A Tale of Two Rescues

Text and Photos by Keith Michael

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
—Charles Dickens

Someone once said to me, “Isn’t bird watching boring? I’m from the school of ‘If you’ve seen one bird, you’ve seen them all’.” Frankly, I suggest that person find another school.

Two recent birding outings were far from boring.

Rescue One. This adventure began here in Hudson River Park on an end-of-season walk for the HRPT summer staff. Leading this wrap-up with my compatriot urban naturalist Walter Laufer is a favorite during the year due to the staffs’ contagious camaraderie, lively questions, and enthusiasm over new tidbits of lore—the best of times.

Scanning the Pier 41 pilings for resting Gulls, Terns, and Cormorants to point out to the group, I notice one bird having a very bad day—the worst of times. Through binoculars, it looked like a gull had become entangled in fishing line, got the line snagged on a piling, and was now helplessly dangling, occasionally flapping up to escape the sloshing waves of an incoming tide. Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed the end game of this scenario before. It’s a cruel crucifixion. 

It seemed fortuitous that I was with HRP staff. We began seeking assistance to rescue this gull. Phone messages were left. Texts were sent. We waited—while pointing out the punctilious beak-work of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in pine bark and the namesake mewing of resident Gray Catbirds. We waited—while watching fledgling Robins and Starlings learning the adolescent ropes of fending for themselves.

Passing an NYPD cruiser on patrol, I tried to un-eccentrically communicate to the sympathetic officer the need for, perhaps, a boat to rescue the gull from its plight. The officer said that he’d see what he could do.

 One by one, the returns came in. This person was away. That circumstance made it problematic. The boat wasn’t available. We waited—while highlighting House Sparrows taking dust baths to rid themselves of mites. I’m thinking about how I might borrow a friend’s kayak and how illegal it might be to use a dock to get it into the river. Wait, seriously, I’m thinking of this scenario?

 “Thanks everyone! That was a great walk! Enjoy the last of your summer.” Fast forward. Last thought. Maybe there’s someone at the Village Community Boathouse on the south side of Pier 40. A guy’s watering plants. “Uh, are you from the boathouse? Crazy question, there’s this gull…?” Pause. He shifts his weight, “Well, I have a boat. Officially, it’s a ‘rescue boat.’ This sounds like a rescue. Let’s go!”

Scissors for cutting the fishing line. Life preservers on. Toss the boat ropes. Hold on. We’re off! The water’s rough. Sheez, I’m glad I’m not in a kayak. Speeding around Pier 40. There’s the stranded gull. Boat’s kissing right up to the piling. It’s a Ring-billed Gull. Ugh, it’s not fishing line. The gull’s left foot is wedged deep in a crack of the piling. Try to break off a sliver. Snap. The gull falls and swims away. Oh.

Its wing is drooping. Maybe broken. Maybe just exhausted. Its foot is likely damaged too. We follow the gull for a while. It keeps swimming ahead. But occasionally it stretches both wings. We did what we could do. Thank you to Ingo Günther and his boat! When I leave, I scan the river for a swimming gull. None in sight. Godspeed. Hopefully, after this afternoon, it will live a long, trouble-free life.

Rescue Two. Only two weeks later, a Roseate Spoonbill, an alluring pink, southern debutante, shows up on a pond in Hewlett, Long Island. With longer, hotter summers, southern birds like Spoonbills, Anhingas, Brown Pelicans, and Neotropic Cormorants have all been advancing on New York waters. Since the Spoonbill has proven faithful to this reported spot for several days, I decide to take the LIRR out to see it. Train. Short walk. Yup. There it is! Click my shots. Best of times. Behind me: THWAK. I snap around to see a bicyclist speeding away while yelling, “What the hell was that?”

Another birder, also there for the Spoonbill, notices a Double-crested Cormorant sprawled in the road. It had been hit by the bicyclist. Worst of times. Other birders appear. A towel from a car is volunteered to move the injured bird out of the road. Soon, the familiar, “And now what?”

This knowledgeable, well-connected group has names and avian rescue contacts in their phones. Messages. Texts. Again, all the obvious leads lead nowhere. Maybe I could take it to the Wild Bird Fund in Manhattan. (Columbus Avenue between 87th and 88th Streets; 646.306.2862; wildbirdfund.org) I can’t take it on the train. Well, a car isn’t SO expensive. The local police provide a comfortable box for the bird! The birders contribute to the car fare. Thank you, Joseph Ribisi, Robin Weiss, Robert Kaplan, and Nancy Shamban for your compassionate assistance. And I’m off. An hour later, the Cormorant is passed off into the capable hands of the Wild Bird Fund rehabilitators with the promise that, though constantly overwhelmed, they will get me an update on the bird as soon as they can. Thank you, Wild Bird Fund. It takes a village.

After all of that, it’s back to the “normal” worrying about the millions of birds on migration, hoping that each makes it safely through NYC to their destination.

PS: I did hear back from the WBF with an update on the Cormorant. It didn’t make it. With paralyzing spinal injuries and internal bleeding, it had to be euthanized. Nevertheless, I’ll never forget the efforts of all those involved in trying to make one bird’s life a little easier.


Keith Michael, West Villager, birder, urban naturalist, photographer, writer, and ballet choreographer, leads nature walks throughout the NYC area. Visit keithmichaelnyc.com or follow on Instagram @newyorkcitywild