A dedicated bird-watcher’s narrative of a quest for the Nechisar Nightjar, a bird never seen live, known only to scientists by a single wing found in 1990.
More than two decades later, Head, chairman of BirdLife South Africa, a conservation organization, joined an expedition led by ornithologist and author Ian Sinclair to find a living specimen. The author’s account of the original discovery of the wing is straightforward, but his description of his own adventures in the wilds of Ethiopia is often overwrought. Head is a keen observer, but he too frequently uses elaborate similes to describe what he observes—e.g., “our vehicle awaited us, shivering like a naked boy about to step into a bath”; “The Amharic language was rich and pulpy, like the juice of a foreign fruit plucked fresh from a tree in a wild place—sticky to the tongue and oddly delicious”; “Dusk grabbed at the sun like a greedy child.” This overly flowery style unnecessarily complicates and obscures the story of what was undoubtedly a thrilling adventure: a small group of colleagues, all dedicated bird-watchers and old friends, finding their way to the Plains of Nechisar armed with spotlights and nets determined to find the rarest bird in the world. Head does make clear the excitement of the chase and the motivations that drive bird-watchers to add names to their life lists, and his love for and appreciation of the natural world are unmistakable. His stories of other birding trips with Sinclair are well-told, and a further bonus is his description of his childhood introduction to the natural world by his grandfather. Unfortunately, the narrative drags when the author tries to be too literary.
Die-hard bird-watchers may forgive Head’s indulgences, but others may wish for a crisper telling.