Santa had not been a birder for long. It started one day when he felt less than his usual cheerful self. “Every year is the same!” he said, “Every year they want more and bigger and better presents – it gets harder and harder to do it all – and I’m getting old and tired.” The chief elf gave him a glance. He felt worried, Santa had not been himself recently. “Hmmm, perhaps you need a hobby to take your mind off sorting presents over and over, year after year – you could try birdwatching, that sounds like a nice relaxing hobby.” Santa didn’t look impressed but next day he noticed a pure white bird picking around the scraps on the floor where a Polar Bear had overturned his bins the previous night. Puzzled, he raided the shelves of gifts for a Collins Guide and soon worked out he was watching an Ivory Gull. So… the first bird on Santa’s list was Ivory Gull – a species most twitchers would travel hundreds of miles to see!
The following day he noticed another gull but not as pure white and much bigger. It was being chased by a stunning looking bird and he just had to know what it was! Being just outside the stores he dashed in and grabbed a pair of binoculars from the shelves and checking the book, he worked out it was a Glaucous Gull being chased by a Pomarine Skua – wow! What superb birds they were! He loved seeing them through the binoculars and soon he was carrying them everywhere along with his trusty book – he was hooked!
Soon the elves were worried. Santa had sooo much to do – Christmas was only a few months away but he was constantly out birding! He talked of nothing else and even though his list was still a short one he seemed so excited by every new bird he was only getting worse! One elf thought he was going crazy. “He came back today saying he had been looking for the King of the Eiders! I tell you, he is going mad – they don’t have a King do they!? I don’t think birding is a good influence on him – can’t we persuade him to go back to curling?”
As Christmas crept closer they tried to get him more focussed but such was the draw of his new hobby it proved difficult – all he could talk about was Steller’s this, Ross’s that and Grey Flap-a-ropes …..or whatever the word was.
They decided to hold a meeting. Somehow, they had to explain to him that there was a serious problem and he needed to stop birding, for a little while at least. They nervously waited for him to arrive but to their shock Santa didn’t appear! When they went to find him they simply found a note… “Sorry, will try to get to the meeting later, gone for a Gyrfalcon.”
The shock reverberated round the workshop. There were serious doubts they were going to be ready for Christmas at all at this rate. It could not happen without Santa – he needed to read children’s letters, check on the naughti-ometer and decide whether some children deserved all the ridiculous things they were asking for these days. Some jobs elves just can’t do and what was more, he was exhausting the reindeer with all his racing around chasing Little Auks, Brunnich’s Guillemots, Ross’s Geese and Spectacled Eiders. The elves all knew they were getting behind so they had the meeting anyway and discussed what they could do. One of them had an idea….
Next day in the workshop Santa was very grumpy. Apparently, he had missed the falcon and he was not happy at all. One of the elves had checked into the symptoms of what is apparently called ‘dipping’ and discovered that this moodiness can last for days!!! They tried to persuade him that infact, considering where he lived, it should not be long before another appeared but he mumbled something about migration and having to wait months. He looked miserable but then the elf started with the plan…. “We are going to cancel Christmas,” he said flatly. Santa looked up. “We are simply too far behind and won’t be ready in time so we have no choice.” Santa stared gloomily at him but said nothing. The elf had hoped for a more shocked reaction but now came the masterstroke. “It’s a shame really as you might have seen all sorts of birds while we travelled round the world delivering presents but now you will miss them all.” He looked at the floor but he could hear from Santa’s reaction that he had struck gold. After a few moments of silence he tentatively replied, “what birds? Surely it will be dark!” The elf tried to sound conversational, “well there are all sorts of owls we might see and we might pass nightjars as we travel, and you would be surprised what else feeds at night.” He said nothing more, but waited for this to sink in. He watched the expression slowly change on Santa’s face. His frown was still there – but now it looked like he was pondering. Then he smiled for the first time that day… and suddenly he boomed, “We can’t cancel Christmas!! Just think of all the disappointed children – let’s get on with it!!!”
Over the next few days things picked up fast. Santa put in crazy hours and, in truth, used a bit of magic to speed things up too. They were soon catching up with the schedule and things looked good until – disaster….the Gyrfalcon was spotted again! On hearing the news Santa’s eyes glazed over and he was clearly not listening to anything anyone said anymore. The moment their backs were turned he was gone!! He came back later that day very happy though, and full of Christmas cheer, and now his focus was very much on the job at hand and suddenly things were getting done even faster. It looked like they might be on target at last!
On the night of Christmas Eve they were all loaded up and ready to go but this time Santa had the latest in top quality binoculars round his neck and a telescope balanced on top of all the presents on the sleigh. The elves were a bit worried he would be so distracted he would never get round all the chimneys but hearing their chattering behind his back he boomed, “ho-ho – do stop worrying – there is no way we can deliver all those presents in a single night without ‘playing with time’ anyway – playing with it a bit more won’t make any difference – we’ll be fine!” He was secretly thinking that by pausing time he could also check out any owls he spotted without them flying away.
And so… Christmas came and all the presents were delivered and everyone was very happy. On Christmas Day Santa fell asleep in front of his fire as he always did and had a day off. Beside his chair was a little black book. It had a waterproof cover and looked a bit tatty. The Chief Elf brought him a hot cocoa only to find him fast asleep, so he sneaked a peep inside – and inside was a list. It started with Snowy Owl, went on to Pygmy Owl, Ural Owl, Great Grey Owl and on and on through Madagascan Red Owl, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, Pearl-spotted and Barred Owlets and even Australian Owlet Nightjar.
And in amongst all these were a surprising number of ducks, geese and swans with a note that he had no idea so many wildlfowl fed at night. There was the pheasant they startled from a tree as they nearly slipped from that roof in China – they are difficult roofs there! Also the Jackdaw they startled out of a chimney where it was roosting and the flock of Silver Gulls circling in the lights above Sydney Harbour Bridge. There were several nightjar species especially in Africa and South America, some Night Herons including a Boat-billed Heron hunting crabs, three different species of Stone Curlew, a Woodcock and yet more owls. As the list grew you could tell which country he was in by the birds being added….
Santa woke and picked up his cocoa. He smiled, sipped and said, “I missed Spotted Owl in Arizona but we’ll get it next year for sure, I gave myself this site guide for Christmas and I know a better place now, near the Johnson’s bungalow. And I am trying to think if there is some way we could deliver presents in daylight! What if we put some kind of slow-motion spell on the presents when we drop them down the chimney so they don’t arrive until the middle of the night…”
The elf smiled a nervous smile and said, “Yes, maybe,” but inside his head he was screaming, “Noooo! Please take up something else – this is not the nice relaxing hobby I thought it would be – it’s a complete obsession!” But we all know there is no going back once you are hooked so they may just be stuck with it. And one thing was certain – at that moment Santa had the weirdest ‘bird list’ of anyone in the world!