EDMONDS — The bird was so small that Kevin Mack’s hands seemed to swallow it.
Not entirely, though, as the feisty grebe’s head was visible, especially a beak that was busy pecking at Mack’s hands.
But it only took a few seconds for Mack to whisk the bird out of a carrier and release it into Puget Sound on the Edmonds waterfront.
The release Tuesday made the horned grebe the first oil-covered animal from the Dec. 30 spill near here to be rescued, treated and released.
"He was acting like a wild grebe should," said Mack, a naturalist with the Progressive Animal Welfare Society’s wildlife recovery center in Lynnwood, which treated the bird. "When he came up (from under the water), he looked good and dry. I think he’s going to be OK."
Once free, the grebe took a quick look about, dove under the water, surfaced about 10 feet away, preened itself and dove under again. Then, from a safe distance, it stretched its wings and looked around a bit more.
After a few moments, it swam out of sight.
Only two birds have been caught and saved, Mack said, with a second grebe still being treated. So far, 10 bird deaths have been linked to the oil spill, along with the deaths of two seals.
Although the spill occurred just off of Edmonds, most of the oil migrated across the Sound to a sensitive wetlands area near Indianola on the Kitsap Peninsula. Cleanup efforts continue in that area on the Doe-Keg-Wats Marsh, a critical shellfish harvesting area for the Suquamish Tribe.
Federal and state investigators have not yet completed their probe of the spill, in which 4,800 gallons of fuel spilled when a Foss Maritime barge was overfilled. Damage totals for the accident also have not been determined.
Considering that more than 200 birds could have been in the path of the oil slick, losing only 10 birds was a stroke of good fortune, said Chris Lane, coordinator for the state Fish and Wildlife Department’s wildlife rescue program.
"We were expecting 200 birds," Lane said. "There are thousands and thousands of birds out there. We dodged a major bullet."
Spotters have seen at least a dozen other birds with oil on them, most of which appear to be getting sick and are not eating.
"This is when we should start seeing some of the stragglers coming in," Lane said, adding that it is almost impossible to catch the birds until they become very ill. "We just hope we can get to them before the competition does," referring to predators.
There’s one blue heron in particular that bird-watchers have tried to capture with fish, but it hasn’t worked so far because the bird hasn’t been eating.
Lane said exposure to oil causes seagoing birds to lose their protection from the cold, which causes them to become hypothermic.
Some of the oiled birds that have been spotted, including three eagles, have little enough oil on them that they will be OK over the long haul, he said.
Reporter Lukas Velush: