There is something about Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, that attracts us almost every year. Perhaps it is the weather, the gentle breezes, the laidback lifestyle, or perhaps, it is the unexpected adventure which is sure to come.
This summer was no different; it is where we first met Claude.
We are fortunate to have a time share on the island, which certainly makes it convenient. Eight plus hours down I-95 and we’re there. We calculate the drive so that we can arrive just after check-in time – the late afternoon. This enables us to catch the setting sun while imbibing in well-earned libations.
Ours was one of several bungalows which rimmed a secluded lagoon; it was a lovely spot. We unloaded luggage, filled the fridge, and set up a couple of lawn chairs away from the edge of the lagoon. My fiancée wasted no time in sitting down with a rum and Coke in hand, and I was right behind her – searching for the right IPA to fully savor the moment.
Then a cry, “Don, come quickly! I think I just saw a bird commit suicide!”
Grabbing my beer, after all first things first, I descended the rear balcony steps to her side. I saw her perplexed expression, “OK, what’s up?”
She described, while relaxing and enjoying the beauty of the place, she had spotted a bird circling the lagoon. She was watching it when it suddenly executed a power dive and disappeared beneath the water. She waited for it to reappear, but it didn’t. Hence, her conclusion; the bird was on a suicide mission.
After she mentioned to me the bird’s dark plumage and 3-foot wing span, I surmised that it was probably a costal cormorant, and its behavior was not unusual. All cormorants are fish-eaters – even dining on eels and water snakes. They can dive very deep and hold their breath for a prolonged period.
We sat down with drinks in hand and continued the vigil; we didn’t have long to wait. The bird surfaced near us and waddled on webbed feet to the muddy bank where it began to devour its catch. And yes, it was indeed a cormorant just bent on enjoying a late afternoon snack.
Well, that should have been the end of the story, but it wasn’t. On the other side of the lagoon, an alligator silently slid into the black water and stealthily moved towards the cormorant – one of its rivals for the lagoon’s largesse.
The bird seemed oblivious to its danger; it was distracted by other things – perhaps the meal before it, the beginning night sounds of dusk or the need to preen itself after its repast.
The alligator knew none of these distractions; it did, however, know its business. With only its snout and protruding eyes above water, it glided across the lagoon without making a ripple. It moved slowly – very slowly – and gradually the distance was lessened, and the doom of the bird was measured a foot at a time.
Engrossed in nature’s game of life and death, I sat quietly and just watched. My fiancée, however, became upset and started to call out to the bird to alert it. But the bird ignored her warnings and just continued to dry itself by flapping its wings. It appeared to be in no hurry.
She cried out, “Stupid bird, don’t you see your danger!” She picked up a stone to throw – to scare the bird away, but it was too late. The gator, having positioned itself for the attack, leapt out of the water with its jaws open — exposing rows of sharp death …
Well that, of course, should have been the end of the story, but again it wasn’t. They say, “God looks out for all His creatures both great and small.” This time, they were right.
As the now frantic bird sprung into the air, the gator’s jaws closed on one of its wings. But, all the alligator secured was a few feathers. Maybe, it was my fiancée’s desperate cry to reason, the threat of throwing the stone or the instinctual realization of impending destruction that drove the bird to action.
We’ll never know.
The cormorant’s near-death experience didn’t seem to bother it though. Other than the hectic lift-off, it just circled lazily once around the lagoon as if taking a victory lap to taunt its advisory. The gator looked upward and then emitted a low growl, as if saying, “Next time.”
It was over, and each of rivals returned to its respective domain.
For me, since I didn’t first spot either the bird or the gator, the naming privileges went to my significant other. And, after intense consideration and in memory of a past acquaintance with comparable traits, she decided to name the alligator “Claude.”
And as for the cormorant, she decided to name it “Lucky.”