Two Birds

(This column was first published in the April 13, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    Two recent phone calls led me to a beauty and a beast.

    The first call was from Bob Brock. It came in late March.

    A little background is in order here. The Buffalo Ornithological Society maintains an informal "hot line" to spread the word rapidly among members about unusual birds that occur on or near the Niagara Frontier. The system works like an abbreviated chain letter: when you receive a message, you are responsible to pass it on to two other birders. I'm somewhere down in the middle of the list. Bob Brock calls me and I in turn call Tom Harper and Bob Lipp. If I cannot reach either of them, I must call the next list members, Don Brasure or Gail Seamans. It is a simple system that works remarkably well.

    For me the problem comes next. Bob reports a rarity and gives accurate directions to locate it. I go there as soon as I have an opportunity but I invariably miss the bird. For example, Mike Hamilton and I drove to Rochester to look for an ancient murrelet, a seabird never previously reported anywhere near here. It departed minutes before we got there. Another time a varied thrush was seen on Grand Island a half hour before I arrived. I searched for it for two hours before I had to leave.ŬIt reappeared moments later.

    My luck has been so bad that I am regarded by my birding friends as a Jonah.

    This time Bob reported a lazuli bunting, a rare western species that had shown up at a feeder south of Batavia. My wife and I drove down the next noon and were invited into the home of Don and Virginia Tiede where we found a dozen other birders. All eyes were focused on the beautiful bunting sitting in a lilac bush just outside the Tiede's picture window. The same size as an indigo bunting, this bird's blue was much softer and it had a cinnamon streak across the breast. Posing for us in the bright sunlight, it was spectacular.

    I was excited about seeing this lovely lazuli bunting, but I was equally excited about breaking my terrible hitless streak.

    The other call came from Michael Olek, president of the Messinger Woods Wildlife Care and Education Center in Holland and, with his wife Noreen, among our finest local animal rehabilitators. Mike had an interesting story to tell.

    Just after our late March snowstorm he learned of several starving turkey vultures. Indeed, when Mike arrived on the scene he found five vultures too weak even to fly. All were sitting too high in trees to reach except one which crouched forlornly on the ground. After a short chase through snowdrifts, Mike caught this big bird and carried it home swaddled in blankets.

    There he and Noreen fed it a sumptuous dinner of sweetmeats.

    Unfortunately, although they are familiar with the habits of these raptors, they were not at all prepared for what happened next. Vultures are notorious for defending themselves by projectile vomiting and, now well fed and recovering its strength, this bird was no exception. It suddenly spewed half digested food all over Mike and the room in which it was being kept.

    Mike said that the disgusting smell was far worse than that of a skunk and it took days for him and Noreen to clean and deodorize himself and their home.

    The vulture was returned to the wild as soon as the weather improved. It sailed happily away, oblivious to the havoc it had created and its good fortune in being rescued by these devoted -- and this time ill served -- rehabilitators.