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It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's...

Wednesday, April 5, 2006

SuperZick! My favorite moment in Florida, well, right up there with another favorite moment that's none of your bidness, was when Bill and I were driving to a certain beach just across the Sanibel Island Causeway on the mainland, to look for shorebirds. At the same instant, we spotted a winter-plumaged red-throated loon lying by the roadside, panting in the blazing sun. I peeled our rented Neon off the road and was out of the car before it had come to a stop, repeating, "I've got to help it. I've got to help it." Bill had the presence of mind to grab my camera, thinking he might be able to record me a. saving the loon or b. getting my eye put out by a stab from that rapier-like bill. He knew he couldn't stop me, or even slow me down. Thanks for the pictures, darlin'! Awesome work!
When loons are flying at night, or at dusk and dawn, a wet roadway looks an awful lot like a watercourse from the heights at which they travel. In wet, foggy weather, whole flocks of them can crash down on highways or parking lots. As you might imagine, landing on pavement when you're expecting a nice splashdown can severely bruise breast muscles and even break keels. We figured this poor creature had been panting on the roadside since early morning--and it was after 2 PM when we found it. Because loons are built like sternwheelers, with their legs so far back toward their tails, they're unable to walk or even hobble on land. And needless to say, being heavy-bodied and unable to run, they can't take off from land, either. There were marks in the sand where it had floundered around; it was smart enough to get off the road, at least.
I had never picked up a loon, but it is a bit like picking up a snake. Once you have the head secured, you're pretty much home free. So I used the old feint-with-the-left and grab-with-the- right, and got control of that scary bill. The thing is to do it right away, and so fast that the loon can't figure out what you're up to. I tucked the bird under my arm to keep it from flailing its wings, and headed for the nearest water--a mangrove swamp that opened directly out onto a bay. It could find its way out just by listening for the surf.As I trotted toward the water a few dozen yards distant, the loon let out a long yodeling wail. It reverberated through my entire body, and the longing in that call wrenched my heart. For all the loon knew, I was about to kill it. It began kicking with all its might, and I was out of spare hands to secure its feet. In spite of myself, I started to laugh as its big webbed feet slapped away at my back. Woman Kicked to Death by Thankless Waterbird.
Cracking up, but I've still got a death grip on that bill. You can't fool around with loons and herons. You'll lose an eye faster than you can say Oops!

I knew instinctively that this bird would be better off in the wild than dragged to some rehab center. Its wings were fine; its feet were fine; it was in good condition; it just needed taxi fare. I set it in the water and watched it paddle off. Only a few feet away, it began periscoping--putting its head beneath the water's surface to look for fish. Then it raised up and flapped its wings, the perfect gesture of relief and comfort.
Ahhh, beautiful moment, beautiful bird. Farewell, loon.


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