In all parts of life, one must take into account factors beyond one's control. In the case of a particular Common Merganser, the factors were involved were deceptively simplistic. While our rehabber was only 90 minutes away, her flu symptoms were only worsening as the merganser's recovery was speeding up. Our rehabber, unfortunately, had the same basic facilities available (read: bathtub), though more experience and likely a more streamlined routine - but she, herself, had no energy. So what were we actually up against?
* Strengthening merganser.
Average energy level had increased from death's door to... standing, flapping, diving, bathing, preening, and attempting to exit the tub.
* NEED for different facilities.
Our tub, our rehabber's tub, both were inadequate for a bird that needed to dive. Merg's energy levels were becoming an injury risk: our bathroom was not designed to keep a flapping, hopping, heavy duck safe from accidental injury (faucets, toilets, floors... birds are as bad as toddlers when it comes to potential injury).
* Beak out of alignment.
While the beak was being wrapped every night in hopes that it'd heal with proper alignment, it only improved slightly from day one. STRONG bite, however, was reassuring, as was normal beak functioning during preening, feeding and drinking. But still not perfect.
The factors above are understatements, mere highlights, the things we knew all too well. What we were now facing was this - Merg's fish benefactor had already headed back to Houston by the time we realized what was going on - and that's where the best wildlife rehab facilities in the state are located. San Antonio does have wildlife rehab facilities, but not for diving ducks. Lubbock? Same deal. Albuquerque was our next call: they had an Osprey using their diving pool enclosure. No go.
If only this (The Virginia Living Museum) could be in our bathroom, our problems would be solved....
Unfortunately, mergansers are high-stress creatures. They, along with other diving ducks, are not exactly the best patients. The longer they are in captivity, the less likely they are to continue improvement. It's kind of an odd bell curve. Add a minimum of 6-10 hour drive to get them to facilities that would allow for more room and high quality care... you take a possible 2 steps forward and 1-3 steps back, depending. No matter how cushy the box, it's not the natural habitat for a diving duck: not to mention, neither Albuquerque nor Houston would be able to release Merg where she was found. Obviously in water, not on the side of Hwy 90.
Local release options would involve minimal stress to Merg, have a shorter rehab time (due to lack of facilities, mostly), and the only down side would be a strong, if unaligned, beak. Post Park never has diving ducks, recently has very few fish, and really isn't ideal for a merganser... so that option was out. The SW ponds have tons of ducks, all the time, but never mergansers (yet), nor much else in the way of long-term fish-eater inhabitants. Then, of course, Balmorhea. Two hours of a drive, but with cormorants, mergansers of three species, and plenty of fish. Fluctuating Common Merganser numbers, but for December 2013, not fewer than one, though no more than 30 or so. Plenty of habitat as well...
Several late night phone calls with multiple rehabbers in NM and TX led us to the conclusion that we had done what we could, and without adequate local rehab facilities, it'd be better to wish her luck and do a local release than to risk further stress with excessive transportation.
So on the morning of December 31st, we aimed for as soft of a release as possible. Using the 'food coma' method to ensure a mellow Merganser, Merg was fed and then placed into the glassy waters of Lake Balmorhea.
...we were only able to stay for an hour before we had to leave, but there's plenty of footage where that came from.