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What Lies Beneath

April 5, 2010

It’s not unusual to see a congregation of birds feeding in and around the canals and lakes of Fort Myers, FL. But this particular frantic, swirling, tornado of egrets and ibises caught my eye. One by one and in quick repetitive motions the birds would leap into the air, plunge into the canal feet first and fly away. They each struck the same area with a similar determined intensity. I pulled to the side of the road and watched the spectacle from the opposite side of the canal. A Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) lay in the water with both wings stretched out flat on the surface, jerking its body upward hopelessly.

I was early for work for once and as always could not pass a suffering animal. The empathy the other birds exhibited fueled my determination to help. To access the struggling bird I had to explain my way through security at a gated community. A red-eyed camera peered down at me. “There’s a drowning bird in your canal. I need to rescue it.” A long pause was ended with “come in and good luck with your bird.”

I parked on a well landscaped lawn, dove through a bush of thorny bougainvillea and made my way down to the canal. Great Egrets (Ardea alba), White Ibis (Eudocimus albus) and Snowy Egrets squawked at me before taking flight, leaving the lone Snowy Egret tugging helplessly at some mysterious, unseen adversary. The surface of the water was covered with duckweed (Spirodela polyrhiza), a tiny floating plant that obscured whatever might lie beneath.

I took my machete and probed the water while the egret stabbed its remarkably sharp beak at me. My fear was the bird was tangled in monofilament fishing line, yet for all I knew there was a Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentine) or American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) griping tightly to this bird’s foot. I felt the tip of the machete hit gravel and pushed the egret up with the flat part of the blade. Something gave and the bird hobbled free. It took a few steps up the embankment and looked at me. In my mind it said “I can’t believe that just happened”.

I have no idea what was under the water.

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