You won't believe it, of course, since most birders would give an arm to see even one, but on one single bird trip guys saw Craveri's murelet, the red-billed and also the red-tailed tropicbird and -- hold your breath -- Cook's petrel. To say nothing of the rhinoceros auklet.

"Not Cook's petrel," you will cry.

Cook's petrel, that's what I said.

For more than a year now I have been following at some distance the quest of Jim Vardaman, a lumberman of Jackson, Miss., a preeminent birder or, as they are called in vulgar speech, bird-watcher.

Vardaman is 58, the father of six, and is "square as can be," he boasts, "except when it comes to birds."

"I'm gonna take a year off," he let everybody know a little more than a year ago, "and look for birds."

As you may not know, birders go out in the fields, the woods, the seas, the skyscrapers, to sight birds, and when they see something you diagnose as a sparrow they keel over with excitement. It wasn't a sparrow (they go on) but a gold-crowned fluttery angeloid, or some such rarity.

And serious birders like to keep lists, not only of all the birds they have seen in their lifetime but also of all the birds they have seen in the past year.

The record for the most birds seen in a year -- the greatest number of distinct kinds of birds -- stood at 657. Which God knows is a lot of birds. To make such a list, you count the sparrow as 1, the mockingbird as 2, the downy woodpecker as 3, and so on. Many of us drop exhausted at 26 with the evening grossbeak.

But Vardaman laid his plans, allowed $25,000 for expenses (all of which he has spent, without any special complaints from his wife) and at 12:01 last Jan. 1 began watching for birds. At 12:01 he got his first one, a fine sighting of a barn owl near a police station. And none of your business what he was doing around a police station on New Year's Eve.

He set himself the goal of 700 for the year. It seemed a good round and impossible number. A man's reach should exceed, you know.

I said ha, ha, when I heard of his project. I stopped laughing on July 28 when Jim broke the record and climbed to 658 with an American woodcock.

But now we're approaching the deadline. He has 697, with just three to go to meet his self-imposed challenge.

Yesterday I phoned to see how he thought the chances were of finding three more before New Year's.

"Oh, he's not here, he's in Alabama," said his secretary. "Looking for birds."

In Alabama a man said he was out in the woods after birds and no telling when he'd ever be back.

Mrs. Vardaman, who stays sensibly at home (sensibly for a non-addicted person) said he had to come back from Alabama because he's going to California tomorrow to look for more birds.

"He promised he'd be home for Christmas Day," she said. "Though I guess if he gets a call. . . ." and she trailed off. When asked how she felt about this year, she said it depended on when you asked her that.

"When I'm in a good mood, I think it's fine. But then again. . . ."

Well. There are times an investigative reporter does more harm than good.

A few wekks ago Vardaman heard amazing news:

He heard about the guys who saw the murelets, petrels and so on, out in the ocean 120 miles off the California coast. He lost no time getting on a boat and going there.

As 6:15 on Nov. 17 he half woke up and asked if it was light yet, and a guy said just barely. So Jim rolled over and slept a bit mo--

"COOK'S PETREL" he heard a man screaming.

Racing up, he arrived just too late.

"I could have kicked myself,' he wrote his friends. "I had come 2,500 miles and then missed it because I got lazy." (Read this to any young people n your house, for moral instruction.)

"But two more Cook's petrels showed up at 9 a.m.," Vardaman goes on, so he saw them after all. (Do not read that to the young people, lest it weaken the earlier moral.)

So here he stands, needing three more to reach the goal. Will he find the Grail, fulfill the quest?

Now some will ask what the point is, since he doesn't even catch and eat the birds but just makes a record of sighting them.

It's always been a question. They asked it of the fellow who painted the bison in the stone-age caves. They asked it of the woman who poured ointment over a friend's head instead of buying food for the hungry.

And they are always asking it of those who count spots on guppies in wild Trinidad streams.

Sometimes, from the severity with which the question is asked, you might think everybody else in the world is out weaving sarongs for poor naked ladies in Bali and doing other good works, except the one who is selfishly painting bisons or counting birds or gazing at guppies.

There is no answer to satisfy those who question.

If you don't see any point in it, nobody ever said you had to.

It is, however, the central point of life: to head off God knows where and God knows why and give it a go with everything you've got.

If it sounds dumb, probably it is dumb.

Floreat liliorum: let the lilies bloom, or as you might say let the bees inherit the bonnets.

Often it will occur to you there should be a law that American flags must be manufactured with a fringe, to remind us of the fringe types amongst us, to our very great good.

To our very great good most of the time, and even when the results strike us as bad, maybe we have to put up with it to keep the country sweet.

In times of national anxiety -- the hostages of Iran -- our herd instinct is properly strong.

We -- or at least I -- are less than usually tolerant of marchers to different drummers.

Don't mean Vardamn. A fellow far gone in birding strikes me as splendid at all times and in all places.

But you take the national voice which has been so consistently and firmly behind the president in the matter of the hostages.

It stood to reason that somebody, sooner or later, would get up off his shamrock or his Senate seat and start yawping about the shah -- as if his life had anything to do with the seizing of American hostages.

Fury is likely to race through the blood, since this hardly seems the time to wander from the main point, that Americans were seized and tied down to chairs.

The instinct is go for the jugular.

Equally infuriating are the brains of those who trot up confessing they know nothing about nothing but suggest it would be nice if the shah committed suicide and why can't he do something useful and nice like that?

But again -- peace, and hold on. "Hold on," I say to myself a dozen times a day, nowadays.

To feel anger and find no good outlet for it leads to deep depression. Unless I let go of the anger and hold on to what seems right.

Maybe people are wrong -- real wrong -- to chip at foundations and seemingly diffuse it more by showing our high gifts of vitriol against some loon or other.

To sit and wait. Well, it's what some Americans are doing, neatly tied down in Persia.

If force cannot be used, what else is there to do, but join them. To wait with them all night until it's morning.

What if there isn't any end to it? But there is always an end to everything. As we read in Mr. Meadowbine's poetry class:

He that points the sentinel his room, doth license him depart at sound of morning drum.

And till then no doubt you just god-dam wait.

Stars and feet, stars and feet, try not to budge.