Imagine for a moment you come from a big family of eight kids and you’re all outside playing one evening when you’re mother and father call you in for supper. But this particular night, you all refuse because… well, something’s different. Angered, your mother stands patiently in the middle of the house next to the TV set while dad puts on a blue tarp, blasts an air horn, then chases you around the yard with a flashlight. Still, you refuse to go in. Why? Because you know something your parents don’t. (Are you reading this, Stephen King?) There’s an evil intruder hiding in the basement! Now hold that thought.
Winter monitoring at St Marks had been going great. Our little gang spent their days adventuring around, sampling the pleasures of marsh life, and dealing with the complications of the occasional adult crane visitor while keeping their own adult resident, #4-12, in check. Most importantly, they had been returning to the safety of the pen to roost at night. Until about a week ago, that is. Then just as darkness fell, after a long day of thunderstorms, heavy rain and warm temperatures, they opted suddenly for a good roosting spot just outside the pen.
This was not unusual given the circumstances. Heavy rains turn the marsh into a fresh water wonderland for cranes. The equivalent of a kid’s trip to Disney World. Lots of new places to splash around in and lots of cool things to beak. So much fun, in fact, that they just don’t want to go into the pen at night. And who can blame them. But rules are rules and predators are predators and we know far better than they do what’s best for them. After all, we’re humans and wear white costumes and they’re, well…. just birds.
So out to their usual roosting site inside the pen, Mel from Disney went to act as decoy while I entered Clark Kent’s Superman broom closet to dawn my smelly, mold laden tarp and emerged as the dreaded “Swamp Monster.” I immediately twisted my ankle stepping on a piece of stale candy that fell from the tarp, probably left over from the last time I wore it Trick or Treating at Halloween. Undeterred, out into the darkness I stumbled, moving through the marsh with all the choreographed grace and precision of the Key Stone Cops on acid. What followed was the usual “Swamp Monster Behaving Badly Show” as I attempted to flush the chicks back into the pen. Fat chance! They flew to here and to there and to everywhere in the surrounding marsh, but only three chicks returned to the pen. Odd but not that odd considering the circumstances. So as the sort-of-kind-of-almost-dark turned into absolute black and with the uncooperative chicks in an excellent roosting spot, I ceased my birthday party pin the tail on the donkey routine and Mel and I returned to the blind.
Next morning, Bev joined us to scour the pen looking for anything out of the ordinary. A water moccasin had been reported in the pen prior to our arrival and though we couldn’t find him in January, perhaps the sudden warm snap brought him to life. No luck. Not that the chicks are usually afraid of snakes. Just the opposite. They have killed and eaten their share of marsh snakes this winter. But then marsh snakes aren’t poisonous and don’t strike. Water moccasins might be a different story.
The chicks spent most of the day in the pen doing their usual activities, happy as clams at high tide. But that night, come roost time, they again flew out into the marsh, prompting a repeat of the previous night’s Swamp Monster Extravaganza, which eventually resulted in all but three chicks returning to the pen. Still, not that unusual given surrounding conditions.
But eventually, all good things must come to an end, even if they’re not. So when the chicks flew out the next night, it was time to change strategy. I coaxed #1-13 and #4-13 back into the pen as sub-adult #4-12 flew in to join us. Onto the oyster bar #1 and I walked and stood there until it was so dark even a blind man couldn’t see. After a while, the surface of the pond suddenly began to boil with bait fish punctuated by the occasional splashes of their bigger brothers. I had spent many dark hours there through the years and was surprised at how relatively noisy the neighborhood had become. #1-13 must have felt the same way because she slowly walked off and left me there alone. Having long ago developed a keen eye for the obvious, I decided further investigation was in order come daylight.
Next day, Hilary from Disney and I drove over to our good friends at Gulf Specimen Marine Lab in Panacea to borrow a commercial seine; a net about 40 or 50 feet in length, which we used to drag the pond with. After all, the 1954 cult classic, “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” was filmed not far away at Wakulla Springs and I know from experience that creatures have a way of hanging around, even after the Director yells, “Cut!” Back at the pen, we began spreading out the net as the chicks looked on in curious amazement. And that’s when we got our first glimpse of our creature!
To be continued…