“Cath! There’s a possum in the bathtub!”
Today is Friday; both Bobby and Cathy are off from their day jobs for the next nine or so hours, so they are heading out to Cold Spring Harbor to band a trio of fledgling ospreys who hatched a little while back in a nest on Eagle Dock Community Beach. Getting out of the house, says Bobby, is the hardest part of these adventures. They have to pack up Sadie and Christopher; they have to get together their carriers and toolkits and nets and gloves. And sometimes, in the midst of those routine responsibilities, a possum will wind up in the bathtub.
These things happen.
Today, Bobby, Cathy, Christopher and Sadie are joined by Francois Portmann and Pete Richter, bird enthusiasts from Manhattan and Queens, respectively, who help out the Horvaths by keeping track of the falcons, hawks, owls and kestrels that inhabit their own home boroughs. Francois is a bird photographer from Switzerland, though he has lived in the East Village since the mid-’80s; Peter’s avian obsession began when he was working for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, finding nests near railway tracks. Both are here today to observe the osprey banding—that is, putting metal ID bracelets on the birds so they can be properly identified and cared for. Once the banding is complete, this unruly caravan will travel to Flushing Meadow, in Queens—the site of the 1964 World’s Fair—to release into the wild a bunch of rehabilitated kestrels, in the shadow of the Unisphere Globe.
In the kitchen, as they pack up to leave—and address the possum issue—Bobby, Cathy, Francois and Peter talk about birds, dogs, animals. People love to talk about animals. Bobby loves to talk about animals—once everyone is on the road, on the way to the osprey nest, Bobby points at a substantial cluster of swans in the harbor. “Look at those swans,” he says, noting that those birds rarely gather in such large groups. His voice changes when he talks about animals, his rhythm quickens, he seems both awed and excited.
And when one person points at a group of swans, everyone looks. Everyone chimes in.
The job at Eagle Dock is fairly simple: Bobby has to set up and climb a ladder leading to the osprey nest. From there, he must lift the birds from the nest and bring them down the ladder, where he—with the help of Cathy and Pete—will band them. Ospreys are not small birds, but Bobby handles them with relative ease, stuffing two in a carrier and grabbing the other one in his free arm.
Bobby was 30 years old when he first had to pull a bird from a nest—he was nervous, covered in scarves, goggles, gloves. Now, he approaches them in shorts and a T-shirt. Grabs them with authority. He likes the dexterity provided him by his bare hands, and he has no fear of being hurt.
“Bobby is so quick,” says Francois, “you don’t even see his hands.”
The whole job takes maybe 10 minutes—not including the hour spent by the crew at Eagle Dock setting up their $20,000 osprey camera. During the downtime, Cathy is feeding monkey chow to four baby birds she has in a clear plastic carrier—three Barn Swallows and a cardinal. They must be fed every 20 minutes, so Cathy brings them everywhere she goes. She has to. The cardinal is barely alive, barely anything—just a tuft of feathers, a beak, soft pink skin, veins. Cathy rescued him yesterday—he was on the ground, covered in maggots. Cathy spent nearly an hour with a toothpick and dishwashing liquid, getting the maggots out of his eyes and mouth. She doesn’t know if he’ll make it, doesn’t know if he has “the will to live,” as she puts it, but she’s giving him attention, care and love just the same.
When the banding is done, Bobby is ecstatic. A crowd has gathered, all buzzing with excitement and curiosity and questions and their own stories. People love to talk about animals. In a quiet moment, under the shade of a small tree, Bobby plants a big wet kiss on Cathy. Then he goes around shaking hands like a proud father. Everyone is smiling, congratulating one another.
“I feel great,” says Bobby. “These chances don’t happen every day. It’s a memory. I’m never going to forget this.”
The day’s next stop, though, the release in Flushing, is decidedly more bittersweet. Releasing animals back into the wild is the ultimate goal of all these missions—it is the best result Bobby and Cathy can hope to achieve, bar none—but it can be painful, it can be harrowing.
“You form bonds with these animals,” says Bobby, in his Ford Explorer, on the road out of Cold Spring Harbor. “Their lives and their personalities.” Some of them, says Bobby, won’t make it in the wild. Some don’t seem to have the temperament. “You still have to let it go,” he says. “They gotta be released at some point.”
Take, for example, the bald eagle, back in December ’08. She was on the beach at Democrat Point for weeks, covered in a “sticky substance” (which to this day, according to Cathy, remains unidentified). The fishermen in the area were feeding her skate and bluefish. She was having trouble flying more than a few feet. Bobby went out to the dunes, netted the big girl and brought her home. Cathy cleaned the enormous bird—which fought back, all wild flapping wings and great sharp talons—and they kept her for about nine months, during which time she recovered, molted, built up her flight muscles, was banded by the DEC, and—eventually—healed enough to be released back into the wild.
Ten days after the release of the eagle, Cathy got a call for a listless, flightless “really big hawk,” which a Long Beach man had found and brought home in a pickup truck. With Bobby at work, Cathy packed up the kids, and headed out to pick up the bird. When she arrived, however, the “big hawk” was much bigger than Cathy expected, and not a hawk at all: It was the same bald eagle they had rescued and rehabilitated. And which is now, again—after another 10 months of rehab and careful attention—in an enclosure in Bobby and Cathy’s backyard. Molted again. Fully rehabilitated again. Almost ready to be released. Again.
“I worry all the time,” says Cathy of the animals she cares for and releases. “They don’t send me postcards; they don’t tell me where they are. It’s really exciting when the day comes that we’re going to release them, but sometimes I cry. It’s nerve-wracking. Am I doing the right thing? Are they ready? You just have to use your judgment and hope for the best.”
Cathy wishes she could be in the Gulf of Mexico, saving those countless animals injured, crippled and disabled by the oil spill. But Bobby doesn’t feel the same way.
“I have enough to take care of right here,” he says. “There’s such a demand right in my own backyard.”
The Explorer rolls south out of Cold Spring Harbor. It has more stops to make today: the kestrels in Queens, plus Cathy got another call about some baby possums. And you never know what else will come in between now and then.
“I think I’m making a difference,” says Bobby as he navigates the road. “Cathy is making a difference. To me, it’s important. Every individual animal we give a chance to makes a difference.”
To reach Bobby and Cathy Horvath regarding wildlife in need of rescue, call 516-293-0587.