Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Rusty, the Red-necked Whatever

It was a hot and dusty week here at the end of the road. The three-man construction crew had been working on our siding everyday, always starting before 8AM to beat the heat. I don't know about you, but it's usually past noon before my brain starts firing on all three cylinders. So at first, I thought maybe I had mis-heard the elder construction guy.

"Yep. And we saw an injured loon on the road coming in," he said in passing while setting up the table saw, like that was something that he always sees on his way to work.

"A loon. Really?" I repeated, wondering what he had really said, and why my coffee hadn't kicked in.

"Yep, a loon" he repeated. "We tried to catch him. Mike chased it around the truck, but that sucker could really run." I pictured three large fellows running circles around their pickup, chasing a short loon on a dusty gravel road, half a mile from the nearest water. It was an interesting image.

Wait a minute -- the coffee was starting to work. Loons have trouble even walking on solid ground. Their legs are set so far back on their body that they just sort of push themselves along. I tried shaking the cobwebs out of my ears.

"So," I asked slowly, curiously, "what makes you think it was a loon?"

"Oh, I know loons," he declared, with the conviction of being the eldest person present. End of discussion.

That's how my day started. So we found a big, blue plastic tub with a good lid, and got directions on where to look for a loon ("Just past the mailboxes, before the hill."). Three of us piled into the car to go roadside birding, and the crew fired up their saws and started making more dust.

I parked the car in the middle of the reported loon habitat, and we started walking the roadsides. Sure enough, in short order our friend Bernadette found the bird laying still in the tall grass, just a few feet off the gravel. I slowly approached from behind with my big, thick fleece shirt and, once in position, I asked Bernadette to stand in front of the bird and wave her hands to get its attention. One quick pounce, and the fleece-covered bird was struggling in my arms.

We made a quick examination. The wings were small but uninjured, and both legs were strong while kicking me. The sharp beak was in working order, the eyes were clear and focused, and there were no visible body injuries. Not even a ruffled feather. The bird seemed normal, except perhaps for its decision-making abilities. I set him in the plastic tub, and Bernadette held the lid down while I slid my arms out. We drove back to the end of the road, home to our little lake.

"Red-necked Grebe," I yelled to the crew while carrying the bird in the tub through the construction zone and into a quiet corner of our basement. I named him in honor of our friend who's having surgery to rescue him from years of back pain. "Rusty, the Red-necked Grebe." It sounded better than, "Rusty, the Sort-of-loon-like Whatever Bird."

More than an hour later, the local bird rehabilitator still hadn't returned Tracy's call. Since Rusty didn't have any external injuries, we decided to release him in the lake rather than hold him captive any longer. I slipped my arms back into the tub and, holding his long beak with one hand, carefully pulled him out. I crouched low and set him in the water, and his powerful legs started kicking away. When I let go I expected him to immediately run, swim, or fly away. Instead Rusty spun around to face me, and then lunged. He missed me, but he made his point and restored his injured dignity. Rusty then casually turned back towards open water and slowly swam away. So much for saying, "Thanks."

The night before we met Rusty was dark and moonless. Every now and then on dark nights, flying loons and grebes will mistake roads for rivers or skinny lakes, and land there by mistake. On water, they have to run across the surface in order to take off. But when grounded, because their legs are so far back, they can't really run to get airborne again. We suspect that one wrong judgement turned Rusty into a grounded grebe.

Rusty stayed at our little lake for the next week or so. He spent lots of time preening and swimming, and lots of time diving and fishing. We felt relieved to finally see him catch and eat a good-sized trout. After surfacing with the fish, it took Rusty all of five seconds to swallow it whole. And when we last saw him, Rusty was acting like a healthy loon, er, I mean grebe.