Nov 1, 2014

Injured heron captured after 3 months

 By Rebecca Dmytryk

Photo by nature photographer Kim Moore.

It was July 29th when we received a call through our hotline about a juvenile great blue heron at El Dorado Regional Park in Long Beach, California - its right foot entangled in fishing line.

The reporting party, Jill Brennan, first noticed the injured bird about two weeks earlier. Since then, she'd been trying to find help - someone to capture it and remove the line, with no luck.

Throughout the United States, there are very, very, very few agencies or organizations that offer assistance with difficult animal rescues such as this one - even fewer that specialize in wildlife, and fewer, still, that are trained, equipped, skilled and experienced. 

The Los Angeles area is no exception. There's my dear friend Peter Wallerstein, who runs Marine Animal Rescue day and night and still has a tough time keeping up with the many animals in need of assistance. Then there's The California Wildlife Center (my baby), but it's rare to see them extend service beyond Malibu and they could not spare anyone for this great blue. There's aquatic bird specialists, International Bird Rescue, in San Pedro, where the heron would be taken for medical treatment, but they do not offer local response. Then there's the Specialized Mobile Animal Rescue Team (S.M.A.R.T.) - a group of amazingly skilled rescuers, but, the program is administrated through the Los Angeles City Animal Services and their service area does not include Long Beach. Then there's the Long Beach Animal Control, with field officers who do perform wildlife rescues, but have limited experience in capturing flighted birds... 

Photo taken August 12th by Kim Moore.

WES' Los Angeles team has only a few members (but is growing), and none had used a snare before... but was about to.

On July 31st, two of our volunteer first responders, Carole Elkins and her husband Bill, drove from their home near Griffith Park to meet Jill in Long Beach. 

They found the bird fairly quickly and were able to coax the heron close by tossing small bits of fish.

Over the past couple of weeks, Jill had worked on developing her relationship with the young bird, visiting the park every morning and making offerings of fish to gain the bird's trust - something that would ultimately be key to its capture.

We do not condone the feeding and habituation of wild animals as it usually ends up being a "death sentence" for that individual, but when trying to capture an injured yet very mobile animal, it is often a necessity.

As instructed, Carole set out a single snare of Dacron line, the type of line used to capture the L.A. River blue back in December, and then sat back, unassumingly, as Bill baited the bird close.

The heron approached slowly, gracefully, deliberately and finally, into the center of the snare.

Carole whipped the line and, for a moment, she had the bird,... but not for long - the heron folded its toes and slipped through the hoop.

The wonderful thing about the single-snare technique, is that you can try and fail multiple times with minor insult. The birds rarely suspect the person, forgiving moving sticks and flailing line quite quickly. It's not like chasing after a bird with a net, where there will be no second chance.

Unfortunately, though, it would be a couple of weeks before Carole could return for a second attempt. In the meantime, Jill kept up her morning visits, building the bird's trust. Jill was wholeheartedly committed to saving this heron she affectionately named Roger.

A resident of Long Beach, Jill routinely visits El Dorado Park. Over the years, inspired by her love of animals and nature and her training as a physical therapist, she has rescued hundreds of birds - mostly fishing line entanglements. 

On August 18th, Carole returned to El Dorado Park for another capture attempt. The heron was unusually skittish. Here is her report:
Hey, Rebecca, 
Wish I had better news. I got to El Dorado at 8:30 a.m., found the juvie GBHE, and set up just as before. Unfortunately, from the start, I noticed his behavior was dramatically different. He wouldn't come near enough to take the bait. After an hour of trying to lure him while mildly testing his behavior, he flew across the lake and out of range. He seems very frightened, as if someone has been attempting to catch him. At this point, I'm not sure what the best course is. He looks well nourished but that foot is much worse. So frustrating!
I had a meeting in Los Angeles scheduled for September 2nd, so I decided to drive down a few days earlier to try and capture the heron. In the meantime, Jill kept up her visits with Roger.

On August 31st, I met Jill at the park entrance just before it opened at 7:00. A large banner at the entrance to the park warned fishermen about the dangers of loose, abandoned fishing line...

Image by wildlife photographer Steve Shinn.
Jill led the way through the large sprawling park to the body or water in Area III, where the heron was seen regularly.

There he was. Waiting.

I set up a noose made of Dacron and walked Jill through the plan of how she will toss scraps of fish closer and closer and then finally on the other side of the snare with the hope of him stepping perfectly into the center of it.

Photo by nature photographer Kim Moore.

Photo by nature photographer Kim Moore.

The line I was using was white. Clearly visible. The heron approached close, but not close enough.

On Day Two we offered live fish, which he liked, and we tried a mechanical land seine net, but it wasn't tall enough - he flew straight up and over...

Photo by nature photographer Kim Moore.

For Day Three, I decided to try something different - an underwater noose mat.

Noose mats can be made by attaching numerous snares to a piece of mesh - like hardware cloth. The idea is to "walk" a bird over the mat where, if lucky, the bird will become snared. 

I needed the base to be flexible - to shape to the contours of the pond bottom. I found a volleyball net on sale at a sporting goods store that would do nicely. 

Instead of using monofilament line which tends to curl like party ribbon, I decided to try nylon coated steel wire - the kind we now use to make the loops on our bal chatri.

Creating so many nooses would take time, but our team rallied. Carole Elkins generously provided her home, and long time friend and wildlife rescuer Julie Adelson volunteered to help. 

It was a really nice afternoon. We sat in the shade sipping ice cold lemonade and catching up while perfecting our noose-making skills. 

By late afternoon we'd completed one mat. That evening, back at my hotel room, I made an additional two mats - one with very large hoops.

It was Tuesday - the day after Labor Day. 

Jill and I met at the little lake in Area III. Roger was there, waiting.

He patiently watched as I placed one of the noose mats in the shallow water, securing it to two heavy block and checking that the loops were open.  
Photo by nature photographer Kim Moore.

Photo by nature photographer Kim Moore.

We used chunks of fresh frozen tilapia to lure Roger through the nooses. 

We had him walking back and forth and through and all over the mat with no luck.

From time to time I would check the snares to open any collapsed nooses, but after 4 hours, I had to give up.

Feeling pretty disillusioned and frustrated, I thought of little else during the 6-hour drive home. Tough rescues like this one consume me - I run through possible strategies - what might work - what won't, "feel-seeing" my way through various scenarios.

When planning the capture of an animal, you have to take everything into consideration, the landscape, the species' biology, the individual's character. Plans take form and evolve, heuristically, through trial and error, with mistakes being as valuable as successes. It is through our mistakes - through our failures that we learn - that we perfect our methods and hone our skills.

A few days passed. I'd run through our capture attempts in my mind, ad nauseum, to wake one morning knowing that we must put more effort into the single-snare method. 

I drew up plans, but could not find anyone available to attempt a capture. 

It would be weeks before I returned to Los Angeles.

On September 25th, Jill  wrote:
Hi Rebecca,
Do you know if someone tried to capture that GBHE last Friday or Saturday? 
I saw it last Thursday morning, and it was status quo. Unfortunately later that day I broke my toe and had great difficulty walking on uneven surfaces and was not able to monitor it on Friday or Saturday morning. 
Sunday morning I hobbled back out and was stunned to see the GBHE limping very badly on that right leg and it would not come within 100' of me.
Monday morning I could not get it to come anywhere near. 
Wednesday morning, it still would not come close, so I put out a few small fish and backed way up, and it finally flew in. 
This morning, it approached me within 20' and again I left fish and backed away and it limped over to eat them.
I called the LA Animal Services to request the SMART team but they don't cover Long Beach and they advised me to call Long Beach Animal Care Services. 
While LBACS does pick up and provide transport for injured wildlife, I doubt they're up for a flighted bird.

Weeks passed and Roger's injury worsened. 

On October 24th, Jill wrote:
Roger has now acquired more line on that right foot, trailing line behind him. He was tethered with the new line for a day, then managed to pull it away from his left leg. No one here is comfortable with the snaring so great news you will be in town. 

Image by wildlife photographer Steve Shinn.

Jill stayed in touch, keeping me posted on Roger's health. She kept up her daily visits, strengthening her relationship with the bird.

It was mid-morning on October 30th when Jill and I rendezvoused at the park. Wildlife photographer Steve Shinn was also on hand to help.

While Steve and Jill canvased the area looking for the injured bird, I picked the spot to lay the snare, close to where Jill had been meeting the heron each morning.

Image by wildlife photographer Steve Shinn.

This time, I was using the 30 lb test nylon-coated stainless steel wire we used to make the nooses. Plush grass held the loop up off the ground a couple of inches. 

I ran the line, taught, about 12' to the tip of a very long willow branch, then to my wrist. 

We were ready. 

Jill made her usual sounds and within seconds the bird flew in to the grassy area near a picnic table.

The bird appeared eager, but cautious, seemingly aware of the two strange ones. Even after the first fish was tossed, the heron spied us with reservation.

A few more tosses and Roger seemed to have adjusted to our presence, but still retreated quickly after picking up a fish.

There's finesse to all of this - to tossing the bait just so, to subtle changes in posture. It's a dance.

By about the 6th or 7th fish, I felt a surge of adrenaline... I'd read him - he was about to step into the snare... least he was stepping where I thought the snare was but I couldn't see it... ...neither could the heron.

Roger stepped forward, he leaned in. I went for it. I flicked the willow stick and heard the line whizz through the air... then I felt it - the tug - the live weight on the end of the line. I had him.

Jill quickly helped me gather the line. I grabbed the bird's head to control its sharp bill. Jill tucked in the bird's wings and helped me gather its body before she removed the snare from its leg. 

We had him. We finally had him. This poor, poor, poor bird.

I drove Roger to International Bird Rescue in San Pedro where medical staff examined him briefly before placing him in an enclosure to rest. He would be given a thorough examination and his condition would be evaluated by their veterinarian. It was no surprise, though, that the prognosis was not good.

A huge Thank You! to photographers Kim Moore and 
Steve Shinn for capturing images of our rescue attempts.

If you'd like to become a volunteer responder on our Los Angeles wildlife rescue team, please fill out an application HERE, and register for our Wildlife Search and Rescue Training on February 13th, and the hands-on training on the 14th, HERE.

If you'd like to support our efforts to expand our wildlife rescue team in Los Angeles, which is to include a Pelican Patrol Boat, please make a contribution through the link below, or send a check payable to Wildlife Emergency Services to Box 65, Moss Landing, CA 95039. Thank you!!!

UPDATE: 11-12-14

We are thrilled to report that Roger is still alive and in recovery at International Bird Rescue! 

The injury was so severe that his middle toe had to be amputated, but, there is still hope of him making a full recovery to be released back into the wild, and that could not come soon enough. 

Captivity for these flighty, highly sensitive birds is extremely stressful. So much so, they must be sedated so they don't hurt themselves in their enclosures. 


Anonymous said...

A great story, the genuine interest and compassion of the people who are dedicated to helping wild animals injured or in need of assistance gives me hope for our future. Shore fishermen everywhere need to get better at cleaning up after themselves. They are the worst of the outdoor enthusiasts. Not all of them, only takes a few.

Anonymous said...

I was frustrated, sad, angry (at fishermen), and finally thrilled with the success of securing Roger for treatment. Kudos to all the people with patience and their time to save this beautiful bird. Donation on the way....