Posted: Oct. 1, 2008, 12:00 a.m. PDT
Birders who go on pelagic trips might see U.S. Coast Guard ships and crew near ports or on the open water. Birders might recognize the Coast Guard as a guardian of our shorelines and unfortunate seafarers but may not know about its mission as protectors of natural resources, including wildlife.
That role played out in Portsmouth, Va., when Petty Officer Shawn M. Smith of Valrico, Fla., rescued an Osprey with an injured wing. While returning to Coast Guard Cutter Forward, Smith saw the raptor struggling in the water and finally climbing onto a board under a pier.
When Smith investigated, he saw the Osprey open its wings, and then he saw the blood on the wing. After obtaining permission from his command, Smith collected thick leather gloves, a blanket and a large box to capture the bird and take it to a rehabilitation center.
"I’m an avid hunter and fisherman and think that it’s important to give back to nature,” he said. "This was one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my Coast Guard career and as an outdoorsman.”
Wildlife rehabilitator Lisa Barlow of Virginia Beach identified the Osprey as female, diagnosed a bruised wing and took X-rays to investigate a shoulder problem.
This experience marked Smith’s first with an injured bird on the job. "Before I was in the military and living in Florida, I saved multiple birds that were entangled in fishing lines,” he said. "Fishing line can be deadly to birds and other wildlife. It’s very important to properly dispose of fishing line because it can do serious damage to our fragile environment.
"I would consider myself a birder,” Smith said. "I’ve had a fascination with birds my whole life, particularly birds of prey and birds of the sea. I have enjoyed observing Red-tailed Hawks, Bald Eagles and Great Horned Owls from my back yard in Florida. It’s a privilege to watch and enjoy these majestic birds.”
Smith said his father brought home an Eastern Screech-Owl one night after the bird flew into the driver’s side window and landed on the road. The family put the owl inside a screened porch, and the bird acted alert the next day. The calm owl allowed them to handle it, and when the Smiths tossed it in the air, it quickly flew into nearby oaks.
”Later, we had a pair of screech-owls who would roost in a tall thicket of bamboo in our front yard,” Smith said. "I always wondered if it was the screech-owl we rescued. Most people would have kept on driving, and the owl surely would have been run over by a vehicle. I was raised to love and enjoy nature, and I owe it to my father.”
While fishing, Smith takes cues from birds, which guide him to bait and the fish he wants to catch. "When I’m fishing miles of mangrove shoreline, I’ll fish where the herons are hunting. They show me there are signs of life and food in a particular area. Nine out of 10 times, I’ll catch the fish I intend to catch such as snook, tarpon and redfish, thanks to my heron friends. It sure beats blind casting the entire time.”
Smith said birds are incredibly helpful when he fishes offshore. "Magnificent Frigatebirds often follow pelagic fish, because the fish will lead them to food. Whenever I locate a circling frigatebird, I fish the area extremely hard. I can’t tell you how many times I put dinner on the table thanks to frigatebirds.
”It’s awesome to watch a frigatebird catch its prey,” he said. "One time I watched a frigatebird and a Brown Booby get into an airborne battle, possibly due to territorial reasons or hunting rights. The frigatebird dominated the booby."