A Bird Worth the Chase, Even After Death

Dan Koeppel had seen plenty of Mountain Quail—until it became the lone bird on his dad's North American life list. Then it became his nemesis, too.

Read Dan Koeppel's first story about his father's life list, published in Audubon in October 2000, which went on to become the basis for the book To See Every Bird on Earth.

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Want to see the Mountain Quail? I can probably deliver it for you. Living in the foothills of Los Angeles, I’ve encountered this easy-to-identify species—a bluish-gray upper body, with a signature “exclamation point” head plume—dozens of times on local hikes, bike rides, and camping trips. Climb above 3,000 feet on an early spring morning in the San Gabriel or San Bernardino mountains, and there’s a pretty fair chance you’ll spot the bird, if not on the first try, then soon after.

That’s what I told my dad in 1993. At that point, Richard Koeppel was, at age 58, five decades into a lifetime of birding that would see his world list exceed 7,000 species, making him one of the planet’s top birders. Like many “Big Listers,” Dad kept secondary tallies as well. On this continent, he had just 20 birds left to see out of a total of 896, according to the American Birding Association’s checklist at the time.

In those days, Dad would often stop on the West Coast to visit me as he jetted from New York to a birding destination on the other side of the Pacific. Two of his missing 20 were local to Southern California, and on a sunny afternoon, we quickly spotted the rarer one—the California Gnatcatcher— flitting amid a beachside patch of coastal sage scrub along the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The next day we woke before sunrise and headed into the mountains. We’d been told the Mountain Quail was nearly a sure bet if we set ourselves up quietly near the Chilao Visitor Center, a 30-minute drive from my house. “The rangers sprinkle birdseed,” a friend told us, “so the quails are almost always there.”

But when we arrived, there were no rangers, no birdseed, and no bird. The same was true the next day and the next. Finally, Dad declared the Mountain Quail to be a “nemesis bird,” meaning one common enough that a dedicated birder should have spotted it, but that nevertheless remains unseen. “It was,” Dad said, “the law of averages,” inserting a coarse adjective to clarify his dismay.

Over the next 15 years, Dad added more than 2,000 species to his total tally. There were other nemesis birds—he finally got the Ivory Gull outside Portland, Maine, in 1997; the Pheasant Cuckoo was revealed on his fourth attempt in Brazil—but the Mountain Quail eluded him, despite a dozen more visits to Los Angeles. In April 2006, I accompanied Dad on a road trip through Colorado. Over the course of four days, we spotted the Juniper Titmouse, Gunnison Sage-Grouse, White-tailed Ptarmigan, and Lesser Prairie-Chicken. Those weren’t in the nemesis category, but they did constitute four of the final five species on Dad’s North American life list. The Mountain Quail had become Dad’s primary avian antagonist; the bird was living up to John Muir’s description of the species as a “lonely mountaineer.”

When my first child, Otto, was born in 2010, Dad was sure we’d see the bird soon, since he planned to visit even more often. His first attempt yielded plenty of grandson time, but no quail. On each subsequent visit, I’d present Dad with deeper research on how and where and when to find the bird. And each time, we failed. 

Dad was planning another trip to Los Angeles in late 2012, but that June, he told me he’d been feeling
 “a little under the weather.” Even though Dad was a doctor, he’d never been one 
to discuss his maladies—at age 76, he’d survived cancer twice, as well as open heart surgery and
 an aneurysm—and so I didn’t worry too much until my brother, who lived closer, reported that Dad appeared to have lost a significant amount of weight, and that he seemed to be in a lot of pain. There was obviously something wrong, and Dad’s refusal to see a doctor or offer a self-diagnosis were, to me, an ominous portent.

When his weight loss reached 30 pounds, he finally agreed to have some tests done. They were all negative. No virus, no infection, no chronic disease, no detectable recurrence of cancer. But the weight loss continued, and by July, Dad’s lack of appetite became alarming; he was also having trouble breathing. More tests—this time requiring a hospital stay—were needed. Dad’s own analysis? Could be cancer. Could be some rare environmentally caused malady. Legionnaire’s disease? Lyme disease? Additional tests were done. Nothing was found. And Dad got worse. “I don’t want to end up on a ventilator or feeding tube,” Dad said. It had been more than a week since he’d left home, and in an effort to figure out what was wrong, his doctors had scheduled a lung biopsy. The night before the surgery, Dad told me to return to his house and remove a document from his desk drawer. It was just one page, titled in red: “morbid thoughts.”

In it, Dad wrote his wishes for both a memorial and the disposition of his body. We could have any kind of remembrance ceremony we wanted, he wrote, but we should follow three requests:

1) No Rabbi at any service.

2) No mention of God at any service. 
3) No prayers.

As far as his body was concerned, there was also a list of three items, though these were presented as options for my brother and me to choose:

1) Bury in Koeppel family plot.
2) Cremation.

3) Donation to a medical school.

I returned to the hospital. A couple of days earlier, my wife and son had arrived in New York; because it wasn’t known if my father’s illness was contagious, we’d been told not to bring Otto to Dad’s hospital room. “You’ll be fine, and you’ll be able to see Otto as soon as you’re out of the ICU,” I said. Dad didn’t reply. “And you’ll be able to visit us this fall and see the Mountain Quail.”

Dad looked up at me.

“If you decide on cremation,” he said, “I want you to throw my ashes at that fucking bird.”

Of all the words one might hear at a hospital, the ones that describe being at a loss are most vexing, if only because they’re so clearly diagnostic of greater loss to come. Initially, the lab found nothing wrong with Dad’s biopsied tissue, but the sample was sent to a specialist facility in New York City for further analysis.

In the ICU, things were rapidly deteriorating. Respiration became so difficult that Dad couldn’t be taken off the ventilator. A feeding tube was inserted. When the advanced lab reports came back, the news was as bad as it could have been. It was cancer, after all. Dad’s lungs had been sloughing off huge clots of wildly growing cells, which were literally choking him. But the clots were mere evidence of a “tumor process,” as one doctor put it. Where the actual cancer was—what part of 
his body hid the malevolent growth—couldn’t be determined. With no place to target, there could be no treatment. And even if a tumor could be found, Dad was now likely too weak for serious intervention. He was going to die.

Dad couldn’t speak, and he was heavily sedated. But my brother and I understood this wasn’t what he wanted.

On Thursday, August 2, we made our decision. The process began in the afternoon with an increase in Dad’s pain medication. Slowly, mechanically, those dosages inched up. At 6:30 p.m., we disconnected his life support. Dad’s eyes opened and shut. They seemed—when they met mine—to be as bright and blue as ever. I spoke the last words I’d ever say to my dad while he was living: “You can go, Dad,” I whispered, even as every part of me instead wanted him—wanted to beg him—to stay.

At 8:15, Dad’s eyes flicked open for the last time. We held his hands. They seemed cooler to the touch. Through much of the evening Dad’s mouth had been pursed into a gasping oval. Now it relaxed. The monitors showed his heart rate, dropping, then rising a bit, dropping further, up and down, but always, ultimately, descending.

My brother looked up at me and whispered: “He’s dying now.”

And then he was gone.

I don’t know how much time my brother and
 my wife lingered; ultimately—because my brother needed to see his teenage daughter, and my wife had to tend to our son—I was left alone, sitting with a person who was no longer a person. When I left 
the hospital, I walked the mile back to the place where we were staying, alternating between tears and thinking about the work to be done. Telling people. A memorial service. An estate. And a bird.

What’s in the trunk of your 
car? For several years following Dad’s death, along with the standard tools, jumper cables, umbrella, and first-aid kit, I carried around a small wooden box filled with “cremains.” Not all of Dad’s ashes. In an attempt to follow several of his wishes at once, we decided to bury half of what we’d received from the Nassau Suffolk Crematory in the family plot at New York’s Mount Lebanon Cemetery. Eighty-two Koeppels have been interred there since 1922. One of the earliest was my father’s brother, Theodore, who died just after birth in 1927. My grandfather, Morris, was buried there in 1971, and my grandmother, Rose, joined him in 1983. It seemed important for Dad, or at least part of Dad, to be with his parents and sibling. It seemed important for at least part of him to stay in Queens, where he’d grown up, where his birding career—as a child prodigy enlisted to help the then-nascent Queens County Bird Club better compete against the rival Bronx County Bird Club in postwar Christmas Bird Counts—had begun. My wife stoically divided the ashes. A box was placed under a stone next to Rose and Morris and Teddy. Another box went into the trunk of our car. It was destined for a bird. And since now I could search for this common bird whenever I wanted, since Dad would always be with me, I didn’t imagine it would stay there that long. Wrong again.

At first, I simply brought the ashes along. Chilao was one stop; so were a half-dozen other promising habitats, like the top of Mount Wilson, a 5,715-foot peak in the San Gabriels. Since Dad’s passing, the tools available to folks looking for a specific bird had vastly improved, and a growing body of electronic data showed dozens of sightings along the road leading to the summit, and hundreds more sightings within a radius of a dozen miles. I searched by car, on foot, and on bike, on hot summer evenings and snowy mornings. I made excursions out of the attempts, enlisting friends, telling them about my dad as we drove into the hills; they bought into the mission, and joined me in my frustration each time we reluctantly turned back downhill, ashes unscattered.

A local ornithologist told me about another spot, on the other side of the mountains, and I was able to obtain a recording of the quail’s striking, two-note vocalization—quee-ark! quee-ark!—actually made at the location. Over and over I went, playing back the audio. Sometimes, I heard a call in reply, but the birds never revealed themselves, and Dad—who saw as heretical the notion that a heard bird might count as a seen bird—would not have approved of an ash deposit made to an echo.

In late 2013, Dad’s estate was finally settled. His house was sold. I donated his large collection of bird books to the local natural history museum. I kept his handwritten lists and his old Zeiss binoculars. We had a second child and named him after my dad. The ashes stayed in the car. At one point, a friend who is more spiritually inclined noticed them. “Maybe he’s telling you something,” she said. “Maybe this means you should keep him with you.” Now, I’m not unsentimental—I still have a small box on my office shelf that contains the ashes of my cat Salty, who died in 2005—but the instructions Dad gave while still living were emphatic enough that I knew they superseded any vague message from the ether.

But it was getting harder to make the excursions. By the end of 2015, the two children and a new job left me with little time to search. One of my smartest birding friends, Daniel S. Cooper—he’s the author of Audubon California’s Important Bird Areas of Californiatold me that by more or less giving up we were now more assured of actually seeing the Mountain Quail. “That bird’s like that,” he said. “It’s out there, but hard to see when you’re actually looking for it.”

Yeah, I know.

So I can’t say I really expected to see the Mountain Quail on the final weekend of March 2016, when we bundled our whole family into the car and drove three hours south to the little village of Julian. 
It was my wife’s birthday, and we were more concerned with sampling the town’s famous apple pie and visiting its arts-and-crafts shops than searching for birds. But there’s no question that Julian and the surrounding hills are Mountain Quail habitat, and so I made sure the ashes were with us when we stopped by Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. The place is so well-known for my target bird that the visitors center features a taxidermied specimen, which proved useful in helping my older son—then five—memorize what the bird looked like; it was more difficult describing what, exactly, we were doing there.

“The box contains Grandpa Richard’s ashes,” I told Otto. We’d spent the previous afternoon exploring Julian’s sprawling old cemetery, and my son had marveled at the spooky idea that bodies lie below us. Now I was telling him that burial wasn’t the only thing that might happen to a person when they died. “Some people want to be turned into ashes. They might want to be part of nature, so we take their ashes and throw them into the wind.”

“But you want to throw them at a bird.” That one was harder to explain. Luckily, my son came up with his own answer: “I guess he didn’t want to be a skeleton.” We walked for about an hour. The sun climbed higher in the sky, and I knew that the noise we made—toddlers are not exactly the subtlest woodland creepers—probably meant that we wouldn’t see much of any wildlife, let alone the bird we were looking for. We headed back for town around lunch, and I was feeling pretty frustrated. I didn’t want a nemesis bird to call my own. I just wanted to get this done.

Julian isn’t a large town, but it is a busy one. The intersecting main streets are nearly always lined with cars and motorcycles, battling for parking spots; pie enthusiasts spill from the sidewalks as they wait for tables at crowded cafes. A few blocks above the town center sits an old gold mine; its prospecting days long since over, it had been refurbished for 1870s-era underground tours. I knew Otto would love that, so we booked a visit.

My father, you might be surprised to know, did not exhibit a whole lot of sentimentality toward birds. It didn’t matter to him where he saw a new bird or how long he lingered looking at it. In fact, sometimes it seemed that the more convenient a bird sighting was, the better. The Ivory Gull, observed in Portland, Maine, was typical. He heard the bird had been reported there; he got in his car, drove 10 hours, pulled up to the dock where the gull had been seen, rolled down his window, and spotted it immediately. Without getting out of his vehicle, he rolled the window back up, turned around, and drove home.

So I think he would have been happy with what happened next. We were crossing the parking lot when I saw them. A pair. Large head plumes, blue-and-brown bodies.

“Mountain Quail!” I yelled. “MOUNTAIN QUAIL!”

I sprinted back to the car as fast as I could, tapping the remote-control button for the trunk release and grabbing the wooden box—and my son. By now, the birds had retreated down a small slope and were pecking among the stones in the old mine’s pet cemetery.

“What are we doing?” Otto asked. “Grandpa’s ashes! That’s the bird.” I opened the box and grabbed a handful. “Take some,” I said to Otto. The ashes were nearly white, finer than sand. Of course, there was a gust of wind. I thought instantly of the famous blowback scene in The Big Lebowski, but the birds remained calm (they were about 15 feet away; I wasn’t really planning to powder the creatures) as Otto and I felt the ash we tossed in their direction lightly dust our faces, skin, and clothes.

It had happened so fast that I had no time to consider what to say, or do, or feel. But I looked at my son, then at the birds, and at my son again. He was smiling and staring down at his blue sweatshirt, which now looked like it was caked with confectioners’ sugar. He pressed his hands into the fabric, leaving a visible pair of five-fingered prints.

As we drove back to Los Angeles, I
 felt happy, grief-stricken, elated, tearful, relieved, one emotion overtaking the other. Otto was asking lots of questions—about how people die, what happens to us when we do, why some birds have big tufts, and whether I missed my dad. I tried to answer them all. And maybe it was a violation of Dad’s wishes to try to say something about the soul, which he didn’t—wouldn’t—believe in. “It took a long time to find that bird,” I said. “Some of my friends say that that might have been because Grandpa wanted to stay with us. But I think it was because he wanted us to wait until you were old enough to help.”

In the backseat, my son was thinking about that. Then, he said, he had an idea of his own. “When you’re alive,” he said, “you have your own heart, and that’s where you live. But when you die, your heart stops. That means you get to live in the hearts of everybody who was ever your friend, and everybody who ever loved you.” I stared back, making sure I’d heard this five-year-old—whose primary spiritual relationship up to now had been with ice cream and whoever’s unseen hands would fill the next cone—correctly. Otto looked down at his sweatshirt. The handprints he’d made in it were fading, but still visible. “You see,” he said, pointing to the prints. “Now Grandpa Richard can hug us forever.”