Wild Duck Chase

I have just returned from the Placentia Oil Spill that began late last Friday afternoon.  Christine is still there, assisting with the rehabilitation and care of the affected mallards that are at the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach.  Cleanup of the site, which is about 30 min away, in the town of Placentia, is ongoing.  However, the search and collection (or recovery and transport – RAT, for short) part of this spill has ended.  This was the first spill that I have responded to since I started my job here at the OWCN, and overall it was a great learning experience.  The best part about it, though, was getting to work with a terrific group of dedicated folks from the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center.  I feel honored and very lucky to have had the opportunity to work closely with this group, and I was personally touched and inspired by their dedication to the wildlife.

By the time Christine and I arrived late morning on Sunday, all of the birds that had been most severely impacted by the oil were already captured and taken to the Wetlands Center.  The rapid response, led by Debbie McGuire and her team, is directly responsible for the successful capture of the affected mallards.  In the days that I spent at the spill, our crew was trying to capture 3-4 additional mallards that were also oiled.  However, these animals could still fly fairly well, and because of the area they were in, it proved to be a wild duck chase.  The term, “wild goose chase” came to mind constantly and took on a whole new meaning during these three days when we were trying our best to catch the remaining ducks.

Four thirty in the morning comes awfully early when you go to bed late because you have traveled by plane, driven to the site, been in the field until sundown, had a quick bite to eat because you haven’t eaten all day, and have had to check into a hotel.  I was meeting with the crew early to try to catch the oiled ducks we had seen the day before.  The crew this day consisted of myself, Mary Hidalgo, and Lisa Birkle.

Mary, a no-nonsense, soccer-playing, light-designer, gourmet chef (ask her about her vodka shrimp over pasta recipe), construction worker, wildlife care volunteer and jack-of-all-trades woman, has a build and demeanor that command respect from all who meet her.  Mary is the type of person that is able to talk to anyone from any walk of life, and make friends with.  She drives a beat-up van that only Mary can drive because it does what it wants:  lets you in its doors if it wants to, and makes a loud clanking sound when she starts driving, which scares the dickens out of you if you are not expecting it.  Only the driver’s side window rolls down.  By the end of the three days, Mary’s van was a complete disaster:  covered in mud and duck poop from our boots, spilled coffee on the floor, empty water bottles, and an assortment of nets and other gear.  Mary’s reaction to all of it, in her heavy Spanish accent (she is from Spain, after all), is “it doesn’t matter!”  Underneath Mary’s rough exterior is a heart of pure gold.

Lisa Birkle is gentle and sweet, with an incredible knowledge about anything and everything having to do with wildlife care.  She has seen it all in her many years working as a veterinary technician.  She has fought in the trenches of numerous past oil spills, and experienced the agony of defeat with oiled or sick wildlife that had to be euthanized because they were beyond hope.  The number of sad stories that Lisa tells is almost equivalent to the number of happy and successful stories and releases of rehabilitated animals.  One such story is of one of the larger oil spills that she has been a part of, one in which Lisa spent day after long day treating and trying to save many heavily oiled birds, most of which did not survive.  One day, a mutual friend of ours, Scott Newman, insisted that Lisa assist the team that was going to release a group of rehabilitated birds.  Lisa was very upset that Scott was making her go, since she felt there was so much work to be done back at the rehab center.  Reluctantly, Lisa went, and as she helped release these birds, tears began to flow in a tension-releasing and emotional moment.  Lisa decribes this moment as one of the most special memories of her career.  Lisa has a story for each of the countless animals she has helped.

6:15 am – after being picked up from my hotel by Mary and Lisa, and a quick coffee stop, we drive around the almost dry lake bed, just a stone’s throw from the canal where the oil cleanup is underway.  The lake bed is a man-made lake that is emptied every so often, cleaned, and then filled up again.  At this point it is almost dry, but the remaining water in this otherwise lunar landscape is teeming with small fish and crustaceans of various kinds.  Lisa, Mary and I are astounded by the diversity of wildlife we observe (see list below).  It is a true paradise for wildlife, and completely unexpected in the middle of a southern California metropolis.  In the three days we were attempting to catch ducks, we compiled this list of the species that we saw:

Osprey, Turkey vultures (we counted up to 70 individuals at one time!), Black-crowned night herons, Great blue herons, Snowy egrets, Great egrets, Green herons, Pied-billed grebes, Eared grebes, Double-crested cormorants, Canada geese, Cliff swallows, Black-necked stilts, American coots, Kildeer, Crows, Sanderlings, Wandering tattlers, Western gulls, Heerman’s gulls, Royal terns, Caspian terns, Mallards, Coyotes and Ground squirrels. In addition, we accumulated a list of species seen in or around the canal, including Black phoebes, Nutmeg manakins, and an endangered Western pond turtle.

The ducks that had originally hung out in the canal, which is filled with the type of vegetation that mallards love, had transitioned over to the lake once the cleanup crew initiated their work.  The fact that the mallards were hanging out in this lake was a double-edged sword.  It was good for them because they were out of the immediate danger of the oiled canal water, but it also made it extremely challenging to capture them.  It proved to be impossible to sneak up on them, since there was no place for us to hide as we were approaching them.  And since they had enough strength to fly, they got away quite easily.  Mary, Lisa and I did our best to capture them, but in the end we were unsuccessful.  Another factor that contributed to the difficulties of capture was the fact that it just so happened that this was the time of year that the lake is bulldozed and drained of the remaining water, so once the bulldozers scared away the birds and reduced their feeding habitat to zero, we had no more ducks in the lake bed.  Where did they all go?  It is hard to say, but there are a few other lakes very nearby, in fact, there is a large lake just one street over from the dry lake.  Mary, Lisa and I drove there yesterday.  As we got out of the van, we saw a group of clean mallards swimming and feeding happily in the clear water.  Farther away we could identify Kildeer, Double-crested cormorants, egrets, and various other groups of birds.

That we were unable to capture the remaining oiled birds was very disappointing.  But even though we were unable to capture them, I returned home with a sense of accomplishment.  When an oil spill happens, there are no winners.  But as my plane flew out over the wide expanse of the Pacific ocean before heading north, I was comforted by the knowledge that this incredible diversity of wildlife will continue to forge ahead within this speck of habitat, found in this most unexpected place.

– Kyra


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