Wednesday, October 23, 2002

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Progressive Animal
Welfare Society

PO Box 1037
Lynnwood, WA 98046

Kevin Mack
Back to the Beach
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

In the July 3rd, 2002 issue of Wild Again, I described the return of a nestling kingfisher to his burrow. In writing that story, I mentioned that I had performed the same task with a juvenile kingfisher in 2001. Although more than a year has passed since the event, it is definitely a story that is worth retelling. The kingfisher in question arrived at PAWS on July 6th, 2001. He and a sibling had been found at Owens Beach in Tacoma by two dogs who were taking their humans (a woman and 2 children) for a walk. Both kingfishers were picked up by the woman, but the sibling, unfortunately, was mauled by the dogs before she noticed him. The birds were taken to a Tacoma vet hospital where the sibling later died. The surviving kingfisher was transferred to PAWS Wildlife Department the next day. Upon examination, the bird was found to be a healthy fledgling. It was determined that it would be best to return him to his parents if at all possible. I contacted the woman who had found him and she offered to put a marker on the beach so I could easily see where she had picked the bird up. I put the kingfisher in a transport carrier and headed to Owens Beach.

Great Blue Heron

After spending several weeks in PAWS' care, this great blue heron took to the sky on October 12th.

Now, I'd never been to Owens beach and really didn't know what to expect, so I decided to leave the bird in the car while I searched for the marked site at which he was found. I was told that the spot was West of the parking lot so I headed off in that direction, taking note of the "beach hikers may be cut off by high tide" sign that was posted along the path. I walked for more than a mile and saw no sign of the party streamers that were supposed to have been used to mark the location of origin. I began to wonder if I had missed them, or if they had even been placed at all. I decided to start looking for signs of kingfishers rather than continue to look for markers that may or may not be there. I walked for a quarter-mile more, scanning the trees for birds and the sand/mud banks for kingfisher burrows. Just as I was about to turn back (that's always when it happens, isn't it?) I saw a small burrow halfway up a 25 foot bank.

I scrambled up to the opening, passing a number of small fish skulls and bones along the way. It was certainly the right size and shape, and it was in an appropriate location for a kingfisher burrow. The fish bones were also a telling sign. Still, how could I be sure that this was the burrow in which the kingfisher had hatched? As I turned to walk back down the bank and ponder this question, something caught my eye. A fallen tree on the beach below me was beautifully decorated with colorful party ribbon. I looked at the sand in front of the tree and saw my own name written in letters that were 2 feet high. Below my name were the words "kingfisher found here!!!!". Stretching away from the letters and running back in the direction from which I had just come was a deep line dug in the sand. The line stretched for at least a 10th of a mile. Upon seeing these things, I suspected that I may have indeed located the spot at which the kingfisher had been found. Feeling stupid for not having noticed the marks earlier, but feeling proud of myself for having found the burrow without assistance, I headed back up the beach towards the car.

As I made my way back through the maze of fallen trees and drift logs, I noticed that the tide was considerably higher than when I had left the parking area. I picked up the pace and managed to make it back to the car in about 1/2 the time that it had taken to find the burrow. I grabbed the carrier that contained the kingfisher from the back of the vehicle, and once again headed West. By the time I found myself back at the burrow, the tide was just high enough to concern me. My original plan was to find an appropriate spot near the burrow to place the young bird and wait to see if the parents would return. The problem was that the fledgling had been away from his parents for over 48 hours and I had no idea if they were even in the area. My time was limited by the rising tide and I couldn't leave the bird there unless I was sure that his parents would be around to care for him. I needn't have worried.

Douglas Squirrel

A Douglas squirrel pauses briefly during his release on October 16th.

I chose to place the bird on a small ledge in front of the burrow. As soon as I removed him from the box he began to call and he was immediately answered by two separate voices. An adult male and an adult female kingfisher flew into view from the treetops further up the bank. The returned fledgling took flight from the ledge and headed out over the water with the adults following overhead. The young bird was not yet a strong flyer and he just barely managed to turn and fly back to a landing point on the beach. Since the beach would soon be covered by water, I decided to pick the fledgling up once more and put him on a safer perch in some low branches. I then picked up the transport carrier and prepared to hike back to the car.

As I was preparing to leave, the juvenile kingfisher flew again (and the parents again followed) and headed directly out over the water. He was tired from his first flight and rapidly lost altitude. I held my breath as I watched him splash into Puget Sound. My gut instinct was to swear, and swear loudly, but I decided it would be better to see what happened before committing myself to that course of action. To my relief, the kingfisher began to use his wings to "walk" on top of the water, and he made a beeline back to shore. His parents hovered overhead encouraging him. The fledgling disappeared behind a rock outcropping that was surrounded by water from the rising tide but I knew there to be a sandy beach just beyond the rock. I decided it was time to leave before I found myself surrounded by water.
As I headed up the beach I saw the adult female flying in the direction I had last seen the youngster and I noted that she was carrying a large fish (well, by kingfisher standards anyway) in her beak. Apparently the little guy was about to receive his "welcome home" dinner.

Wildlife Release tally: September 25 to October 15, 2002

6 Eastern Cottontails
1 Western Painted Turtle
1 Northern Flicker
24 Virginia Opossums
1 Band-tailed Pigeon
1 Bald Eagle
2 Rock Doves
1 Golden-crowned Kinglet
29 Eastern Gray Squirrels
1 Orange-crowned Warbler
1 Glaucous-winged Gull
1 Thayer's Gull
1 Brown Creeper
2 Great Blue Herons
5 Mallards
1 Townsend's Chipmunk
1 English House Sparrow
1 Song Sparrow
5 Steller's Jays

Wildlife Release tally: 2002 Year to Date
1,111 animals

All rights reserved. 2002 Progressive Animal Welfare Society

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