Death on the beach

Posted on October 20, 2010


I am not cut out to be a murderer, I thought, as I dragged the garbage bag of corpses along the path.  Whoever came up with the phrase “dead weight” knew what she was talking about.  I stopped to catch my breath.  Mickey had helped, of course, but he’d gone home to wash off the shovel and the rest of it was up to me.  Bump, drag, bump, drag, rest.  The wind kicked up, and the crashing of distant waves drowned the other sounds in my head.  Bump, drag, bump. 

You should drive your car up the path and load the bag in the trunk, Mickey had said.  But what if I got stuck?  I am not good at backing up long distances.  Better to park on the road.  Bump, drag, bump.  But what if the bag . . . leaked?  Rest.  Think. 

The trouble with spontaneity is that it comes without useful plans for the disposal of corpses.  I stand by the car and look down the road.  I have a long way to go.  Leaving the bag in the underbrush I move the car back to the garage and come out with a garbage can.  Walk back to the path, wrestle the bag into the can.  It’s awfully heavy, and the can keeps tipping in the wrong direction.  Bump, heave, BANG, bump, bump.  Finally the job is done. 

I drag the can along the road.  It makes an unholy screeching noise, but there is no one to hear.  Back at home  I leave the can at the end of the driveway and fetch the cover.  One last look at the bag.  No signs on the outside.  It’s impossible to guess what’s inside.  I strip off the plastic gloves and put them in a plastic bag.  Dump it on top.  Snick, thump, the lid goes on.  There.  On Friday the contents will be dumped into a big truck and carted off to a landfill.  Thank goodness the weather will be cool. 

Now to process the photos.  I promised to send them to Peg.  I sent her the first ones.  I really appreciate you making the effort to deal with this situation, she wrote.  Then another email.  She wanted more.  Take one picture as you find them. Then another after you have rearranged them a bit.  No pleasing some people.  That’s when I had to involve Mickey.

He sounded cautious when he answered the phone.  Must’ve gotten caller ID.  Hi, Mickey.  I was down on the beach and found ten dead birds between my access and the point just past your house.  I called Peg Comfort over at the county and sent her pictures and she says to take more pictures and then dispose of the carcasses.  Can you help me?

There is a silence.  Mickey is resigned.  I’ll meet you down there.  I’ll bring a shovel.

It’s a long process.  The birds are strewn just above the waterline.  Mickey shovels up each one, takes it a step or two into the lake, rinses it off, and brings it back to the beach for pictures.  I get to crouch close to the very dead bird to capture the details of beak and head and foot.  I look for bands.

They’re not going to be able to tell how it died from pictures  Mickey says.  Well, no, but they’re going to be able to tell what species were part of the die-off, and that’s useful information.  This is going on all along the shores of Lake Michigan and in other parts of the Great Lakes, too. 

We struggle to get the birds into the garbage bag.  The wind keeps catching it and whipping it away from the lolling bird on the shovel.    The gulls observe the whole procedure, doing their Greek chorus act.  It had never occurred to me that the bag would quickly grow very heavy.  I get another, thicker bag and we put the first one into that.

Why don’t we just bury ’em?  Mickey wants to know.  He’s a great burier of dead animals.  They come down to the shore to drink – they’re attacked by predators or they go out on the ice and fall through or they eat carrion, like the birds we’re photographing and bagging.  Birds that may have died of avian botulism.

I do not want to bury these birds where coyotes and raccoons can dig them up.  My heart is still pounding from the discovery of the bodies strewn along the beach.  It was such a gorgeous day . . . the Bay was all shades of blue and full of whitecaps.  The dogs ran down the steps ahead of me as I stopped to take a photo. 

What was that . . . and that . . . and . . . NO!! 

I screamed for the dogs, who were off leash and dancing about on the sand.  COME HERE!! NOW!!!  Miss Sadie stared at me as if I’d gone mad and then trotted up to me, looking worried.  The Cowboy was another story, and I was hoarse by the time I had him leashed.  I made them run all the way up to the house, where the Cowboy got a thorough drenching just in case.  I don’t know a whole lot about avian botulism, but I have this idea in my head that a dog who decides to sample a carcass can die.  One bird – hey, birds die.  No panic.  Ten in the space of a quarter mile?  That is something else entirely.

So I spent some time finding someone who could tell me what to do–who turned out to be Peg Comfort–and I spent some time taking pictures–I will spare you all but one of those–and this afternoon I’m going to take  a whole disk over to Bellaire.  I thought you should see just one of the birds.  It’s important to grieve, isn’t it?

You can learn more from the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council or from the DNRE website. If you’re from Around Here and you find dead birds along the beach you can call Antrim County Coordinator Peg Comfort at 231-676-0566 or email her at whitepine AT