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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Paved Paradise

On my way home from work today I dropped a wayward traveler off at the beach along Puget Sound.  Sometime earlier in the day this wandering soul had been flying high.  He was headed for salt water to spend the winter fishing among the kelp and eel grass with large flocks of his kin.  He came up about a mile and a half short, but not because he was out of energy or otherwise physically incapable of continuing the flight.  No, he fell victim to a trick of the eyes, and his interpretation of what he saw led him to land prematurely.  That premature landing could have meant the end of the line for the unfortunate bird.

From the air, it can be challenging to tell the difference between wet pavement and the surface of a body of water.  It must be especially difficult for a bird whose species has not needed to make such a distinction for most of its history on the planet.  They undoubtedly recognize wet rock faces as they fly over mountains, but a huge, flat swath of glistening wet blacktop is a different matter altogether.  The only natural, large flat swaths of glistening wetness that they see are bodies of water, and they can't tell that the pavement is not what it appears to be until they have already crash landed.

If a mallard or a goose lands on wet pavement, it's not the end of the world.  They simply launch themselves back into the air and continue on their way.  For birds like the Western Grebe (today's wayward traveler) landing on pavement is a disaster.  They are highly adapted to life on and in the water.  Their legs are situated far back on their bodies making it extremely awkward for them to stand up.  They can take flight from water by first paddling and then running awkwardly on the surface to gain enough speed for liftoff.  They are incapable of getting airborne from dry land, so once they hit the pavement they are grounded.

Fortunately for today's grebe, a kind woman found him sitting on her lawn when she exited her home.  He had likely crashed on the nearby road and had been struggling about, trying his best to figure a way out of the predicament.  His feet had nicks and abrasions from the effort, but he was otherwise unhurt.  After he spent a couple hours in a pool to make sure he was still waterproof, and after he finished an all-he-could-eat fish dinner, I was happy to help the grebe complete his journey to his wintering grounds.  My co-worker Jim did the honors and placed the bird gently in the water.  The grebe paddled furiously away from shore before relaxing and giving himself a few good shakes to realign his feathers.  He then swam slowly seaward, periodically diving and resurfacing as he went. It seemed that he had left the troubles of the day behind him on the beach.  What he saw and what he felt were once again in alignment. 

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