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A Global Birding Pioneer Finally Tells His Tale

A review by Frank Izaguirre

Roads, Peoples, Birds, Mountaintops, & Billabongs by Dean Fisher

Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2018

500 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14925

In To See Every Bird on Earth, author Dan Koeppel, while chronicling the first globetrotting birders, describes Dean Fisher: “When I first heard about Fisher, I didn’t believe he really existed, mostly because he’s not mentioned in the early accounts of listing that I’d seen.” For historians and enthusiasts of world listing and global Big Years, Fisher may be the most mystery-shrouded figure of the pantheon.

No more. 57 years after the completion of his three year round-the-world journey, Fisher has finally published an account of his and companion Noble Trenham’s avian-attuned odyssey, Roads, Peoples, Birds, Mountaintops, & Billabongs. For every birder who faithfully devotes a half-shelf or more to global listing chronicles like Noah Strycker’s Birding without Borders or Phoebe Snetsinger’s Birding on Borrowed Time, Fisher’s book is an instant must-own.

The quest begins in 1957, when Fisher obtains several days leave from his aircraft carrier, stationed off Japan, and attempts to summit Mt. Fuji. Already September, summiting season was closed, as the weather was unpredictable and the trail near the top was already covered in snow and ice, making the climb not only exceedingly dangerous but effectively impossible. Undeterred, Fisher attempts, very nearly succeeding before turning back amidst a series of hazardous and harrowing conditions. After this escapade, one of the carrier’s fighter pilots, Noble Trenham, approaches Fisher and asks if he would join him in traveling the world after the completion of their tours. They didn’t much know each other, but after hearing of Fisher’s Fuji attempt, Trenham had decided that was exactly the kind of spirit he wanted in a travel companion.

Departing from Southern California in an overweight Jeep in 1959, the two travel through Central and South America before ferrying their way to South Africa from Brazil. After crisscrossing the African continent, they explore Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Australia, and finally ferry themselves back to California in 1962 after three years on the road. Fisher birds along the entire route, diligently recording the many bird species he encounters. The book’s layout recalls Wild America, punctuated by Peterson’s own illustrations of his journey—many of them avian but also including other wildlife observations and cultural scenes—but on a grander and global scale. Physically, this is a big book, textbook-sized, perhaps a necessity for accomplishing all of Fisher’s objectives as the author: The story itself, interspersed with mostly color photos of his travels, including portraits and landscape shots, is over 400 pages long. Two appendices at the end of the book add an extra 70 pages, cataloguing the trip’s bird list, one by family and the other by date and country. In total, Fisher encountered 3,406 birds on his trip, 2,932 of them lifebirds.

Not surprisingly, owing to the largely unexplored nature of ornithology in many of the regions Fisher visited, some of his observations were their own thrilling scientific discoveries. One of the most astounding is his own personal description of a wren he observed at Machu Picchu, which turned out to be the Inca Wren, Thryothorus eisenmanni, first collected by scientists in 1974, named in 1985, and, according to The Birds of South America, the Oscine Passerines by Robert Ridgely and Guy Tudor, first seen in 1965, a full six years after Fisher observed the species, making his description the actual first ever. In another incredible episode, Fisher goes on a fishing boat departing from the port of Valparaíso, Chile, and observes two prion species, Antarctic and Slender-billed, extending the known range of these two species 250 miles northward.

The author’s writing style maintains a pleasant balance between travel narrative, logistics and other details, and ornithological notes. Birds are mentioned on almost every page, and readers might best savor the book by keeping a relevant field guide (or perhaps a Google tab) handy to look up the birds he encounters. As may already be obvious, Fisher’s trip occurred before field guides existed for most of the countries he visited, and certainly before any site guides were available. It took him years, in some cases decades, to identify many of the species he had seen, which was only possible because of the extremely careful and thorough notes he took throughout his trip, especially in northern South America where he had essentially no resources to help with identification. Some of these notes are interwoven with the prose, giving the reader a sense of Fisher’s diligence and attunement to birding in largely unexplored territory, but never so much as to overwhelm the story.

Readers with aversions to the killing of birds and other wildlife should know there is a fair bit of it in Fisher’s writing, sometimes for food, other times for scientific collecting, and occasionally even for pleasure, as when Fisher and Trenham go on safari with the goal of shooting a zebra for its skin, although such episodes are notably in the service of illuminating the contours of travel in that day and age. Fisher’s habit of photographing people who very strongly did not want to be photographed, which occasionally gets him into life-threatening situations, can be similarly difficult to work through. The author also has a habit of ending paragraphs with phrases like “Life was an adventure!” or “Our spirits descended to an all time low,” giving the narrative something of a journal-like quality, although it is not strictly speaking a journal. After reading about the seemingly endless string of car problems and correspondingly even bigger problems of seeking out adequate repairs on the road, one is left feeling relieved that Fisher was able to go birding as a form of stress-relief.

Car troubles are not even the most trying moments of the trip. Fisher’s other misadventures include a drunken Colombian federal agent pointing a gun at his temple, a group of Masai surrounding him with pointed spears and knives, being arrested for “spying” (birding) in Jordan, and being arrested again in Iraq for illegally attempting to bring a shotgun and his ceremonial Navy sword into the country. Additionally, Fisher and Trenham drive across what might be reasonably perceived as such unwelcoming places as the Sahara Desert, the Soviet Union, and Afghanistan. The lows are low, even terrifying, but the highs soar, which include Fisher’s introduction, upon his arrival in Australia, to one Laurie Weaver, whom he falls in love with and marries within just a few months of meeting.

Much like Kenn Kaufman’s unique Big Year, Fisher’s global birding effort will probably never be replicated. The publication of Roads, Peoples, Birds, Mountaintops, & Billabongs is a wonderful moment for birding, the illumination of an obscured near-legend of birding history. Like Fisher and Trenham’s own overweight Jeep, this sturdy book will safely transport you to not just faraway lands filled with the unknown, but to an era of birding that retains its own air of mystique.

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Frank Izaguirre is the Books and Media Reviews Editor at Birding magazine and a PhD candidate in English at West Virginia University, where he is dissertating on how field guides have shaped environmental values in America. He lives in Pittsburgh, PA, with his wife, Adrienne.

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