SHADOWBIRDS by William Burt


A Quest for Rails
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 Lovely anecdotal moments in pursuit of the furtive rail, from a wildlife photographer so deeply under the bird's spell that sometimes you wonder if he was dealt a full deck. Burt's mission was to photograph two fairly drab, songless birds: the black rail, citizen of the salt marsh, small of stature, notoriously stealthy; and its yellow cousin, no less elusive, but happier in fresh water. Both birds are airborne misfits, preferring to walk, thus they are stalked late at night by their calls (the black sounds froggy, the yellow like a typewriter). In the dark, with the black rail making off through the grass and the yellow melting away through the straw, the job is long, hard, and more often than not without reward. Burt takes in stride mosquito swarms, quicksand, and encounters with drunken teenage yahoos, managing to bring an air of indolence to the task; he digests it all at a wonderfully sedate pace. He recounts his tales in an appealing, graceful, old-fart style, occasionally waxing acerbic-- he takes to task two nonagenarians out adding to their life lists for being uninspired--but only enough to keep the narrative from getting flabby. And Burt knows how to laugh at himself, as in his description of a quest in the backwaters of North Dakota for the lost hunting grounds of Reverend P.B. Peabody, turn-of-the-century Åbermensch of yellow rail birders. In the end, the author got his photographs of the nocturnal skulkers, although at the rate of about one a year. It's impressive enough that Burt has fashioned mysterious and engaging creatures out of a couple of eccentric birds. Add to that an absorbing storyline and a talent for depicting the places he roams, and this modest book takes on rather grand proportions. (8 pages of color photos, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1st, 1994
ISBN: 1-55821-293-0
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Lyons Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1994