Where do the ducks and geese go during the drought when their water source dries up? Of course, some of them fly away. But some of them don’t.
On August 19, Dani Nicholson, Director of Willow Tree Wildlife, was in town to do errands and shopping when she drove past the dry lake bed in Laguna Lake Park. Immediately, she thought about the domestic ducks and geese who live there.
“They can’t fly,” she said to her empty car. Without water, they can’t paddle to the middle of the lake to protect themselves from the coyotes and bobcats who come looking for dinner every night. “Where did they go?” she wondered.
Bighearted Dani circled back and parked near the south end of the lake, now just a five-foot wide shallow puddle. On a small beach, she spotted three kiddie pools, tubs of food, and bowls of water, with a couple of dozen birds huddled around. “Somebody cares,” she thought.
Immediately, she called her friends Darcy and Bruce who live on the lakeshore and, two years before, had helped with the “soft” release of a baby Mallard duck she had rehabilitated. “I’m sick with worry,” Darcy said. “I attended a City Council meeting last night.” They didn’t feel it was their concern because the birds had been “dumped” there. Dani and Darcy made a plan to meet the next morning, near the birds’ little beach retreat.
Joined by Bruce and his net, early the next morning the small team approached the beach. They watched Paul, age 80, clamber down the steep, rocky embankment that had once protected his yard from the waters of the lake. Twice a day for several weeks, he had been refilling the pools, tubs, and bowls. He and his wife were the only respite standing between the birds and dehydration or starvation. He too had been to the City Council meeting, taken two falls getting down to the beach, and was feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility and that no one seemed to care.
The rescue team counted about three dozen birds. Bruce found a pile of fresh feathers, evidence of a predator in action during the night. They assessed how many could fly so Dani could find appropriate temporary homes for the non-flyers. She intended to take two home to Willow Tree Wildlife’s bird sanctuary, but a group of three domestic geese caught her attention, and became the first to be on their way to a more stable life.
That afternoon, Dani immersed herself in organizing and mobilizing the rehab community. A flurry of phone calls to line up foster homes: Lynn Gausman, who organized a similar rescue from Atascadero Lake earlier in the season, Susan Garman at PWC to send an eBlast message to the volunteers, Lois Petty of the Marine Mammal Center to send an eBlast message to their volunteers, veterinarian Shannon Riggs to see if she could accommodate a few, and friends around the county. There were postings to Facebook, emails and texts to every acquaintance she could think of. Anybody who might be able to house waterfowl.
Friday morning, August 21, at 8:30, the original three, plus Emily Miggins and Patricia Blishak, arrived at the little beach. Every time they approached the feathered pack, it scattered. The wild ones flew off forever which left a group of 15 domestics and one lame Canada goose. Up and down the dry lake bed the rescue team ran, often squelching in muck up to their knees, sometimes being successful and sometimes not.
All-in-all they captured eight birds, settled them in carriers, and delivered them to foster homes around the County. The rest had to wait until evening. At 5, they returned with empty carriers and new resolve. The Canada goose flew over their heads and one small white duck outsmarted them at every turn, but the remaining six went into carriers for the move to temporary digs. “They would not stop drinking water,” one foster parent told Dani.
“Dani, that was the best idea you had,” Darcy exclaimed. “Bruce and I toured the facility and it is beautiful, and the people are so caring and helpful.” She was talking about the San Luis Obispo Waste Water Treatment Plant (WWTP), which is obligated to keep its ponds full to insure a habitat for water fowl.
By the end of August, with neighbors beginning to complain about the honking and quacking coming from the fostering homes, Marty Malone at the WWTP ready to receive them, and Dani back from volunteering at International Bird Rescue (with one more domestic ducks to resettle), the Laguna Lake birds were on the move again. Over the course of two days, all 14 of the rescued moved in.
At WWTP, Marty (a birder himself) showed Dani and Emily the facility in his golf cart, including the area where the non-flying domestics would be safe. He accepted the food they brought and was grateful for the feeding instructions. Each new group that arrived immediately swam over to the previous arrivals where a raucous cacophony of honking and quacking made everyone laugh.
The smart white duck disappeared and the lame Canada goose is still being hosted by Paul, despite many attempts by Dani to rescue it, including a final one at 5AM on September 8th. “It must not be strong enough to fly any great distance,” she surmised.
Thanks to WWTP Superintendent Howard Brewer for agreeing to house these desperate water fowl. Thanks to everyone who helped with all aspects of the Laguna Lake Rescue, especially to those who gave over parts of their yards as foster homes (and their neighbors). And thank you, Willow Tree Wildlife, for plugging a hole in the County’s bird rescue programs.
—Elly Schowalter, September 14, 2015