“Thick Billed Murre on Long Island”, the e-mail read, and my heart jumped. It was in Hempstead, yeah, but Hempstead has a train station!
The Inimitable Todd (who has what appears to be a congenital loathing for Long Island) was dubious at first, but I showed him a few pictures of Murres (and sound clips of them squawking) and he was sold. Alcids are, after all, clearly evolution’s most perfect triumph. And Murres are quintessential alcids, like an uncoiled ying-yang symbol, no frills or crests or fancy-pants puffin beaks, just a fish-catching, fish-eating machine of loving grace.
So a plan was planned. My natural assumption was that the bird would head back out to sea before Saturday, but I had hopes, especially when it stuck until Friday. I went to bed with a forward-looking heart.
But there were darker rumors too. “Has anyone called a rehabilitator?” asked a message that was replying to a message I couldn’t see. So when I stumbled out of bed in the dark hours and logged on for one last check, I was not completely surprised to see that it been transformed in the night into a sad bit of oily meat stranded somewhere on the ice.
“It died,” I said as I crawled back under the covers.
“?” The IT was still mostly asleep.
“We don’t have to go to Hempstead. The Murre died.”
He gave me a hug and we slept late.
These things do happen. This summer, my old stomping grounds in Ithaca were visited by a Magnificent Frigatebird that, when the sun came up, proved to be an ex-Magnificent Frigatebird; and a close examination of any state’s Records Committee will show that many surprising records, even in these post-collecting days, are supported by specimens. Specimens are corpses. Corpses are irrefutable. How many birders do you know who you would believe, if they were claiming to have seen a Grey Heron winging rapidly away where a Great Blue Heron ought to be? But with a (dead) bird in hand, the Grey Heron has joined the avifauna of the ABA. (Note in the same report the equally perished Intermediate Egret.) Likewise the Murre, if someone was able to get to it by kayak or cherry-picker, will reside in the American Museum of Natural History for all time; something that no doubt would not comfort the Murre at all, but somehow comforts me.
Yet it’s hard to avoid a sense of waste. The same day that we didn’t go look for the Murre, I learned that a Snowy Owl had died in Albany from a trichomoans parasite. The Owl, which had attracted the rapt attention of local office workers, contracted a parasite from eating infected city pigeons. That such a bird should come all the way from the tundra just to fall to such a disease feels wrong; but natural selection, of course, relies on waste. If there is one thing that evolution is all about, it’s throwing things at the wall to see what sticks.
And if we feel desperate, well that’s our own fault; we’ve made the wall more slippery, we don’t allow the vast swaths of nature, the vast populations to exist, within which such deaths could simply be shrugged off as the working-out of the world.
But still. Human nature, and birder nature, is oriented to the individual, the singular narrative, the lone ranger on a little pond where no Murre has ever boldly gone before. And so it’s hard when these things happen, it reminds us that we, too, might be thrown at the wall by nothing more than time and chance and stick or slide off into catastrophe.
Sometimes even the most peaceable of hobbies can be a bit existential.