NEVADA CREEK RESERVOIR — Jim Sparks first noticed the pelican Oct. 4, when the Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist came here on a work-related field trip. The pelican was a large spot of white on the brown mudflats at the south end of the reservoir, all alone, having somehow missed the fall migration south. Sparks knew something was wrong.
He studied the bird, and realized it was missing its right wing. The pelican could swim just fine and scoop up fish to eat, but otherwise he wasn’t doing so well.
“On land, he can’t walk very well even with two wings, and with one he was off balance, sticking his good wing in the air and taking baby steps. He’d try to fly, but there was no way for him to take off. He’d come off the water an inch and splash back in. It was a little heart wrenching,” said Sparks, an employee with the Missoula Field Office.
As the days shortened and the temperature dropped to 5 degrees Tuesday night, Sparks knew the pelican wouldn’t survive the winter. Besides, pelicans are flock birds that don’t do well on their own.
Sparks gathered at the reservoir bank Wednesday morning with three BLM co-workers, two members of the Raptor View Research Institute, two volunteers with Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Montana Wildlife Center and Lisa Rhodin, the Wildlife Center’s rehab manager.
By 10 a.m., the temperature had warmed to 18 degrees and winds were calm. The plan — as much as they had one — was to keep the pelican on shore, out of the water, and capture him with a net. No one wanted to go swimming after a wet, injured bird.
They weren’t sure how the pelican would react; the wild birds can weigh up to 30 pounds, and grow up to 4-feet tall with a 9-foot wing span.
The pelican was perched on the shore at the edge of the reservoir, where a wide skiff of ice froze overnight, creating a barrier between land and open water. They didn’t know if the ice would bear the bird’s weight and he would walk across it to the open water and escape.
They weren’t sure if they could approach him across the wide-open mud flats, which may or may not be frozen enough to support the rescuers’ weight. But armed with one kayak, two canoes, three metal-rimmed nets, a cannon net, a sense of purpose and a lot of enthusiasm, the rescue team quietly sprung into action.
Rob Domenech, executive director of Raptor View, moved along the eastern shore and slid into the kayak, trying to cut off the escape route from the north. Sparks and co-worker John Weinert dragged the canoe down a steep hill and onto the mud flats from the south. Rhodin and the rest of the rescue crew followed, fanning out on the mudflats that held their weight.
The first attempts to net the bird came up empty. As the bird edged toward the open water, Sparks tried one more time — and scooped up the pelican and returned to the shore to a hero’s welcome.
“Woohoo! You got him Jim,” yelled Tyler Veto with Raptor View.
“Awesome. Nice job, guys,” Rhodin added.
As Rhodin tucked the bird into a large dog carrier for the first leg of his permanent southern migration to the Sacramento Zoo, Sparks stood back, proud of the team’s successful rescue effort.
For Sparks, the rescue was a thrill. He noted that unlike FWP wildlife biologists who manage and handle bears, mountain lions and other creatures on a regular basis, the BLM wildlife biologists typically manage land and don’t usually get close to critters.
“This has got to be the high point of my (30-year) career,” Sparks said with a wide smile. “To see the bird a month ago and start thinking about a rescue, then have everything fall into place, is really a special, special thing.”