Plenty of rescue stories come through the door at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport that volunteers and staff repeat over and over again because they bring us joy and an opportunity to recall the 2nd chances we help make happen. But sometimes a wildlife memory is produced at the shelter that has nothing to do with an injured or distressed animal admitted to our clinic. In this season of giving and reflecting, it’s a great time to share this once in a lifetime story, so let me tell you one of our favorite memories. If there exists such a thing as a normal, or let’s say routine day at our wildlife shelter, especially in the winter, it would be one of manning the phones and admit desk, examining incoming patients, preparing specie specific diets for delivery at meal time, administering medications, cleaning and disinfecting kennel cabs, sweeping, mopping, taking out the trash, locking every patient in for the night and setting the alarm. If there’s a moment of down time in all of that, the small crew of two or three rehabilitators come together to discuss patient care or the latest happening in each of our lives over a spot of afternoon tea in the humans’ kitchen. One winter day started ‘average’ enough, but turned out to be anything but routine. We witnessed an “in the wild” incident so rare it begged for a camcorder bolted to the top of a helmet, similar to those worn during extreme sports or the super bowl, which I should surely be required to wear while tending to tasks at the wildlife shelter. Of course, no one at the shelter wears one, but without videotape, who will fully appreciate or believe our story without seeing it play out for themselves. Still shots can only do so much but here goes. Passing through the kitchen, I stopped to watch the over wintering hummingbird hover near the nectar feeder outside the window. My hummingbirds at home in Jacksonville packed up and left for Brazil or Costa Rica months ago, but this little chubby guy was still hanging tough in our 40-degree weather. At the same time, a Great Blue Heron passed over the building, straight as an arrow, his long thin legs dangling after him like the tail of a kite. I ran to the gift shop window to see if he was coming down to our pond. Although Herons find swampland more suitable at mealtime, they visit our pond occasionally, and he did. I didn’t know if he would stay long, though. Being solitary hunters, the presence of so many ducks and geese may prove annoying for the lanky fisherman. I yelled for Maria to come watch and through binoculars we saw him gracefully move into position behind the bare limbs of a bush whose roots drink from the pond. With head lowered, he stalked all movement under the water and despite twenty geese paddling over to nose into his business, within minutes his head shot into the pond, catching a six-inch Bluegill with his spear-like bill. He immediately took flight over the building with the fish tightly clamped in his mouth, so we hurried to the back window to see him go. By the time we reached clear pane, he was turning around and heading back toward the pond with no fish. The fish was way too wide to swallow whole in flight, so we figured the large, gray seabird dropped the fish, but wondered why he didn’t just come down and get it? Maria and I decided to go outside and look for this fish out of water. If it were still alive, we’d throw him back in the pond. Come on, it’s what we do. Donned in puffy vests we spread out and walked toward the aerial path taken by the Heron. “Stop. Don’t move,” Maria whispered loudly. Within 25 feet, we stood face to face with a stout and sturdy Redtailed Hawk on the ground, her talons securely embedded in the fish the Heron accidentally dropped, or quite possibly, the aggressive, territorial bird of prey caused the Heron to drop it. We will never know for sure, but something told us it was probably the latter. With her mouth open, the Redtail, North America’s largest hawk, looked at us, then down at the fish and back at us. Since her eyesight is eight times more powerful than a human’s, we knew she was seeing us and our intent much more clearly than we were seeing her. We backed away slowly and like a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, the heavily built Redtailed Hawk lifted to a sturdy pine branch, Bluegill in tow and proceeded to dine on fish. We weren’t sure if she’d ever eaten fish before, as they usually feed on small rodents and an occasional snake or frog. After watching her tear into her alleged stolen food for a few minutes, we went back to the gift shop window and found the Heron, planted and waiting patiently in the same fish blind he’d used before. The geese had lost interest in his presence. It only took a few more minutes until the Great Blue surfaced an even bigger Bluegill, at least 8 inches, which he toyed with a bit before seriously making short work of his lunch. Even in nature, good karma is present (at least for the Heron . . . not so much for the fish). This extraordinary experience was compelling, absolutely powerful and took all of ten minutes or less. Those precious moments were a once in a lifetime “coming together” of Heron, Hawk and Humans. Though brief, a strong message was sent and well received . . . . We should all be walking life’s journey fully awake.
MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!!
author of “Save Them All“