I wish to acknowledge the wonderful Audubon paintings, which thankfully are in the public domain.
Harriet was a marsh hen. That is the common name, but in the books marsh hens are called clapper rails. The males in her family liked that because for them being called a marsh hen was embarrassing. You know how guys are. Rail sounded cooler, kind of macho. “Hi, I’m Fred, a rail, glad to meet cha.” As the name marsh hen implies, Harriet was about the size of a small chicken. She lived in the endless miles of salt water marshes on the coast of South Carolina, some bordering the numerous tidal creeks and rivers, others surrounding the non-beach sides of the many barrier islands. Harriet lived in the marshes between two islands, Edisto, a large island, and Botany, a much smaller island. She had a long, slim, downward curving beak, designed to winkle out small shrimp, crabs, and other yummy critters from the pluff mud. Pluff mud is the fluffy shoe-stealing sink-deep mud of salt water marshes. Oysters make their homes in it. I wonder if they live in the lost shoes.
Now Harriet had a special friend, Muriel, a sea turtle. One dark night Harriet had been sleeping in her bushy nest in the marsh just across a little tidal creek from the Botany Island beach, when she’d heard some strange grunting sounds. At first she’d thought maybe it was Alfred and Ida and their kids, the wild goat family that lived on the island, but it would have been unusual for them to wander the beach in the middle of the night. She went to the edge of the marshgrass and peered out. Huge sea turtles were lumbering out of the surf to lay their eggs in the sand. The nearest one, which turned out to be Muriel, had just dug a hole in the sand and settled in. Harriet waded across the creek to the beach and struck up a conversation. Marsh hens like chickens seldom fly, and never very high or far. So inbetween Muriel’s grunts they chatted away and became friends. They agreed that whenever her wanderings permitted, every full moon Muriel would come back to visit. Now Harriet had snapped up a baby turtle or two when they’d hatched and made their frantic scramble to the ocean, but she never ate one after she became friends with Muriel, a simple matter of courtesy.
On a night of the full moon Harriet went down to the beach to meet Muriel. Muriel hadn’t arrived yet, but there was something on the beach. It turned out to be Bill, a bottlenose dolphin, all wrapped up in a fishing net. The locals often called them porpoises, but bottlenose dolphin is the correct name. Bill preferred dolphin, but he wasn’t crazy about the bottlenose part. Anyway Bill had barely managed to save himself from drowning by beaching himself. The weight of the net and the fact that it limited his movements had made it more and more difficult for him to surface for air. The tide was going out, and when Harriet found him he was a good ways from the water. Bill was very weak from his struggles. Harriet immediately began to unravel the cords with her long beak. Harriet worked for an hour, maybe two, until she had unraveled a good bit of the net. Fortunately Muriel arrived just in time to tug the rest of it off of Bill and roll him down the sloped beach to the water. Bill just rested in the shallows a bit. Then when he felt strong enough, he thanked them and swam off.
About a week later as Bill swam down a tidal creek, he saw Harriet probing the pluff mud on the creek bank. At the same time he saw a school of small mullet swimming by her. On an impulse he swam quickly toward her and scared a couple fish into flipping up on the bank where Harriet ate them. He tried that again from time to time when he spotted Harriet, not always successfully because the fish didn’t always panic and flip themselves up on the bank, and it was hard for one dolphin to generate a big enough wave to wash them on shore. Also they weren’t always in the perfect spot. Still it was fun to try and Harriet appreciated the effort.
Then one day Bill was swimming with his cousins, Al and Edna, when he spotted Harriet. He talked his cousins into helping. There were no fish right in front of Harriet, but working together the three dolphins managed to herd a school of fish to the right place. Then they surged forward at the same time, creating a bow wave that washed a whole lot of fish up on the bank, many more than Harriet could eat. Al was hungry, so he flipped himself up on the mud bank and began munching away. Soon the other two dolphins joined him. With practice the dolphins became better and better at that style of fishing, whether Harriet was around or not. It became known as strand feeding, and for some years only South Carolina dolphins did it. Then some of Bill’s relatives visited, those odd Geechee dolphins from down Savannah way. Soon Georgia dolphins were doing it too. And if you ever visit Botany Island or Edisto or any of the other barrier islands in the South Carolina low country, you’ll have a good chance to see dolphins strand feeding. All thanks to the kindness of Harriet the marsh hen.