Goddard engineer Tom Feild wanted to experience every kind of bird in its natural habitat, “I would like to see all the families of birds, which means visiting all the world’s major ecosystems.” So, in 2003, Feild traveled around the world looking for rare birds. He found something else too, his wife.
Feild started in Uganda on a group birding tour where he saw Mountain Gorillas and the rare Shoebill Stork. Although he was not allowed to go within 20 feet of the gorillas, some of them walked up to within 10 feet of the tour group. He next traveled to Europe where he climbed Mt. Blanc and the Matterhorn. “The French know how to live,” he concludes.
Feild returned to Africa, where he climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. “I cheated on Kilimanjaro. The difficulty is acclimatizing to the 19,000 foot altitude. After the Alps, I was already partially acclimated,” recalls Feild. He went on safari to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater where he saw lions, leopards, cheetahs, rhinos, giraffes, and elephants. “You see these amazing animals every day, herd after herd. It’s mind blowing,” he says. From Tanzania, he went to Cape Town, South Africa, rented a car, and drove all over seeing penguins, albatrosses, antelopes, and Cape Sugar Birds, which only live in South Africa.
His next leg was Madagascar, home of the world’s largest lemur population plus five families of birds. “It’s dirt cheap. People make gravel by hand with hammers. I felt like I was making a difference by supporting the locals,” says Feild. Feild hired a boat to look for a rare duck and ended up temporarily shipwrecked on a peninsula when the wind turned. “The shipwrecked life isn’t so bad. A French guy rented us a shack as the local ‘hotel,’ complete with French food and French wine,” he recalls.
Feild’s travels continued to Australia where he lived out of a car for several months as an economy measure. Platypus, echidnas, emus, cassowaries, kangaroos, wombats, and wallabies filled the trip. Although he was afraid that any place would be a letdown after Africa, he found Australia to be incredible. In Tasmania he saw Tasmanian Devils and hiked the Overland Track where he met a medical doctor from New Zealand named Geraldine King. Soon after, he happened to be visiting New Zealand where he met King again. For their first date, they tramped the breathtaking Milford Track and saw kiwis, kokako, yakahe and other unique birds.
Feild’s next stop was India where he saw tigers, rhinos, and unique shorebirds known as Ibisbills. “In Africa and India, you are not the top of the food chain. This makes you very aware of your surroundings,” he explains.
From India, Feild went to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, where he was on a beach with killer whales so close to shore that he could see waves breaking over them. Following a brief trip home, he visited Hawaii, Japan, and Borneo.
Feild’s second date with his future wife was in Borneo. “I missed my flight and no one had cell phones,” he recalls, “How many people get away with being 24 hours late for a second date?” He did eventually arrive, and the two saw orangutans and Bornean Bristleheads. He finished his trip in South America in the most diverse ecosystem on the planet—the Amazon rainforest.
Twice a year for the next five years, Feild and King went on adventure vacations together. “I’ve never had a vacation that was too long,” says Feild. On April 18, 2009, some five years after meeting in Australia, they married in the Great Dismal Swamp, Virginia. “Swamps are full of life. The Great Dismal Swamp is a beautiful place,” says Feild. They honeymooned in Alaska surrounded by thousands of walruses. Thanks to his around-the-world birding vacation, Feild met the rarest bird of all, someone with his same love for nature and travel.
“When you’re out looking for birds, it takes you places where you can see everything else too. It’s awkward traveling as a tourist, but going as a birdwatcher you’re just some crazy guy with an excuse to interact with the locals.”