A loud, fluting call from a playa at the base of Willard Reservoir's west dike grabbed my attention. It's a place where only the salt flat-loving snowy plover belongs, but this was no snowy plover call.
The water in Willard Spur had continued to retreat during the dry days of September, leaving a powdery, white flat wedged between the dike and the reservoir's exit channel. I didn't expect to see birds there as I hiked southwest on the dike, intending to scope water birds in Willard Spur.
The call sounded again, insistent and vigorous. I turned to see a young western grebe on the salt flat.
Western grebes are black, white and gray, and are strongly adapted to life in the water. Their beaks are long and sharp for snatching fish, their long necks and streamlined bodies are built for slicing through water, and their legs with lobed toes are positioned so far back for swimming powerfully that they can't walk well on land. This bird was a youngster, not yet showing the well-developed black crown and neck stripe of adults.
Why was that bird there? Becoming stranded on land is a death sentence for a species that needs a running start across the water's surface to launch into the sky.
The bird's predicament reminded me of previous years when avian botulism was rampant in Great Salt Lake's ecosystem, and carcasses of paralyzed and dead birds formed lines that marked declining water levels in late summer heat.
But this was not that year. I hadn't yet seen or heard reports of avian botulism, and the grebe wasn't paralyzed. I watched it flap, run a few steps and then settle at a new spot on the playa. That's about the best land-based locomotion that even a healthy grebe can do.
The best outcome for this bird might be that a hungry peregrine falcon would end the struggle quickly. I rationalized that peregrines need more help than grebes do and it would be the natural way of things.
On the other hand, I was there. Without thinking through my next move, I set my spotting scope on the ground and walked to the grebe. The bird looked up at me fiercely, blood-red irises flashing. It called stridently while preparing to mount a forceful defense.
The bird stabbed at me with its beak. I was surprised that the weaponry felt more like brittle plastic and that it drew no blood. I offered my ruggedized binoculars as a target instead of my right hand, and swiftly grabbed the back of the bird's head with my left.
The rescue bait-and-switch technique worked. While still holding the head, I lifted the bird's body and held it away in case its next defensive move was to poop. But there was no need. The grebe merely yelled its head off and stabbed as best it could from within the vise of my hand.
I walked to the reservoir's exit channel and tossed in the grebe. It was encouraging to see the bird surface and paddle quickly in the opposite direction.
Returning to my scope, I heard the fluting call again and saw a second grebe stranded like the first. Same routine: offer my binocs, grab the back of the head with lightning speed, walk the bird over to the channel, throw it in. It dove and surfaced across the channel, turning to show me a baleful eye.
Although I learned later that avian botulism had been detected in both Box Elder and Davis counties, neither of these grebes showed leg, wing or neck paralysis associated with the disease.
Instead of botulism, I suspected their ability to fly was still underdeveloped. They may have attempted to leave the Willard Spur for the reservoir, couldn't top the dike and became stranded on the playa. Young birds have a lot of flapping to do to develop their pectoral muscles before they can fly well.
Rescuing the two juveniles won't make a difference in the success of the local breeding population, and perhaps even those two birds were still doomed due to dehydration.
But they had a fighting chance once they were back in the water, and that made the difference to me.
Kristin Purdy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.