The Warrior

by Walt Belknap, volunteer

and a second story:

Headlight, the Broadwing Hawk

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It was about 4 p.m. when the phone rang. Kelly, from the Marathon Wild Bird Center, was calling. She wanted me to drive across the 7 Mile Bridge and pick up a cormorant with a broken wing in the parking lot. I hesitated, because I had been bicycling and kayaking that day, and I was tired. But I said I would go.

I drove across the bridge and the bird wasn't in the parking lot. A fisherman pointed toward the Gulf of Mexico and I saw the bird sitting on a mangrove root about 20 yards offshore. He had a broken wing. I decided to go back, get my kayak and go after him. I made a round trip across the bridge and got my boat.

It's quarter of five, wintertime, and it will be getting dark soon. A little voice in my head says, "Don't do this". I ignore the little voice. I toss the boat into the water and paddle toward the bird. He tries to fly away and falls into the water. I'm thinking, "I gotcha." He swims away and I paddle harder. I reach out with my long-handled net and he dives. I guess where he will surface and paddle. I guess wrong. I paddle again, he dives and I guess wrong again. After trying a few more times, I realize I can see air bubbles when he dives. Now I'm guessing right but I can't get the net under him quickly enough and he dives if I put it over him. I keep trying, paddling rapidly backwards, sideways, zigzag, every way. My plan is to tire him out, and a surge of adrenalin helps me try six, eight, ten, twelve more times.

Now I am gasping for breath, slumped over in the boat, and it is getting dark. The bird is not visibly tired but I am. I sit there and stare at the bird. He stares back. I remember Kelly's words on the phone earlier, when we thought the bird was in the parking lot. She said, "Get between the bird and the water."

It is low tide and there is a mud flat nearby. I start herding the bird toward the mud flat. We zigzag back and forth, but I can keep him between the mud flat and me. He finally reaches the mud flat and starts running. I jump out of the boat with the net and sink in up to my calves. He keeps running, but I run faster, cursing and screaming and pulling my feet out of the muck. I toss the net over him and say to him, "I gotcha."

Little did I know that catching him would be the easy part. I still had to get him into a cage in the back of my truck. I half-twist the net handle so he can't get out when I lift him up. I put him in the open front of my sea kayak and start paddling. But it takes two hands to paddle, so I have to let go of the net. He is one angry bird, and he stands up inside the net and starts walking towards me, dragging the net with him. This is not good. Cormorants have curved beaks and they can hurt you. So I gently whack him with the paddle. Not hard enough to hurt him, but hard enough to get his full attention. He backs up and glares at me. I glare back.

We paddle back to shore in the darkness. A fisherman is packing up to leave and I ask him to hold the net while I get the cage and open its door. I set the net next to the cage and lay a towel over the bird's head. I work the net loose and hold the bird with the towel. Now, I make a mistake. I get behind the bird and grab his body with both hands so I can lift him. The towel, resting on his head, falls off. I see his neck rise and his head swivel 180 degrees like the periscope of a submarine. I stand there transfixed. Then his neck coils and his head shoots forward, slashing a gash in my arm near the elbow. I stare stupidly at the blood. Now, he has the range! His neck coils, his beak hits me right in the center of the lens of my glasses on my left eye. The beak slides down the lens and puts another gash below the eye on my face.

I finally react. I get him into the cage and slam the door. I toss the cage in the truck, jump in and drive across the bridge. I realize that I dashed off and forgot the boat, so I have to make another 14-mile round trip.

I finally pull into the Bird Center, cursing and bleeding and hyperventilating. Fortunately, both Kelly and Dee Dee are there, working late as usual. They listen sympathetically to my story while they struggle getting the bird out of the cage.
Birds don't carry rabies, so a little cold water and some antiseptic fixed me up fine. Kelly asks me to hold the bird while she examines the broken wing. She says, very matter-of-factly, that the wing has been broken for some time, the bone has dried out, and the bird will have to be euthanized.

She looks at me and realizes the effect this news is having on me. She quickly says, "You did the right thing, bringing him in. Think about this bird out there in the Gulf slowly starving to death."

She was right. That bird was a warrior, and he died a warrior's death.

Note: Walt passed away December 24, 2003, Christmas Eve. His ashes were spread out on this rescue site.

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