Saturday, September 3, 2011

A White-Tailed Tropicbird Comes To Visit New Hampshire -- All Too Briefly

by Catherine Greenleaf

Monday, August 29 was a busy and hectic day. In the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, the telephone was ringing off the hook with pleas to rescue injured and orphaned wildlife. Many birds came into the facility cold, soaked and starving. But nothing prepared me for the phone call that came at 2 p.m. that afternoon.

"I'm going to pick up an injured bird in Charlestown," said the Animal Control Officer for the City of Claremont, N.H., on the phone. She said a family had walked out their front door to find a white bird lying on the grass of their front lawn.

"What kind of bird is it?" I asked.

"Some kind of weird-looking seagull," she answered.

"Okay," I said. "Bring the bird on over."

At 6:30 pm., I opened the cardboard box inside the bird hospital. What I saw inside amazed me. The bird was mostly white, except for black markings next to his eyes and very distinct black markings at the tips of his wings and also along the radius-ulna portion of the wings. His beak was bright orange-yellow. And his tail. His tail was white and long. I mean really long.

I had to search through three bird guidebooks and finally found his picture: He was a White-Tailed Tropicbird.

A White-Tailed Tropicbird? In New England? In New Hampshire? In inland New Hampshire?

Amazing. But true. I immediately pictured Dorothy landing in Oz.

I set to work on the bird right away. He was in really bad shape. He was battered and bruised from being trapped inside the eye of the hurricane. He weighed in at 267 grams. I rely heavily on the book: Body Weights of 686 Species of North American Birds (John Dunning, Ph.D.) However, the book had only one recorded weight for a White-Tailed Tropicbird -- 300 grams. This book is my bible, mainly because it offers a range of weights for both adults and juveniles and those numbers tell me how likely the bird is to survive and from that weight I can surmise what treatment to offer first. In this case, I was stumped. The source of 300 grams was from research done in 1968. I was skeptical, especially since the bird had very little muscle on his keel -- a sign of extreme emaciation.

Then I was fortunate enough to receive an email from David Wingate on the island of Bermuda. David Wingate is famous for rediscovering the Cahow, or Bermuda Petrel -- a bird believed extinct for 300 years. David said a healthy White-Tailed adult should weigh 400 grams. I sighed at that point because it basically meant this bird had lost close to half his body weight. However, he was in no pain or distress so I pushed on with treatment. He was sitting in that hazy zone of not needing euthanasia but not necessarily appearing to be able to pull through. I'd seen some amazing recoveries in my career, so I decided to press on, continued to administer special avian electrolyte fluids and said some prayers.

However, sadly, after 36 hours, the beautiful bird succumbed, at roughly 6:30 a.m., Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011.

It was a great honor to be in the presence of such a stunningly unusual and gorgeous bird. What I've learned since then is when a bird is inside the eye of a hurricane, he cannot fly up or down to escape the vortex. Instead, the bird is forced to ride out the storm in the center until the velocity of wind weakens enough for him to escape. This bird most likely spent five days trapped inside the eye of the hurricane. He was a brave, little soul, and will never be forgotten.

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