The sun rose Wednesday on a strange sight in Gardiners Bay — a man swimming with his outstretched hand wrapped around the legs of a young osprey.
A fully-clothed-and-sneakered Mike Kromer had dived into the water to bring back a bird that was tangled up in fishing line and had fallen on its head from a nest 35 feet up on a pylon.
“It was staring me right in the face,” recounted Kromer, 30, a businessman, who waded and then swam out about 25 feet. “It kind of looked at me like ‘All right, let’s get back to the beach.’ It just kind of looked like it was done.”
It was just one part of an hourslong rescue of the juvenile osprey which this week will be recovering at a Hampton Bays wildlife center.
It was a team effort that started Tuesday night with a fisherman spotting the bird through his binoculars. There were two chicks and its mother and one of the birds was in distress.
The fisherman saw something glistening on a pylon in the waters about 15 feet off the Maidstone Park Beach in Springs.
Several fishing lines had become entangled along the length of the pylon, in the osprey nest at the top, a weather station above it, and on the young osprey, said Dell Cullum, who was called in as owner of the Hampton Wildlife Removal & Rescue.
When Cullum met up about 6:30 p.m. with the fisherman, who by then had gotten a 32-foot ladder to jam against the pylon so they could cut the lines.
But things went wrong almost immediately — the tide was strong.
“The ladder started getting pulled out into the channel,” said Cullum, 53, of East Hampton.
A nearby, off-duty lifeguard threw the two men a rope and they tied it to the ladder and navigated back to the beach, he said: “We held onto the ladder under somebody came and threw us a rope. It was all going wrong . . . We had to abort.”
But looking up before leaving for the night, Cullum saw a hopeful sign. The parent osprey had brought back a fish to the young bird in the nest with fishing line wrapped around its wing and body.
“The baby ate the whole fish,” he said. “I knew it was eating so I figured we had time.”
Back home, Cullum spread the word on Facebook that he needed someone with a boat and hours later, an “awesome dude” named Kromer called to say 5 a.m. was the perfect time because the waters would be “slack” in between high and low tides.
As the skies lightened, the two osprey rescuers waded out into the waters, where Cullum tied his own ladder around the pylon and climbed up.
As the mother bird circled overhead and divebombed without really hitting Cullum, Kromer held the bottom of the ladder steady, and although the waters were chest high, he was unafraid.
“I was born and raised here,” said Kromer, who owns a business installing generators. “I know the waters around here. I know how the channel drops off and where it drops off.”
He could hear Cullum talking to the birds as he snipped the fishing lines, trying to calm the birds with lines like “Hey mama, I’m here to save your kid.”
Then when Cullum snipped enough lines off the juvenile bird, the osprey flapped its wings.
“Finally I heard him say ‘Try and move now’ and I guess the bird got free and that’s when it tried to fly,” recalled Kromer. “It got about 20 to 30 feet off the pylon. It kind of flew up off the nest, glided down and hit head first and went upside down in the water.
“I said ‘It just crashed into the water,’ ” Kromer shouted to Cullum. “He said ‘Oh crap’ — although that wasn’t the actual word he used.”
On instinct, Kromer said, he plowed through the water, grabbing the bird’s legs underneath.
“As soon as I touched it, it grabbed hold of my hand with its talons,” Kromer said. “I’m sure it was extremely scared. Birds don’t like the water. It tried to peck at my arm.”
But as Kromer swam and waded back to the jetty, the osprey had its wings out but had stopped struggling.
Cullum was already at the jetty, where the rehabilitator shouted to his rescue partner, “I can’t believe this. That bird trusts you.”
The pair snipped off the remaining lines around the osprey’s wings, and Cullum figures he took out about 100 yards of fishing line from the nest area and the bird.
They left the exhausted osprey on the beach and went about their lives, each taking turns to return to see how the bird was doing.
Two hours later, about 8 a.m., the juvenile was still in the same spot, on the water’s edge.
Cullum said the bird could have been tangled up in fishing lines for more than a week and believes this prevented it from exercising and gaining strength.
He rushed it the Veterinary Clinic of East Hampton, where Dr. Jennifer Katz determined it was alert and didn’t have any broken bones.
“It was flapping its wings but it wasn’t able to fly,” she said.
The bird was then taken to the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center in Hampton Bays, where wildlife rehabilitator Staci Earl said the joint on one of its wings was swollen.
The bird is getting anti-inflammation medicine, she said, and it may be more than a week before he can fly and be released back to its home.
It was an adventure that Cullum, who’s rescued several ospreys, will remember as one of his most rewarding. “This stands out because we had to reach a location via walking through water,” he said.
As for the man who dived fully clothed into the bay, Kromer said he’s a lifelong local who fished all his life and was just giving a nod to the best fisherman around — the ospreys.
Once the bird is back in its nest, he said, “I’ll give it a wave every time I go out into the channel.”