Co-authored by Erica Cirino
About a year and a half ago, Melissa Ursey was riding in the car as her husband Jerry drove across the Southern California desert back to their home in Rancho Mirage from their friends’ house in Desert Springs. As the car cruised through the town of Palm Desert, Jerry noticed something unusual: a large gull sitting in the middle of a dirt construction site.
Jerry slowed the car to a crawl and pointed out the humongous gull to Melissa. The construction site seemed like an odd place for a bird, but gulls being so adaptable often rest in what may seem unnatural locations, like supermarket parking lots and garbage dumps. But as soon as Melissa observed the gull, she knew the situation was dire—because it wasn’t a gull she was looking at.
“I looked at the bird and just knew,” says Melissa. “I was 99.9 percent positive the bird was an albatross…I knew the bird was in trouble. I knew the bird was far off course to say the least.” So she told Jerry to stop the car.
Melissa says she may not have realized the bird was in danger that afternoon, were it not for the book she had begun reading the night before: Eye of the Albatross by Carl Safina. “I had never seen an Albatross before nor did I know anything about the species,” says Melissa, who, using her smartphone, confirmed the bird was a Laysan albatross.
Melissa and Jerry eased out of the car and slowly approached the albatross, taking care not to startle it. But even if the bird was nervous, it wasn’t able to go anywhere, says Melissa. “We both noticed that the bird was unable to stand and he kept opening and closing his mouth soundlessly”—sure signs of physical distress.
Melissa waited in the hot desert sun with the albatross—which she had dubbed “Albie”—while Jerry drove down the street to a storage center. There he bought a large cardboard box, which proved the perfect carrying device to bring Albie to safety. Melissa knelt down in front of Albie, speaking to him reassuringly while Jerry snuck up behind him and scooped him into the box.
“Without Carl’s book, I honestly don’t know if I would have recognized the bird was out of place to begin with,” says Melissa. “Palm Desert is about 50 miles from the Salton Sea, a major stop for migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway.”
The Pacific Flyway is a massive stretch of airspace spanning from Alaska down to South America. Laysan albatrosses like Albie fly from their breeding grounds in the Hawaiian Islands from July to October to the northern Pacific Ocean, where they forage for food. Normally they fly northwest toward Japan and Alaksa, only flying along the very edge of the U.S. West Coast, if at all. Albie, it seems, had strayed a bit off course.
It was late afternoon by the time Melissa and Jerry secured Albie into the box. They called wildlife rehabilitation clinics and left messages asking for help. Finally, just before 4pm, a clinic called Melissa back, recommending the couple take Albie to The Living Desert zoo and rehabilitation center. The catch: The Living Desert would close at 4pm. Melissa told Jerry to step on it, and they managed to get there just in time.
As Jerry went into the zoo to get help, Melissa sat in the car with Albie, who “was getting a bit restless and poking his beak through the side slits of the box,” she remembers. When a clinic assistant came out to the car with Jerry to retrieve Albie, she seemed skeptical of Melissa and Jerry’s identification skills. After all, why would a Laysan albatross fly so far inland? When she looked at the photos on Melissa’s phone, she was “shocked,” says Melissa.
Later that evening after Melissa and Jerry returned home, a clinic assistant from The Living Desert called with an update: Albie was in rough shape—emaciated, covered with parasites and severely dehydrated. He needed to be force-fed and given intravenous fluids.
Two days later, the clinic assistant called back with good news: Albie was out of the woods; he would survive. By Day 4 The Living Desert transferred Albie to the International Bird Rescue in Long Beach, California, which at the time was caring for another Laysan albatross. When both birds had put on needed weight and regained their strength, they were released at sea—together.
Melissa has since finished reading Eye of the Albatross, which she describes as “magnificent” and “astonishingly beautiful.” She says, beyond being a well-written book, Eye of the Albatross “is important in learning how man has sadly impacted the survival of these majestic birds.”
She has recently read Safina’s seventh book, Beyond Words, which she says she also very much enjoyed. In Beyond Words, Safina takes readers across the world, from Alaska to Africa, to learn more about animal emotion, sentience and cognition. Melissa, who was especially captivated by the pachyderm-containing parts of Safina’s book, says, “Now, if I encounter an elephant on the road, we really have a story!”
Carl Safina’s latest book, Beyond Words, is newly out in paperback.