Photos by Mark Renz
Harns Marsh in Lehigh Acres has a nearby canal with what appears to be a weir -- fenced and gated on either side. I showed up there about an hour before dark, under a light drizzle. There is an unlocked pedestrian gate on both sides as well, with a sign that reads, "Keep this gate closed". Normally, I can be counted on to adhere to public signs, but when I showed up, there were two adult sandhill cranes standing between the closed gates, looking confused as if they couldn't get out.
Why don't they just fly out, I wondered, until I noticed two chicks fenced in as well. Ah, perhaps they can't fly and Mom and Dad are hanging with them until they find a way out. (How did they get in there anyway?) Of course, they could swim away on either side, but perhaps they know about the two gators that locals tell me they've seen at dusk.
Torn between wanting to help and wanting to see how they handle the situation, I gave in and opened the gate on my side. The smaller adult, which I suspect may be Mom, seemed to notice I had opened it and began walking towards me.
I quickly moved way back to give Mom plenty of room.
As Mom strolled down the runway, I could see Dad and one of the chicks following up from the rear.
Both parents began bellowing, a sound that I can imagine a duckbill dinosaur would have made back in the Jurassic. Then the second chick came into view. You have to look close to see both of them blending into the green background.
Suddenly, one of the chicks bolted to the left and both parents acted agitated. I had purposefully left my dog Darwin in the car because of the two alligators so I knew it wasn't because of him.
Mom then moved left to face me, as if I had become a threat.
But I was on the outside of the fence and a good 40 feet from the open gate. So I turned to move further away...
Then, less than 20 feet to my right, I saw why the cranes had changed course. A large mixed breed dog was staring at the family of cranes, still boxed in with their only exit now blocked. I quickly realized that not only was the gate blocked thanks to me, but the dog had a direct path to the cranes. Before I could close the gate with the dog on the outside, it charged in and pursued the birds, with me right on its tail, screaming, "No! No! No!"
Mom and Dad instinctively flew out of the fenced in area. I didn't see where one chick went, but the other ran into the water and was now frantically swimming away. I continued to yell at the dog, which managed to go around and under the fence at the water's edge, then disappeared into the woods. I appeared to be the only one left inside the fence.
Turning back to the chick, I saw that it was either hiding from the dog (and me probably) in this red boom opening, or couldn't get over it. Okay, I had to think about this. Where are the damned gators? And what do I do if I see them going after the chick. I am not foolhardy enough to dive in and try to save the chick, although I know I wouldn't hesitate to do so if my dog was being attacked. I saw several good sized rocks in the dirt and decided the best bet would be to toss them rather than myself into the water.
While part of me wanted to stay close to the water in case I did see the gators, I knew I had to give the chick some space if it was to rejoin its parents. So I backed away and it came out of hiding.
Meanwhile, Mom and Dad were on the other side of the canal, watching everything from a safe distance. I don't know if they realized I was trying to help, or if there was nothing they felt they could do.
Seeing that the chick was swimming into deeper water and back towards the fenced in area, I returned to the water's edge, forcing it to swim towards shore. Mom and Dad were still on the other side of the red boom, as well as the opposite side of the canal.
As the chick climbed out of the water and onto the bank, I sighed in relief until I realized the dog might still be lurking close by. I wanted to follow the bird and stay close enough to protect it but then I remembered there had been two chicks.
The second chick was still in the fenced in area! What I didn't want was a repeat performance where the second chick also flees into the water. While the chick was trying in vain to find an opening, I opened the second gate, opposite of the first one I had opened a few minutes before.
Would the chick see it?
To be sure, I ran around in front of it and gently tried to coax it in the right direction.
Oh no, it walked right on by the opening!
But wait, it did see it!
There you go, there you go!
And now it's off to find the rest of the family! I followed the chick for quite a distance, staying way behind so as not to spook it. Meanwhile, Mom and the first chick had already regrouped and were walking in the same direction as the lone chick, only on the opposite side of the canal. Eventually, they all disappeared into taller grass and heavier rain as the sun dropped and it got too dark to follow them.
It's a rough life for animals even without them having to deal with us and all the obstacles we place in their way. Evolution has taught them to adjust to all kinds of adversity in the wild, but I don't think they're accustomed to fences and gates and weirs and booms and dogs and crazy humans running around screaming "No! No!"
I'll check in on them tomorrow and see if everyone is back together again...from a distance, of course.