A happy ending for a confused waterfowl

The Horned Grebe landed on the wet lane behind the barn on the Amish farm in Wayne Co., Ohio.

By Bruce Stambaugh

My good friend Robert phoned again recently. When Robert calls me, I listen.

Known as the go to bird guy, Robert gets all kinds of calls regarding birds, especially rare species since he hosts the rare bird phone alert for Holmes and surrounding counties in Ohio’s Amish Country. Sometimes he even serves as a conduit for rescuing birds.

That was the nature of this call. A bird had landed on a gleaming, long farm lane, obviously mistaking it for a stream or water-filled ditch. The young mother of the family that found the floundering bird had called Robert out of desperation.

The family had easily captured the bird and, recognizing it as a waterfowl species, placed it in a basement utility tub half filled with water. That’s where it still was when Robert, his son and I arrived the next morning.

redbuttonedeyesbybrucestambaughRobert immediately identified the bird as a Horned Grebe all decked out in its spiffy winter plumage. It’s red eyes looked like bright buttons against its clean, white cheeks and charcoal head.

Not only was this an unusual situation, it was an unusual bird for this area for this time of year. Horned Grebes need long stretches of water to get airborne. The shiny, wet driveway had apparently confused the poor bird.

Fortunately, the grebe appeared to be fine. But with the extreme cold of early January, large, open water spaces were scarce. I called another noted area birder who told us she had seen a good section of the Killbuck Creek free of ice near Holmesville in northern Holmes County.

Robert donned his gloves, and carefully lifted the Horned Grebe out of its watery confinement and wrapped the bird in towels to protect it from any human contaminants. Off we went with the grebe perched patiently on Robert’s lap. We’ll discount the several attempts to drill Robert with its thick, pointed bill.

When we arrived at the creek, we found a couple of good release points. We chose a large ice-free spot 100-yards south of the bridge that crosses the Killbuck. It appeared to be the best place to release the bird back to its proper habitat.

Robert slowly approached the creek bank, and gently tossed the grebe toward the stream. The Horned Grebe flapped its way to the murky water. It swam a short distance, pecked the surface as if in disbelief, and made a quick dive to the bottom. Even though the Amish family had dropped bits of frozen fish into the tub’s water, the Horned Grebe was naturally hungry.

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After a few seconds, the natty bird resurfaced, leaned back, shook its wings and head simultaneously. If birds can express emotions, this fortunate fellow was down right ecstatic.

The Horned Grebe swam and dove, swam and dove. The three of us headed back to the car satisfied that the bird was uninjured and would be just fine.

Once it had gained its strength, the Horned Grebe would likely take its long, running start across the water’s surface and lift into the air. Hopefully, when and wherever it landed, it would pick a real pond or stream this time.

On land, the Horned Grebe was simply helpless, completely out of its element. On water, it was a graceful and stately wonder. As proof, the grebe was placidly floating in the center of the stream as we left.

We took one last glance as we crossed back over the bridge in the car. The grebe was gone. Either it was down for another food forage or it had taken off for another locale.

There is great satisfaction in helping the helpless, confused birds included.

This was the last time we saw the Horned Grebe as we walked back to my vehicle.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

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