|Bird in the Hand|
|Written by Wendy Doscher-Smith -- BT Contributor|
A leisurely outing turns into desperate attempt to rescue an injured cormorant
I first spotted the dark brown stump in the middle of the bayside road, dead center, blocking my way. The stump sat. I pushed down on the brake while peering over my steering wheel.
The stump moved. The stump had feet. And feathers. I put the car in park, turned off the ignition, and watched the stump awaken, walk across the road, hop onto the sandy area beneath it, and then hop up to a low-hanging tree branch. Positioned on its perch, webbed feet curled around the branch, the stump fixed me with equal measures of suspicion and curiosity.
Turns out the stump was a cormorant, a medium- to large-size seabird you’ve probably seen if you live in Miami and ever go near the water.
Here’s a short summary of the cormorant, which will aid in your understanding of why this scene on the overgrown old road, which runs parallel to the south side of the Julia Tuttle Causeway, immediately struck me as odd. (The fact that I was even at that location may strike you as odd already. I collect sea glass there.)
Cormorants are hypervigilant and skeptical of strangers. Unlike other waterfowl (ducks, for example), cormorants don’t let you near, even if you offer food. In fact, you likely will never get close enough to a cormorant to even attempt to feed one.
There are 40 or so species of cormorants or “shags,” as they are called in Great Britain. The Miami-Dade variety is dark brown and can weigh up to five pounds. They are handsome birds, with stunningly beautiful turquoise eyes and long, thin, sharp beaks that hook downward. Though long thought to be in the raven family, they are actually related to pelicans. (“Cormorant” derives from the Latin “corvus marinus” or, roughly translated, sea raven.)
I knew something was off with this bird. What was he doing in the road? Cormorants are excellent divers able to snatch fish underwater. When they are not bobbing in and out of the water, they often perch on tree branches, wings fully extended, looking very grand, while allowing the sun to dry their plumage. Asphalt is not a natural habitat for the cormorant.
For a few fretful minutes, I worried that the Stump Bird had died in the street. The dog I had for 18 years had died two weeks prior, and my beagle died last year. Rational or not, I started to suspect I was becoming the Angel of Animal Death, and I did not desire a confirmation.
I perched myself on the ledge next to the road, in front of the bay. Sand crunched beneath my sneakers. I continued to sit there, glancing out at what had been, until then, the comforting blue ebb of Biscayne Bay. The cormorant made no movement. This bird needed help and I had driven right into the situation.
For the next 15 minutes I observed his behavior. I couldn’t pinpoint it, but something was wrong. I grew up with parrots and still photograph them in the wild; I can usually spot a sickly bird. No wild bird should let me sit 20 feet away, definitely not while he is snoozing, and plus, as he set his brilliant blue eyes on me, I saw a cloudiness in them.
I called the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station, which is located on the 79th Street Causeway. Its mission is rehabbing seabirds. I prayed my case was compelling enough. Nonprofit rescues are always short on staff, so you never know if help will arrive. Thankfully, it did, in the form of a woman wearing thick gloves and lugging two gigantic nets attached to poles.
After a failed attempt to scoop up the bird, we devised another plan. We lacked bait, so I ran to a truck parked up the road, figuring a fisherman could spare some chum. As I neared the vehicle, I noticed there was something fishy about the car, but it didn’t involve scales. Instead I saw an entwined, amorous couple. Fail.
At the opposite end of the old road, the cormorant had found a new perch. I walked past him and then, with huge net in hand, inched across the ground as quietly as possible, stopping every foot or so to see if he noticed me. I thought I could sneak up on him and net him. I got close, put down the net, and sat on the ledge. I then inched the net toward my grasp, concealed by trees.
Meanwhile, the woman from Pelican Harbor returned with some sardines, and tossed a few toward him. He was not interested. Not good.
I had never netted a bird before, yet, now closer, I was positioned favorably. I scooted toward the tree. Meanwhile, the woman crept up from the other side, crunching shells as she stepped, and went for him, but he flew out into the bay. My heart sank.
Except, the cormorant flew back. The woman lunged with the net and captured him momentarily, until he dove under the water and got away. I scanned the bay for him. When he resurfaced, I swiped my net in his direction, missing him by an inch.
“No!” I yelled, as he swam away. There was only one thing left to do. I quickly trudged into the water, waist deep, stomping through seagrass. It felt like hands grabbing at my shoes. Then I swam out to him, unwieldy net in hand. I had only one chance. One toss. So. Close.
I lurched one arm forward, extending the net over him. I caught him! Then I quickly flipped the net so he couldn’t dive under again, and swam back to shore.
The woman and I transferred him from my net into an animal carrier. The cormorant had no visible injuries. I stood, clothing stuck to me like some co-ed at a wet T-shirt contest, and watched helplessly as the woman drove away with the bird.
I called the following day and learned he had died a short time after arriving at Pelican Harbor. The wildlife rehabber said he was about a year old. She ordered a necropsy. Her best guess was a head injury, possibly caused by a boat. The results were inconclusive. This news upset me greatly.
But in the end, I suppose his spirit lives on, and it is only his physical body that will be, to quoth the raven, nevermore.
Volume 12, Issue 8. October 2014
The Smithsonian honors a local documentary photographer
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