Friday, April 6, 2007
Glorious image is one of the photos of Jeffrey Rich, which I have unkindly used without permission: go enjoy his beautiful work.
See these things? They're Western Grebes. Beautiful birds, but, as you can see from this gorgeous picture, their legs are on wrong. Wrong, that is, for any purpose other than swimming: watching them walk is like watching Charlie Chaplin, drunk, trying to keep in an enema on a greased skating rink floor covered in ball bearings.
I'll get back to them later.
I got off at noon today for Good Friday, and Pat had a glorious day of screwing around planned for us. We drove down to Vandenberg Village and Lompoc via the scenic (and carsick-making) Harris Grade, hoping to catch sight of the omgwtf amazing fields of flowers that bloom near Lompoc every summer (that's where they grow the flowers for the Rose Bowl Parade, among other distinctions). Although they aren't blooming yet, the wiry yellow flowering mustard, purple lupines, and my personal favorite flower, the dazzlingly apricot California poppy, were everywhere on the roadsides, interrupted by towering green-blue eucalyptus trees, old oak growth, scarlet Indian paintbrush, and other signs of home. A gorgeous drive.
The destination for our drive was lovely Jalama Beach. There, we wandered out onto the tar-infested, silky soft sand and marvelled at the parasurfers (or whatever they're called: they're human kites, more or less, out on the water in wetsuits). As we wandered along the water, letting our beloved Pacific Ocean wash our feet with bone-achingly cold surf, and totally unprepared for the beach (me in my work clothes, both of us without sunscreen), I noticed something I wanted a closer look at...
A Western Grebe, sitting incongruously on the sand, watching people pass by him (or her) without evident concern.
Migrating birds often pause, exhausted beyond the ability to fly, on beaches. The bird's torpidity wasn't enough in itself to concern me.
"Let's go see HIM," I said. And, "Watch out for tar."
"Hang on a second," Pat replied. "I just stepped in goddamn tar."
I watched the grebe get up and totter with Chaplin-drunkenly-enema-holdingly gracelessness about six steps, then plunk back down on his belly. I said, "Oh no, there's something wrong with him!"
"He's fine," Pat said, poking the tar on his foot with his fingers, which were immediately tar-contaminated beyond all possibility. "They're like loons: their legs are too far back for them to walk. He just can't take off from land. He needs to get in the water."
"Did you just step in tar?"
"I told you that."
"I told you to look out!"
"I thought it was mud."
I watched the grebe take one idiotic step away from a passing couple and then flop again. "No, I think there's something really wrong with him. At least he's tired."
"He probably just needs rest before he can fly again, hon. I have to get this fucking tar off me."
"Good luck with that," I said. I'm not usually that snide; tar brings out the best in people.
I scared the reluctant grebe into the surf, hoping the water would help him. As soon as I went away, he resentfully tippy-toed his way back away from the water.
I sat down on a tarless patch of sand and watched people and water and wind and birds. And, of course, the grebe. Other people watched the grebe like onlookers at an accident: not sure they should interfere, not sure they shouldn't. A parasurfer trying to work up momentum to launch almost stepped on the grebe, and the grebe's response was to say a kind of smoker's coughy "ehhh!" Since that was exactly his reaction to me, hardly a surprise, but you would think a parasurfer stepping on you would alarm you if you were a shy duckish-sized bird.
"He doesn't like the surf," I said to Pat, who was now scraping his tarry foot with a rock. He threw down the tarry rock in disgust and began rubbing sand into the tar. The tar on his fingers and feet started to get bigger and grittier, but that was the appreciable difference.
"Well, I've got to get this tar off of me before I can pick him up," Pat said. "Otherwise, it'll mess him up."
I watched the waves. The grebe watched me. Pat eventually gave up on the tar and said, "Well, I at least have to rinse off some of this sand." He trudged back wet and salty and said, "Give me one of my socks."
He stretched the long black sock over one tarry hand halfway up to his elbow, and tucked it between the thumb and fingers to make a kind of sock puppet. I chortled. "A grebe glove?"
"Yup. Now the other one." He socked up that arm as well. I took both of our shoes and my purse and we walked up to the grebe.
He didn't even try to get up. He said, "ehhh! Ehhh!"
"That's some beak," Pat observed, holding out black sock arms to the annoyed wildlife.
"Grab him," I said, nervously.
"Wait a minute. I want to see what he does."
The grebe lunged at the sock-clad hand and bit the living hell out of it.
"Ow," Pat said.
"You're scaring him," I said.
"OW," Pat said. "That bill is sharp!"
I held out my shoes to the grebe, who savaged them mercilessly, picking one up. "Now!" I said.
Pat grabbed the grebe. The grebe grabbed Pat. "Ow," Pat said. "Ehhh!" the grebe said, with murder in its piercing crimson eyes.
I held out my hand to distract the grebe from Pat's arm. It bit me in one swift lunge, with its impossibly long neck. "Ehh!" it said. "Aaah!" I said. "Ow!"
"Yeah, he'll get you," Pat said. The grebe tried for Pat's eyes, and hit his neck. Pat held the grebe at arm's length and tried to manage the madly bicycling feet at the back, the wings, and the long neck: it was pretty much like holding a horrible hybrid of a loon and a vacuum cleaner attachment with its mind set on murder.
We walked that bloody bastard bird back up the beach, up the dunes (where it went momentarily mad and Pat dropped it, frightening the three of us intensely when it landed in a broken-neck-looking pose: it was so stunned it forgot to try to murder Pat for about 20 seconds and didn't say "ehh!" for about 40 seconds.) We attracted Pied-Piper-like streams of concerned children and hippies. I helped slip Pat into shoes so that he could walk on the hot pavement, and while I was straightening up, the bird lunged at my face, hitting my glasses frame with its scissor-like bill. "Ehh!" We took the angry grebe --Chaplinesque samurai of the waterways-- to the park authorities.
"We think it needs a vet," we told them.
They looked at us incredulously. "How'd you catch it?" the park management guy asked.
"It was just sitting there on the beach, and couldn't fly. It just sat there looking at us. It's a grebe and they can't take off from land. They're fresh water birds."
"You're right, it's a grebe. But from all the injured wildlife I've seen, I can tell you that THAT bird isn't hurt." It lunged at Pat's face and bicycled madly, croaking, "ehh!" "It's much too energetic to be seriously injured. But they're freshwater birds and they don't do too good on land. And sometimes what happens is that they get onto the beach and they can't fly, and they get beat up by the surf if they try to go out to sea to fly. So what usually happens is that they manage to get back to the creek, or... we... take them... So I guess what you could do for it is you could walk it down to the creek."
"There's a creek?" we asked.
"It's down that way, past the general store."
There was an awkward pause. We had the impression that the park management guy wanted to slam shut the little window on the booth and run away, far away, from the possibility that we would hand him this angry ball of all-natural scissors and hate. We looked at each other. Pat shifted the bird.
"Okay, thanks. I'll take him down there."
The grebe chose this moment to lunge at Pat's face. Pat sucked in his breath and cried out, "Ohh, that was a good one, he got me, he got me." His glasses were askew. Both nostrils were slashed by the razor-sharp bill of our friend the grebe. "Am I bleeding?"
The management guy shut the window.
"Um, not yet," I said. The grebe seized Pat's sock arm and twisted. "Ow," Pat said. "You little bastard."
We managed to get him to the creek and turn him loose. He fluffed up his 50's-bully-in-a-movie 'do and drank as much fresh water as he could hold, swimming gracefully away. We told the children and hippies goodbye and went to buy some cold soda and some Tar-Off wipes (they work! Oh, goodness, how well they work!)
And that, ladies and gents, is what I did today, and why Pat's nostrils will be grebeously scarred.