A family visiting Sandbridge helped an egret at Back Bay refuge — though officials urge caution, calls to experienced rescuers

In these combined images taken from a video, Dennis Monahan helps free an egret that became trapped in a pond at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in November 2020. [April Fearnley/Courtesy]

VIRGINIA BEACH— A family from Vienna, Va., stayed at a house just off the water in Sandbridge last month, and they headed to nearby Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge for a socially distanced walk in the outdoors over the Thanksgiving weekend. 

On Saturday, Nov. 28, they encountered an egret in distress, apparently with one leg trapped below the surface of a pond. They couldn’t reach anyone at the refuge office that weekend, so they had to make decisions about how to help the creature.

Ultimately, Dennis Monahan decided he had to free the bird himself. He was at the refuge with his wife, April Fearnley, daughters Elizabeth, 7, and Katherine, 5, and April Fearnley’s mom, Cynthia Fearnley.

The girls spotted the egret first.

“I knew it was stuck because it was stuck in the creek, and, when it was trying to fly and flapped its wings, it fell on its belly,” Elizabeth recalled.

So the children got the grownups.

“I thought, what a beautiful bird,” April Fearnley said.

“Just standing 10 yards away from it,” Dennis Monahan said, noting it took a moment to figure out what was wrong. “It was pretty obvious its leg was stuck.”

First, the family called the refuge office, trying multiple extensions, but they couldn’t get through on the holiday weekend. Dennis Monahan said he couldn’t leave the animal, so he went in the water. A few minutes of trying to free the egret followed. It was caught on video.

“When I put my hand down, there was all this kind of sludge,” he said. “It was very thick.”

Working from behind the bird, and avoiding its bill, he removed some materials from beneath the water, and he felt around for the animal’s stuck leg. It was caught between a rock and a log, he said, and he used his hand as a wedge to free it.

“Daddy pulled up leaves, and he went in the water,” Katherine said during a recent phone interview with the family. “Then the bird lifted her wings.”

“We were so excited when it finally moved a bit, and then it flew off,” April Fearnley said.

It appears that the animal recovered enough to fly across the pond.

Officials who spoke with The Independent News did not fault Monahan for his decision to help, but they stressed that trying to handle herons or egrets is dangerous and should be avoided. They urge people to stay with wildlife in distress while contacting a rescue hotline.

Kathy Owens, deputy wildlife refuge manager at Back Bay, said concerns relate to safety of both animals and visitors.

“We don’t want the visitors to be injured, either, because distressed wildlife can sometimes react to protect themselves,” she said.

Following the incident this past month, Owens said the refuge is updating voicemail to include two hotline numbers. They are Tidewater Wildlife Rescue at (757) 255-8710 and Wildlife Response, Inc., at (757) 543-7000. Owens recommends calling a hotline, then contacting the refuge by calling (757) 301-7329, Ext. 3102 or 3106.

Julie Wallace, a volunteer who does rescue and rehabilitation work with Tidewater Wildlife Rescue, said she understood why Dennis Monahan took action after not knowing who to call to help the egret.

“It’s dangerous for egrets and herons because their bills are made for stabbing,” Wallace said. “The key thing here is knowing the numbers to call. We could have at least talked him through being cautious. They do not know you are coming to help them.”

Deborah Peters, director of rehabilitation services for Wildlife Response, said the public should use the hotlines to get help.

“He could have been hurt by the egret,” Peters said. “They have sharp beaks. … Unless you know what animal you’re dealing with, especially large birds, it’s best to stay away because you can lose an eye.”

It also helps to send along photos to those responding, and she added: “Take pictures, but don’t go near them.”

Amy Healy, a volunteer and one of the founders of Tidewater Wildlife Response, urged citizens to call a hotline.

“For the egret, we would have sent rescuers for that,” Healy said, also stressing the sharpness of bills meant to capture fish and other food. “The biggest help to the animal is if the proper people can find it.

In addition to freeing an animal that may be trapped, rescuers said people with experience can determine whether the animal needs further care or rehabilitation.

There are also resources about dealing with different animals or situations online, and Wallace shared a list of general tips for helping animals. 

The list appears below. Clearly, some of the recommendations do not apply to animals such as egrets, which — as several experts note — can hurt you.

The family that stumbled across the egret in need plans to return to Sandbridge soon.

“Elizabeth loves Back Bay, and Katherine loves the sand dunes,” their father said.

Elizabeth even did some schoolwork about the encounter with the egret. She researched other rescues, though some suggestions in her work — such as calling in the cartoon heroes of Paw Patrol — do not neatly align with recommendations offered by rescuers.

Elizabeth is looking forward to returning to Virginia Beach with her family. 

“I want to see the bird flying free again,” she said.

An egret takes flight at Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge in Knotts Island, N.C., in this March 2020 file image. Experts urge caution when interacting with any wildlife, and they urge people to call rescuers when they encounter animals in distress. [John-Henry Doucette/The Princess Anne Independent News]


Ed. — This is from a list of recommendations written by Tidewater Wildlife Rescue’s Julie Wallace, who graciously allowed The Independent News to reprint this here. It has been edited for length and style. Please be safe.

They are at the mercy of their finders. We see lives lost all the time because the animal’s finder lacked either the knowledge or the motivation to help during a critical time. Be the finder that saves a life. 

  • STOP: Be willing to stop and observe the situation. If you think an animal is harmed or in danger, take the time to pull over or stop what you are doing to really take a look at the situation. If you think the animal may be deceased, watch for a minute to see if it is still breathing. Stay with the animal.
  • BE SAFE: Don’t put yourself in a situation where the animal may bite or scratch you. This may not only harm you, but it may result in the animal having to be euthanized for rabies testing. 
  • ACT QUICKLY: If something doesn’t seem right, don’t wait hours or days to contact someone. Old breaks that have grown calluses are frequently the result. If, for instance, you see a raptor down by itself, call Tidewater Wildlife Rescue at (757) 255-8710 as soon as you see it. We will analyze the situation with you and make a determination whether the bird needs assistance. 
  • WARM, DARK & QUIET: If you can safely contain the animal, keep it in a warm, dark, quiet place until you can get it to someone who can help. Don’t play music in the car while transporting it. Don’t keep it near pets or children.
  • DON’T OFFER FOOD OR LIQUIDS: Don’t offer food or water unless asked to do so by an expert. This can make things worse. For example, a hypothermic animal cannot process anything until its temperature normalizes.
  • BE WILLING TO DRIVE: Be willing to take the animal to where it needs to go if you have been able to contain it. Don’t wait until someone is able to come pick it up. Valuable time can be the difference between life and death. 
  • CONSIDER DONATING: We know it’s not your pet and your responsibility. Wildlife rehabilitators do not get paid by the state to care for wildlife. They donate their time, and, often, they use personal funds to cover the cost of care. The more funding they have, the more they can provide for the wildlife in their care. However, even if you can’t donate, wildlife rehabilitators don’t expect it. They will still be happy to help an animal in need.

We are lucky in this area that we have hot lines to call for wildlife assistance. Tidewater Wildlife Rescue is at (757) 255-8710, and Wildlife Response is at (757) 543-7000. We have all the appropriate rehabber information so the process is streamlined. Fast care is the result. 

A finder’s quick response to an animal in need can often be the difference between life and death. Thank you for caring about Virginia’s wildlife.

© 2020 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC / Some items used with permission 

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