Running start

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American Coot Takeoff (Photo: Matthew Paulson, CC license)
Some birds, including the American coot, need a long water runway to get airborne (Photo: Matthew Paulson, Creative Commons license)

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Hard landings. Anyone who’s a frequent flyer has experienced a few. Always disconcerting, occasionally dangerous. My most memorable touchdown was a trip from College Station, Texas, into Albuquerque on an Embraer ERJ-XXX. I forget which number, but it was one of those 3-seats-across models. One by one, passengers ducked through the doorway and tried to return to their full upright position, only to be temporarily twisted by the low ceiling into a fair approximation of Dr. Frankenstein’s personal porter, dragging themselves down the narrow aisle behind carry-ons in an ungainly but oddly synchronous choreography until each Igor found his or her assigned row.

I crammed my gear under the seat in front of me and strapped myself in right above the left-side wheels, although I was unaware of that fact at the time. It was an uneventful flight with no turbulence to speak of and a clear, bright blue sky. We made our approach, descending slowly as we grew closer and closer to the runway… then over the runway… then

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BAM!!

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Well, I guess the pilot got impatient, or maybe the end of the landing strip was coming up faster than expected, but we dropped to the pavement like a bowling ball falling out of the back of an unzipped travel case. I thought the landing gear was going to come up through the floor and imagined the plane careening along the concrete on its belly in a shower of sparks.

Instead, after a long, pregnant pause, the flight attendant simply welcomed us to New Mexico as we taxied to the jetway. But the cabin, previously humming with friendly chatter, went completely silent and stayed that way until the captain turned off the fasten seat belt sign.

Eared grebe glance (Photo: Jack Wolf, CC license)
An eared grebe in winter plumage.

I was reminded of this experience last month, when I heard reports that 3,500 migrating eared grebes (aka black-necked grebe, Podiceps nigricollis) mistook a snowy Walmart parking lot in Cedar City, Utah, for a lake. The grebes came in prepared for a water landing and, as anyone old enough to walk (and to fall) knows, asphalt isn’t as forgiving as H20. For over 1,500 birds it was a fatal error—some died immediately upon impact, others shortly after. For some who lived long enough to be found by wildlife rehabilitators and good Samaritans, euthanasia was the only humane option.

Even the ones who escaped injury needed help. They were found rowing across the landscape using their wings as oars, getting nowhere fast but too aware of their vulnerable position to do nothing but wait for a predator or scavenger to spot a dark bird struggling against a snowy white background.

6 of 6 Pacific Loon in Distress (Photo: Mike Baird, CC license)
The Pacific (Gavia pacifica) and other loons are true water birds, diving and swimming after fish with speed and grace. But out of water they are unable to take flight, and find walking difficult.

There are a large number of bird species associated with water who need a running start across a watery runway to become airborne, even for short flights; they include grebes, loons (Gavia spp.), rails (Rallidae), diving ducks (Aythyinae; aka pochards or scaups), and many sea ducks (Merginae).

The Utah stranding was unusual primarily for the number of birds affected, but similar groundings happen with some regularity during both the spring and fall migration as well as other times of the year. When I was the director of a wildlife rehabilitation center in Houston, every now and again an American coot (Fulica americana) would be ushered through our doors in a cardboard box. A single bird, usually, or at most two or three. In this case, it wasn’t snow that caused the optical illusion but heat. During Texas summers, hot asphalt roads apparently shimmer like water, at least to avian eyes, so a highway looks like the perfect place to stop for a little lunch and a quick dip, not to mention a long, straight liquid launchpad when it’s time to wing away again.

Canceled flights are such a pain in the neck… and other places, too, at times.

Merganser taking flight 2 (Photo: Mark Dalpe, CC license)
Under the right conditions, some species of waterfowl such as this female common merganser (Mergus merganser), can mistake fields and even roads for water.

Surprisingly, most of these water-walkers did survive their fall to earth. Once grounded, however, they had to hitch a ride to our center. There, we would tend to their cuts, scrapes, and bruises and then give them a helping hand back into the sky by dropping them off at an appropriate body of water. A quick look around to get their bearings and they were on their way, pedaling across the water as furiously as the pilot of a Gerhardt cycleplane but with much better results.

The snow that seduced so many birds into a making a pit-stop in Utah may actually have lessened the devastation by providing a bit of slip and slide to cushion the crash. Happily, International Bird Rescue reports that approximately 2,000 grebes were rescued and released the same week—that’s about as good as it gets in these situations, I suppose.  With any luck at all, they’re now enjoying some R&R and a little southern hospitality.  May they have friendly skies and tail winds for their return flight.

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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: Matthew Paulson (American coot); Jack Wolf (eared grebe); Mike Baird (Pacific loon); and Mark Dalpe (common merganser).

4 Replies to “Running start”

  1. I read of the Utah fatalities with a combination of stoic scientific objectivity (read: “it happens”) and horror (read: “those poor birds!”). I know some ornithologists are trying to quantify the loss of individuals to both natural and man-made sources in an effort to determine the effects on total bird populations. I wonder how difficult it would be to estimate the annual loss of grebes, loons, and other birds of “runway requirement.”

    Your mention of the regularity with which these incidents occur but low-numbers of individuals impacted reminds us all that the incidents like the one in Utah are probably the exceptions, not the rules. However, if you apply your Houston numbers to other states/areas with similar habitats, I wonder if the landscape-scale perspective might show us that many more individuals are lost than we can imagine?

    An excellent post!

    1. Erin, it’s always difficult to quantify the loss of individuals during migration. We know it’s metabolically demanding (sometimes to the point of depletion) and dangerous. We know we can’t count the birds taken by predators, or who fall from the sky exhausted and are snatched up by terrestrial or marine scavengers. So biologists have to assume only a small fraction of the birds that die are ever reported. And, unless a species is dwindling, there are real challenges to quantifying the number in an entire population. That’s one of the reasons it’s also difficult for scientists to gauge the impact of ground light (to learn more about this you can start with my post <Blinded by the light) or “green” energy sources such as wind turbines–we know that thousands of birds are killed or injured by these man-made hazards, but we don’t really know the scale compared to the greater population or to “normal” losses.

      While it’s true that with the exception of the kind of mass grounding that happened in Utah, relatively few of these birds are brought to rehabilitation centers; keep in mind, however, that before a rehabilitator can help, some member of the public has to find the bird. That means the bird has to be grounded where people will cross it’s path, and the people have to find it before a predator does, or it succumbs to injuries, dehydration, or starvation. The grounded birds who find their way to rehabilitation are lucky indeed, and that’s one of the reasons we can’t extrapolate those numbers into a clearer picture of the impact on bird populations.

  2. What an informative post. When I read about the Utah stranding, it was all I could do to reconcile the numbers and the trauma associated with that event. I can’t even imagine what the shock of that landing must feel like to the birds in question. I realize there’s no end to the potential hazards of manmade objects, including the synthetic elements of terrain (like asphalt and glass) that so many of us take for granted. I guess it’s hard-wired into me now to view our manufactured world through the lens of a wild animal. 🙂

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