Friday, October 17, 2008

Hooked on Florida

I saved my first shore bird.
It was a sunny day in St. Petersburg on Friday. The temperature was a degree or two shy of 90 and I had to use windshield wipers to see through the humidity.
I put two cans of pop (liquid is a good thing in the tropics) in an insulated lunch bag and then stuffed that bag, a book, a towel, a baggie filled with pretzels and my binoculars – an often overlooked beach necessity -- into a bigger bag, grabbed a chair and drove to Gulfport Beach.
Gulfport, a southern neighborhood of St. Pete, is where we are going to live if our bank-owned house ever closes -- but that's for another story.
Anyway, it was really hot so I thought I'd walk out to the end of the pier where the breeze off the water is great.
By the time I walked the two blocks from public parking to the pier -- regretting I didn't leave my stuffed beach bag in the trunk with my chair -- my hair was sticking to the back of my neck, sweat beads were running down my forehead and blisters were beginning to form where my rubber flip-flops rubbed against the sweaty tops of my feet.
And people wonder why they call this paradise!
I said hello to a burly fisherman casting a net over the side of the pier.
“What are you trying to catch with that?” I asked him as I pushed my sunglasses back up my sweaty nose.
“Bait. Little fish for bait,” he said.
Hmmm. I know those fish. In fact, I caught one myself just the other day on St. Pete Beach. Something tickled in the top of my bathing suit. I looked down and there was a little silver fish. I didn’t freak out as much as the man 20 feet away from me in the water who saw more than the little fish as I wriggled it out of the top of my suit.
I continued on my way, walking out the pier. The only other people on it were an Asian couple, each with three or four active fishing rods leaning up against the railing.
I smiled and said hello but they just responded with that nod and smile that says, “I know the word hello but not a lick of English beyond that.”
As I got to the end of the pier, I could see a huge bird standing on it. It was a heron. It must have been about 4 feet tall, just standing there all spindly and, wait, there was something hanging out of its mouth.
I got closer and the gangly bird started to bob away. I stopped but squinted to see what it was chewing on.
A fishing line!
It had a fishing line hanging out of its mouth.
How will it eat with that hook in its throat? How did it get there? How will it survive?
I had to get help. I got to the Asian fisherman first.
He nodded and smiled at me as I approached.
I pointed to the heron and then stuck my pointer finger into my mouth, crooked it and poked my cheek out from the inside, the universal symbol for “that bird out there swallowed a fishing hook.”
He smiled and nodded. I nodded and again pointed to the bird but by this point, the man had gone back to his fishing.
Then I saw the burly fisherman who was casting nets for those little bait fish.
“That bird out there swallowed a fishing line,” I said.
“I know. I saw it. People gotta clean up after themselves. They cut their lines, leave them laying around and the birds get at them,” he said.
“Want to help me catch him?” I asked, smoothing out my sundress in an attempt to look more like a serious conservationist than a sweaty tourist-turned-resident.
“Well, ma’am,” (that’s what they call women down here) the man laughed, “I don’t know what we’d do with that bird once we caught it.”
He was probably right. I pushed my sunglasses back up my sweaty nose and continued flip-flopping down the pier. I kept turning around to make sure the bird was still there.
Now what?
Then I remembered a new friend I had made days earlier -- the owner of the used book store. She was only a couple blocks away. She'd know who to call.
I was in luck. She knew someone who knew someone who had the number of the local volunteer for the Shore Bird Sanctuary.
By the time I got back to the pier, there were four people on it: the burly man, the Asian couple and an older woman, who was thin, wearing shorts, a white T-shirt, white anklet socks – and carrying a net.
The shore bird saver!
I could hardly wait to get to her, to tell her I was the one who called, to ask her if I could help.
“He’s gone,” she said to me before I could speak. “This is the second time today that I’ve been out on this bird and he’s never where the people say he is.”
The people?
“That guy,” she said, pointing to the bait fisherman, “said it was here five minutes ago but now it’s gone.”
“Does it bob on the water? Like that?” I asked her as I pointed to a duck 50 feet away.
“Heavens, no. They have no means of swimming,” she said as she walked away from me.
But I wasn’t done. I set my beach bag on the pier and pulled out my beach necessities one at a time until I found the binoculars.
I scanned the horizon, looking for the bird.
I spotted him. He was on a dingy tied to a shorter wooden pier a little way down the beach.
I frantically looked around for the bird rescuer. I spotted her scurrying along the shore.
I stuck my arm up in the air and waved it at her like someone lost at sea would wave at a low-flying aircraft.
She saw me.
“He’s out there,” I mouthed to her as I pointed to the other pier.
She started to walk toward me as I rushed to her.
“Look, he’s eating the bait out of a bucket on that dingy,” I said as I thrust my binoculars at her.
“Now, why would anyone leave bait on that dingy?” she asked as she took my binoculars.
She held her glasses in one hand as she tried to look out of the binoculars. She tilted them and made them wider and then narrower and then, annoyed, pushed them back to me.
“I can't see out of these."
And then, "I have my own binoculars ... in the car.”
“That’s him,” I said. “You can see the wire hanging out of his mouth.”
She grunted in agreement.
“Well, we’ll just have to hope he walks into my lure,” she said as she walked toward her car.
“Can I help?” I asked, walking as fast as a woman with blisters on the top of her feet and a 20-pound beach bag hanging off her left arm can.
“No,” she said.
So I took a spot on a bench on the beach and watched out of my binoculars as the wiry, white-haired woman went after the hooked heron.
She walked to the end of the pier where the dingys were tied up and then she bent at the waist and did something with her lure, which was a pole with a neon-green net tied to one end of it.
I couldn’t tell what she was doing but all of a sudden, she leaned back and then threw her bony arm forward, casting her lure like a fisherman casting a line.
I rotated my arms so that my binoculars moved from her, down her pole to the net.
Holy shit. It looked like she bagged an emu.
She must have had him by the foot because he was hopping one-legged toward her.
As quickly as she caught him, she scooped him up and out of the net and had the enormous bird folded up and tucked under one arm. She held its beak shut with her free hand.
I ran toward her and she walked back from the end of the pier.
“That was great!!” I said. “How did you do that?”
“I’ve done it lots of times,” she said, more annoyed with me than the emu she had tucked under her arm.
I followed her to her car, continuing to tell her how amazing she was.
She interrupted me in mid-praise.
“Now you can help me. Get those scissors off the front seat and cut this.”
She was pointing to the fishing line that was wrapped around the bird’s neck.
When I got close to the bird, I could see that while it may be 4 feet tall, it only weighs about 4 ounces. It was all spindle and feather.
I got the scissors and cut the line. The hero woman unwound it from the bird’s neck and then carried the bird to an awaiting dog crate in the back of her car.
This is where I found out why the bird had been so subdued: She was holding its beak shut. To put it in the crate, she had to let go of the beak – and immediately lost control of the beast.
As she thrust it toward the door of the crate, that bird extended every possible thing on its body that it could extend to keep from going into the cage – it opened its beak, outstretched its wings, raising every feather as high off its body as it could. It spread its long, stick legs and all the toes on it as wide as it could.
But, in another feat of magic by the rescue woman, it was momentarily in the cage and sulking, its face smashed into a corner.
“Are you taking it to a vet?” I asked of the bird that still had fishing line hanging out of its beak.
“There’s a hospital at the sanctuary,” she said. “They know what to do. They don’t even have to cut the bird. They just reach down its throat and get the hook out.”
Reach down its throat and get the hook out.
“Does this happen a lot?” I asked.
“Yes, it does,” she said getting into her car.
I picked up my beach bag and watched as she drove away.
I scooched my feet back in my flip-flops, keeping the rubber away from my blisters and I walked back to my car.
I threw my stuff in the trunk and got it. I was feeling pretty good, having saved a living creature and all.
Never mind the heat and the blisters and the fact that both my cans of pop were long gone, it really was just another day in paradise ...


Bruce said...

Wow, nice blog. You sound just like this lady I used to work with in Ohio.
She had a ton of problems with birds, raccoons, skunks... you name it.

Only you Patti, only you. So how long until you write about an alligator slipping into your brand new pool?

We sure miss you.....

Anonymous said...

Ah, the freedom of blogging... Can't write "holy shit" in the Chronicle! :)

Lynn said...

you are such a great writer!
I can picture the surf and sticky sand and laugh out loud envisioning you chasing (scaring?) bird woman in your flip flops with her squawking charge...keep it coming!