Monday, 7 March 2011

On the trail of the heron

Martin Davies is one of our stalwart bird counters. He's out in all weathers at all times of the year and he finds a lot of the rarities that turn up in the quarry where he collects data for the BTO award scheme.

On Saturday morning he set out through the quarry and stopped at the foot of Island Pit where there is a sandy delta. It's a good spot for waders and loafing ducks so he was not surprised to see a heron there, but this one was sitting down! They really don't do that. It was clearly unwell but he could not get close because of the soft silt, so he called me at home. These things always happen at week-ends don't they?

I arranged to meet an RSPCA inspector at the Visitors Centre and then escort her through the quarry, with no real plan for a rescue. It was a good job I brought along a lot of keys: Bardon Aggregates' locks had all been removed by thieves and the Rangers had used some of our old, random padlocks to secure the site.

As we scraped our way through the quarry in the RSPCA's Berlingo van, Cherry the inspector told me that she had lost the sump-guard on an earlier job and that weekends were incredibly busy for her. She covers a huge area, 6 days a week, and nights too. Although you call a national number, they have a reasonable network of local inspectors. Our experience is that they turn out pretty quickly and have rescued quite a few swans at Paxton over the years.

We found the heron quite easily. It was laid out on the mud with its feet trailing; so they weren't stuck in the mud. Perhaps its legs were broken?

I knew that the silt was quite firm for some distance because I had seen motorcycle tracks in it. All the same, I took a lifebelt and paid out the rope so that I could be hauled back if I got in trouble. As soon as I was in the open the heron stood up and walked into the lake, so it's legs were OK. A frontal attack was going to result in the bird swimming away and probably drowning. We needed to turn it towards the shore. A boat would have been nice. The Fire Brigade has inflatable surf boards that they use in mud and on ice. Perhaps we should get one.

I moved off some distance along the shore and waded out as far as I dared, then using Cherry's net, I slowly drove the bird ashore where the bank was very steep. Unfortunately the mud was very deep there and I got bogged down a couple of times. The mistake was to stand still. You have to keep moving before you sink. (Actually, the mistake was getting in there in the first place!)

But we won! The heron scrabbled up the bank into the bushes where I could grab it and I waded back to land with two wellies full of mud, and a very poorly and distressed looking heron.

Neither of us thought the heron would last long, but Cherry took it to her colleague in Peterborough and then it was transferred to the RSPCA centre in Norfolk.

Update March 17th.
Contrary to both our expectations, "Spike" recovered quite quickly and was soon having a go at anyone who came near. Cherry returned him to Paxton for release from our car park on Weedy Pit. He flew off straight away, so it was definitely a worthwhile effort for all concerned.

Health and Safety note: Never try to rescue wildlife or pets from water on your own. Get help first. The experts don't take long to arrive and even if you don't come to a sticky end, you are most likely to drive the animal further from shore.