all day, but as the sun went down, clouds suddenly materialized in the west, and I was afraid the comet was a lost cause, but at 9:30 the sky opened up, and for a few minutes the comet was visible. It was too far west to be as bright and glowing as it appeared a few weeks ago when it was overhead, but even a distant comet apparently has the power to make a spotting scope magic.

To prove this, I got up at four the next morning to head up Highway 2 in Lake County with my birding friends John Heid and Jeff Kern. Sure enough, the very first bird we feasted our eyes on through my scope was a gorgeous male Spruce Grouse feeding on the edge of the road. Through the scope we could see his ruby red eyebrow and every feather of his black, gray, and white plumage. Next we came upon a female Ruffed Grouse feeding on the roadside, and again got long, beautiful looks—this time of year I usually just get to hear Ruffed Grouse. Next a Gray Jay flew down, and the scope showed its pale feather edges and gentle expression. Then a plump robin perched in a tree and broke into song as we drank in more long looks.

My magical scope didn’t look at just ordinary Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers—the ones it found were males of both species only eight inches apart on a snag. First one drummed, and then the other, and I got to watch each feather rustle in the wind and how they close their eyes sometimes when they drum, maybe to feel the rhythm, maybe to keep sawdust out of their eyes.

By morning’s end, my scope species list was up to 10 as we drove along Stoney Point toward Duluth. We’d seen and heard others, but it’s hard to point a scope on every bird. The last one we added was a crow, making me yearn for one really excellent bird to finish the morning with, when a huge apparition materialized out of a field and lighted in a big tree—a Great Gray Owl. He looked beautiful to my eyes, magnificent through my ten-power binoculars, and beyond belief through my scope—] could even watch his pupils dilate as a cloud passed over the sun. This owl was final proof that my scope is indeed a magic one, and it made me darned glad that I’d picked a Kowa when I finished the morning with a happy, “Kowabunga.”