John E. Riutta was formerly head of binocular and spotting scope development for Leupold & Stevens, Inc. He now publishes The Well-read Naturalist, writes extensively for bird watching and other outdoor publications, and of course, travels in search of birds yet unseen.
Back in the days when a traveler might recount tales not only of adventures had at the journey’s destination but of the pleasures and enjoyments experienced during the voyage to and from there as well, upon meeting an experienced voyageur, one might notice their valise emblazoned with emblems from far-away cities, exotic hotels, and grand railroad or steamship lines. Both badges of experience as well as mementos of the traveler’s adventures, these decals became so popular and well recognized in their time that scarcely any Hollywood movie or magazine advertisement would dare to depict a travel scene without such a colorfully decorated case featured prominently in the picture.
While the days of such travel have long since passed, some practitioners, among whom I count myself, of another past-time with its roots in those same by-gone days still engage in a similar practice of bedecking a key piece of their essential gear with visual reminders of their adventures. I mean of course bird watchers and their iconic field vests.
Adopted from field journalists – who it is said adopted them from the U.S. Army Rangers for whom they were originally designed during World War II – the backs of the multi-pocketed vests sported by bird watchers can often be read as a narrative history of their quests to see birds often rare and far afield.
For as long as I have counted myself among the binocular-toting tribe, I have hung about my increasingly stout frame one of these very vests. Originally a Filson photo-journalist’s vest (which I still proudly own) and later – as the need for additional pockets arose due to my travels taking me farther and farther afield, requiring the safe toting of airline tickets, language phrase books and a passport in addition to my usual field guides, notebooks, camera gear, and other equipment – Filson’s Travel Vest, the khaki-colored back of this ever-present and invaluable piece of my travel and field kit has over the years become a kaleidoscope of colors from all the badges affixed to it.
From the annual attendance patches of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival where I yearly worked to fill out my south Texas life list to an antique crest of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds given to me during my visit to the largest bird watching event in the world, the British Birdfair in Rutland Water, England, each of these emblems not only proclaims to others where I’ve been, they remind me of people, places, and of course, birds that have been a part of my life – or in some cases, that were not. For while I failed to get a glimpse of the Three-wattled Bellbird depicted on the Neotropical Bird Club crest proudly centered on the vest’s back, my trips to Canopy Tower in Panama have brought me sightings of other such remarkable birds as the Purple-throated Fruit Crow and the Bicolored Antbird.
So when you notice someone in an airport, train station, or hotel lobby sporting a well-worn vest with bulging pockets and a rainbow of emblems the predominant images upon which are birds, take a moment to stop and ponder all the places that person has been and all the remarkable things they’ve seen. As bird watchers tend to be a unusually friendly lot, feel free to give a gentle shoulder tap and inquire about one that particularly catches your eye; especially if the vest’s wearer is a portly bloke with reading glasses at the end of his nose and sporting a beard that is a bit more grey and longer than it probably should be. I’m always keen to recount my adventures with those I meet on my travels.