Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Like a day at the beach.

Black Swans are forming the bulk of my Wildlife Victoria-related blog posts, probably because they dominate whatever scenario they waddle into and possess a powerful elegance that other animals, including humans, rarely convey.

The Black Swan pictured here was either suffering from severe dehydration or delusions of being a feathered David Hasselhoff. A blistering hot Sunday drew the usual throngs of fleshy men, women and children to Melbourne's bayside beaches but it was several weeks of bone-dry weather that convinced this freshwater bird to make camp beside the salty water's edge of Middle Park.

At least that's the most obvious explanation. He wore a tag on his left leg that indicated he was one of the many Black Swans that inhabit the lake at nearby Albert Park. Why he was standing on hot sand beside a salty bay instead of the lake was a question for someone more expert than I. Maybe he needed some space from his old lady, who just didn't understand him anymore and kept wanting him to be like that clown she dated before they became mates for life. Who knows?

The scene at Middle Park beach was out of a British comedy. Stereotype upon stereotype, the most prominent and disturbing being sun-ripened European males' habit of eschewing all but the flimsiest attempts at camouflaging their genitalia. Marble bags, banana hammocks, budgie smugglers -- call 'em what you may -- abounded. These balding barers of shriveling prowess were countered by saggy breasted but wonderfully helpful middle-aged women. They surrounded me the moment I approached the Black Swan and, like kids fluttering about a school teacher, spoke simultaneously about who'd done what and to what degree to comfort the obviously out-of-place waterfowl.

I found the person who'd reported the case to WV (we'll call him 'Harry'). Ignoring Harry's lack of beachwear discretion I asked about the bird's behaviour, how long it had been there, etc. His answers conveyed an admirably protective stance toward the bird. People like him take that extra step of recognising something's wrong and acting on it, either by calling organisations like WV or bringing the distressed animal to a vet. They're the people I most appreciate, and praise to their faces.

A local cafe provided a plastic jug of drinking water to put beside the Black Swan, who ignored the gesture. I'm conservative when it comes to intervening with animals that aren't in obvious distress so I called two colleagues at WV's Fitzroy office to discuss the situation. They were equally hesitant about moving an apparently healthy bird and advised that I check back on the bird's condition after the crowds had left.

I sat nearby and watched the Black Swan for several minutes. Strange to be on a beach with something to do when everyone around you is doing all they can to do nothing at all. The WV badge around my neck flapped like a laminated harbinger of seriousness as people walked past.

What should I do about you, Mr Misplaced Black Swan?

As with most rescue situations, the animal provided the most sensible course of action. Without provocation he walked into the bay and, after a few minutes of bobbing gently on the bay's waves, began drinking seawater. Now it made sense. He'd only have had to do that once to make himself too weak to leave the beach, but when his thirst became too great, his instincts would tell him to go back in the water and drink, dehydrating himself further. A nasty spiral.

I trudged over hot sand to retrieve WV gear from my car and returned wearing what Aussies call a 'flouro vest' labeled 'Wildlife Rescuer'. This broadcast an air of extraordinary seriousness among beachgoers, who now turned their sunblock-smeared faces to watch as I prepared to capture the Black Swan, which had returned to its place on the sand. The gaggle of women again surrounded me, offering assistance, encouragement, and copious but unfortunate eyefuls of gravity-weary cleavage.

"This should be a fun bugger-all," said a voice from outside the supportive throng, no doubt a member of the marble bag brigade. I must have disappointed him with a quick capture that drew applause from the ladies. I secured the Black Swan in a large plastic carrier that barely contained the agitated bird, who banged his head against the lid as I carried him to my car.

I drove us both to Albert Park -- home to an annual Grand Prix race next week, if you can believe it -- and parked beside the southern lip of Albert Park Lake. I placed the carrier on a patch of grass and removed the lid. The exhausted beast hopped quickly into the lake's fresh water and dipped its neck down for a long drink. All memory of a hot, people-populated beach seemed to fade as he moved toward deeper water. The Black Swan took a second long drink and grew higher in the water, his return to home inspiring a blatant return to grace.

I walked back to my car with a feeling of contentment, and vowed to decline any and all Sunday afternoon invitations to Middle Park beach.

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