April 20, 2021

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The Joy of Watching the Ospreys Return

6 min read
Ospreys migrate separately from their mates, only to seek each other out again.Photograph by Christian Heeb / Laif / Redux

The ospreys were gone longer than usual this year. Unlike the rest of us, they seemed glad to wait for spring’s arrival. They’d left the previous year on a warm day in September, and I waited six long months for their return. Six months during the strangest year of my life, and the nest I’ve watched on a Webcam for five seasons now is full again.

I first encountered the ospreys in the spring of a year of broken promise. Over the course of that first nesting season, the ospreys became a lone constant in my life, a fixture on my computer at all hours, singing with full-throated ease through the darkness of my screen. Colleagues would walk by and catch me transfixed. I would share daily updates, at all-staff meetings, about the goings on of the nest. Sometimes I witnessed what could only have been domestic squabbles over the proper placement of a twig in the nest. Other times, when the birds traded parenting shifts, I would catch a glimpse of three mottled brown eggs, and, eventually, three ravenous, pale-gray chicks no bigger than tangerines, so unlike their parents in every way that I could hardly believe in a few short months they would be catching fish of their own and rippling through the sky with the ease of their ancestors.

The osprey, Pandion haliaetus, is a sleek bird of prey in a family of its own, with brown wings and a mottled white crown, weighing roughly three pounds in maturity. It is known for making nearly ninety-degree dives, like a fighter plane, straight into the water, its talons stretched out ahead, submerging itself almost entirely before reemerging with a fish that is sometimes equal to its own weight. An osprey will rotate its catch midair, until the fish is parallel to its torso, to make itself more aerodynamic. It does not screech like the red-tailed hawk nor cackle like the bald eagle; its song is a sweet, low cheep, disarmingly demure for the bird’s size. Around March, ospreys migrate north for six months, returning every year to the same nest, and once they have raised their fledglings, they fly thousands of miles to warmer climates. The osprey eats almost exclusively fish—it has no interest in vermin or cats—and, unlike many birds of prey, it doesn’t defend its feeding territory, since it is impossible to claim a plot of fish moving freely in a shifting body of water.

Ospreys often mate for life. That does not make them unique in the animal kingdom, but few other animals migrate separately from their partners, going to different countries, even, only to seek each other out again in a specific corner of the earth no bigger than a sofa cushion, often on the exact day that they met the previous year. Even in the paradigm of long-term monogamy, the osprey stands out for its ability to travel thousands of miles and still retain this unshakable sense of home. As someone from a family of immigrants and exiles who have spent centuries trying to find a place to belong, it seems to me an enviable trait.

Rarely, if ever, had I witnessed truly intimate moments between parent and child in the animal world. Soon after the chicks hatched, I watched as the father osprey, his feathers rustling in the afternoon wind, ripped shreds from a trout carcass clenched between its talons, while his clumsy brood chirped in anticipation of being mouth-fed in a delicate round robin. He moved around them cautiously, with great attention and care. On a branch nearby, the female osprey was resting, tucking into a fish head that had been delivered to her by the male.

At the end of the season, I was able to guess when they would leave—sometime in the first week of September. Around that time, I stopped watching, knowing I wouldn’t be able to stand seeing them go. A month later, I went back and watched the footage of their departures. Usually, the female leaves first, then the fledglings, and then, several days later, the male. I found a video of what appeared to be the moment that the last fledgling left the nest. It was early morning, and the water was already sweating off reflections of the sun, the beginning of a hot late-summer day. The male reared his head toward the fledgling, the breeze gently tugging at their plumage. A moment later, the fledgling flew off. The father watched the small bird vanish before looking away. That final moment stuck in my head for days. I watched the clip ten times, maybe more. Does he know this is the last time he will see his son? How does he not feel what I feel?

Last spring, as I watched that original osprey couple during my fourth season with them, some of the Webcam viewers quickly realized that something was wrong. It is not wholly unusual for some of the eggs not to hatch or fail to survive or even be stolen by a predator, but one of the fledglings seemed ill. Its movements were sluggish. It died a few days later. Then the other fledgling died as well. Experts suspected contaminants or a parasite. Mom and dad’s entire litter had failed; 2020, it turned out, was the worst and strangest year of their lives, too. I watched as the ospreys recalibrated after the deaths of their young. They sat in the nest, side by side, staring into the horizon for hours at a time. Some days, they disappeared for unusually long stretches. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were communicating the extent of their sorrow; grief among ospreys seemed to be as quiet and contemplative as it sometimes is among humans. I kept watching all through the season, even though there were no fledglings, and viewership dwindled significantly.

There was a time when this was the story of almost every osprey nest. Although their population is strong and healthy today, fifty years ago they were nearly wiped out because of toxic pesticides such as DDT. What is remarkable about their recovery is not just its complete success, but also that the osprey seemed eager to cöoperate with conservationists’ efforts to save them. They adjusted seamlessly to life on artificial platforms designed to hold nests; wooden boxes perched on top of long poles, similar to the one I watch, can be found all over the East Coast.

When the ospreys finally left in the fall, I didn’t know if they would be back. Does tragedy disrupt the rituals of osprey life the way it does in humans? Experts determined that the nest—weighing roughly four hundred pounds and the cumulative work of many years—would need to be largely destroyed in the off-season to rid it of the parasites that had taken the young during the previous spring. And would the osprey even want to return to this place? Nothing in their temper on the day they left gave any hint of what would come. Their quiet departure is always the same. It is quick and unsentimental. Even in the face of an indescribable loss, they left with that same equanimity I will probably never have myself, several weeks apart, as if there had still been fledglings who needed coaxing out of the nest.

At first, this year, I watched footage of park rangers diligently dismantling the nest to eliminate all possible toxins. I quietly waited for the third week of March, when the male usually returned. He was an elder osprey, thought to be more than ten years old, and when his usual arrival date came and went, I suspected that he had not made it to spring. Still, sometimes I left the camera on in the background all the same, not necessarily in anticipation of his return, but only to hear the sounds of the wind and the trumpeting of nearby geese and the muted vibrations of passing motorboats, all of which brought memories of previous years. Then, one day in early spring, a shadow began to fly in circles above the wreckage of the nest. A few minutes later, I looked on as a familiar female drifted onto the platform; for a moment, she sat perched on the foundation of her old home, almost completely still, her feathers still ruffling in the wind like the first day I saw her. And here she was, as if nothing had changed, a long spring ahead, ready to rebuild her home.

Alexander Aciman
2021-04-05 17:45:37

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