Columbus, Ohio USA
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By Tom Thomson
July/August 2016 Issue
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Over the years, one of the best places in central Ohio to look for shorebirds was the sewage disposal plant along the banks of the Scioto River south of Columbus.
Overflow ponds, many of them filled with sludge, a by-product of the treatment process, sometimes attracted hundreds of these dainty and attractive birds. How incongruous, that these wild migratory birds should be attracted to such a place, considering the rancid smells and the evil appearance of the oozing and crusted black muck. Equally ironic that I should find so much beauty in such surroundings.
Some of the impoundments that accumulate rainwater also prove irresistible to waterfowl and herons. One spring there were half a dozen tundra swans that stopped over for a few days and it isn’t all that uncommon to see diving ducks – lesser scaup, redheads, and buffleheads – diving beneath the murky waters.
Sometimes when the sludge is of a thin consistency, sandpipers become trapped in the viscous substance. Even if its frantic struggles get it to more solid footing, the horrible glop will have ruined its plumage, denied it the power of flight, made it easy prey to disease, starvation, or death from four-footed or winged predators.
One day I saw a lovely Least Sandpiper, a bird I took to be a female because of her slightly larger size, meet its fate in this way. It was one of a flock of a dozen that flew onto the pond. Its companions landed on drier and thicker parts of the sludge carpet, then unconcernedly ran about on twinkling matchstick legs as they gleaned for insects and larvae. The ill-fated bird landed off to one side, smack into an area of repugnant slime.
I held my breath but it was obvious from the first that there was no hope for this little traveler. She was in up to her breast, and her struggles only made her plight worse. For a brief second she unfolded her wings, still largely unsoiled, raised them up over her back toward the sky. Then, in panic, her wings beat a desperate tattoo until they, too, were fouled by the filthy crud. Her pitiful flapping had only served to sink her in deeper. I stood transfixed, my 10-power binoculars allowing me to see every detail of her unfolding plight.
Within a minute, only her extended neck and head were above the surface. She remained in these circumstances for another ten minutes or so.
All my life, I have heard people say that wild animals and birds have no knowledge of the imminence of death. I don’t believe that for one minute.
I continued watching, looking deep into her small dark eyes. It seemed to me they shone with all the intensity her sludge- and slime-entombed metabolism could emit.
She was looking straight at me, and I was powerless to help because she was fully twenty yards from where I stood. Then for the briefest of seconds a strange thing happened. Have you ever been in your car, waiting for a light to change, casually glanced at the person in the car alongside your own and experienced a brief feeling of transference? That you were the other
person and they were you? That’s what happened to me as I continued to watch the doomed sandpiper.
A vision of distant tundra dotted with wildflowers and multicolored lichens and mosses danced across my mind, and I sensed a tiny nest snuggled into the spongy ground. For the briefest of moments, I felt the liberating ecstasy of rising on the wind, ascending into the pale blue sky under the Arctic sun, setting off on monumental journeys southward and then, suddenly – this, a sudden miscalculation, a fatal mistake in a chancy world.
Then I was here and now, back to reality: no longer a traveler through shadowy dimensions of time and distance, just a man again, watching a drowning, suffocating bird as the excrement of the 20th century closed in over her head.
Suddenly she was gone and I was alone.
Once in that same place, in that neglected and mortifying toilet of civilization, I encountered a Great Blue Heron in a similar predicament, but this big fellow had managed to extricate himself temporarily from the suffocating black death. He stood on a more solid matting of sludge in the middle of one of the larger ponds. For a period of two weeks I noticed him out there.
He had fouled his feathers and the poor old soul had no choice but to stand there on his island of exile waiting the mercy of the Grim Reaper. And stand he did, sometimes on one leg, sometimes the other. In sunshine and rain he stood there, and as far as I could tell he hardly moved an inch from where I had first seen him.
Toward the last it was hard to tell whether he was dead or alive. Logic would tell me that he had to be alive or he wouldn’t be standing. I would have to look at him for minutes on end before I could see an almost imperceptible movement of the head or the burning glint of an eye. Each time I visited the forsaken place, I would wonder if he was still hanging on to his lease on life. Putting the binoculars to my eyes, I would sweep the area until I would find him. There he would be, a strange grotesque caricature of a bird, the butt of an insane joke.
His plumage of once fine feathers and great wing primaries hung on his frame of brittling bones and shrinking, drying viscera. The thought entered my mind that he looked like a living scarecrow, but I dismissed the simile. It was worse.
It was imporssible to believe that life still existed somewhere inside that wretched sun-baked heap of pathetic, filthy feathers which, toward the end, must have been draped on little more than a skeleton. Yet he persisted. He continued to stand.
Then one day I couldn’t find him. He had laid himself down to die. After much searching I picked out what might have been his remains, what looked like that but might have been almost anything, a discarded feather duster, perhaps, or nothing at all.
...Tom Thomson (1924-2015) is the founder of the Short North Gazette and author of Birding in Ohio.
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