Saturday, October 21, 2006

Getting the Bird

I experienced “wild Florida” today right in the midst of downtown Orlando. Orlando, the self-named ‘City Beautiful,’ is a city of lakes. Lakes are everywhere, as you find when you are learning your way around and you head down a street that ought to lead from Point A to Point B, but instead meanders around a lake. That can, of course, have its charms. One of those is that a city of lakes is also a city of water birds. Ahingas, blue herons, white herons, white ibis, cattle egrets and snowy egrets among others. The latter are quite urbanized, and it is not uncommon to drive down a residential street and see one on someone’s front lawn.

Today, however, I experienced one very up close and personal. I went to the grocery store near our home, which is on a major arterial. As I pushed the cart toward the car after shopping, I was quite surprised to see a snowy egret sitting in the middle of the hood right up near the windshield peering into the car. He seemed to be staring at my dog. (I had left the car running so my pup had AC, locking the car door with a second set of keys while I ran in to get something—it’s a Florida thing.) Much to my surprise, my dog was sitting perfectly still in the back seat staring back at the egret.

There were two women outside the pick-up truck parked next to me and I exclaimed, “Well, this is something I haven’t seen before.” One of them said, “No, we haven’t either. We’ve been taking pictures.” I expected him to fly off when I opened the trunk and put the groceries away, but he seemed unfazed. I thought to myself that surely he would fly away when I went to get in my car, but he just looked calmly back at me and did not move as I opened the door, said to the dog, “Some bird dog you are!”, climbed in and slammed the door.

So, there I was in my car with an egret on the hood. We stared at each other. I have no idea what he was thinking, but I was wondering what the heck to do next. Animal lover that I am, I was reluctant to move the car with him on it. I was afraid he might fall under the wheels or snap one of his stilt legs or something. But, we were at an impasse and eventually something had to give. I never once contemplated attempting to shoo him off the hood. If you have ever seen an egret or heron lunge for food with its spearing beak, you know that they are lightning fast and their beaks are wicked sharp.

“OK, I thought to myself. I’ll just back up a few inches and he’ll fly off.” So, I put the car in reverse, backed a few inches and then stepped a little hard on the brake to cause a slight lurch, just a little momentum ‘nudge’ to start him off. He lost his balance, swayed onto one leg, flapped his wings slightly to recover and settled back on the hood with both feet, giving me a rather indignant look.

Sighing, I decided I was being a little too ginger, and I began backing slowly out of the space, thinking that any second he would fly or jump off of the moving car. Wrong. I was all the way out of the parking space and the bird seemed to be getting his driving legs, doing a fine balancing act and swaying on the turns like a natural.

I stopped. I knew I could not just drive away with my new hood ornament. Once I picked up speed the wind would buffet him off. I was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get his wings open in time. It was becoming clear who had the upper hand in this situation—the one with no hands. I started forward. The bird remained unmoved. I angled the car across the aisle of the parking lot so that my hood was adjacent to an island with grass and a tree that jutted out from the first row right across from where I had been parked, and stopped the car.

I now had cars lined up behind me and was blocking three vehicles in their spaces. No one honked. Everyone seemed fascinated by the byplay between me and the bird. A man was loading his groceries into his truck (that I was angled alongside). I rolled down my window and said, “Umm, I’m not sure what to do. I seem to have picked up a hitchhiker.”

The man said, “I’ve got just the thing,” and turned and began to rummage in his front seat. I had a momentary twinge thinking this was Florida with its liberal gun laws, so when he came out with a digital camera, I was at first relieved. He began snapping pictures of the unperturbed bird, who was quite at home being photographed, even turning his head to give the guy a profile shot.

I began to be a little annoyed. Among other things, he was “my egret,” and I was going to be the only one who didn’t have a picture of him. And I didn’t see how the camera was “just the thing” to help the situation at all. I said to the guy, “Look, I don’t want to just drive off. I’m afraid he might fall under the wheels or break a leg.” The guy said, “OK, let me see what I have.” I was skeptical at this point, but he seemed to have ladders and other paraphernalia in the back of his vehicle that indicated he was a painter or contractor. He came up with a towel-sized rag or drop cloth and headed around the back of my car toward the passenger side, seeing by my angling of the car what I hoped to do with the bird. He never got close to the bird to flap the cloth or anything. The egret, which had been only inches from me when I climbed in the car, took one look at this man approaching and decided the jig was up. As neat as you please, he hop-sailed off the hood onto the grass.

I rolled down my window, thanked the gentleman, wished the bird a good day, and admonished him not to try to cross the arterial, and drove home, shaking my head and grateful my Florida wildlife encounter was with a bird and not a leopard spotted ray, a shark or an alligator.

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