This is a story about a man who carried his love for birds into a war zone. His book Birding Babylon about his deployment in Iraq says little about war, focusing instead on Mother Nature.
When Jonathan Trouern-Trend, an avid birder since childhood, went to Iraq in 2004, he took along his binoculars. The 38-year old father of five knew from his 20 years in the Connecticut National Guard that he would have time to watch birds. "For the first couple of months we were there we really worked everyday, but the Army is all about waiting around too," he says. "Most people had enough free time, often too much. They didn't know what to do with themselves, maybe."
On his first days in the region, Trouern-Trend's convey traveled over remote and relatively safe roads leading from Kuwait north to Baghdad. He says it was a sneak preview of the year ahead. "There were pools by the side of the road filled with birds, water birds, gulls, sandpipers, kingfishers. I think I saw 16 new ones that day." The second day was a lot tenser.
"We drove through Baghdad and one of our vehicles broke down in a very bad place," he says and adds, "There was no time for bird watching then when you are scanning the roofs waiting for someone to pop out."
Trouern-Trend turned these forays into entries in an online journal. During more than a year as an army intelligence officer, he was stationed at a large supply depot north of Baghdad. The almost daily mortar rocket fire was often so intense that soldiers were told to wear what he refers to as "full-battle rattle." "Basically your body armor, your helmet, and then your weapon too. Pretty much you bring it everywhere." While that might not seem like ideal conditions to bird Trouern-Trend says he still got to see quite a bit. "There were a lot of little water holes around and on our base we had some big ponds - a couple of acres - that were the drainage ponds for the runways. So there was greenery around there and the water birds were there - ducks, terns things like that."
That pond was one of Trouern-Trend's favorite spots to bird - even in 54-degree Celsius heat - as was the base garbage dump. Since the 40-square kilometer base was also along a major migration route, he was able to record more than 120 different bird species. Some were familiar -- like owls and sparrows. While others, like the hoopoe, became new additions to his life list. [Listen to Hoopoe's song ]
"It's a weird looking bird with a huge crest that it can put up and down. It has got a black and white salmon color otherwise," he says and adds, "The natives, guys [working] around my base, told me that in folk medicine sometimes they made a love potion out of its bones. I guess they appreciated it in a different way than I did."
On his Internet site, Trouern-Trend mused about Mother Nature and not on war. He says the response to his online journal encouraged him to keep writing. "I think sometimes people are surprised about hearing me do what seems like very normal things because their impression [of Iraq] is it is total chaos all the time. But life is still happening. I think that is a good message. So instead of trying to make distinctions between people, I think that it is good to make connections."
Since returning home last year, his online journal has been turned into a short book called, like the website he created, Birding Babylon. "It's not going to save the world," he says, "but it does give a sense of hope that behind the headlines of war something good is happening." And, he says that may explain why the last bird he saw circling the clear blue sky on the day he left the region was a pure white dove, the symbol of peace. In his last entry, he wrote, "I'll take it as a good omen."