HomeBirdsThe Ospreys

Every day after tennis, Joanie and I spend five or six hours on the road looking for our new home and then return with great relief to the townhouse we have graciously been invited to live in temporarily.  I race upstairs to view the disheveled and tattered osprey nest through my binoculars while Joanie instant messages our friends back in New York and works on her photos.  The nest is just across Westchester Lake and from our window we have a bird’s eye view.

The ospreys are tearing open the headless corpse of a trout in the wide open air 100 feet higher up on a metal platform put there especially for them by the parks department.  They are living a very public life on top of this huge pile of sticks above a baseball field, delicately feeding their bald little osprey with the white head and otherwise living remarkably like a lot of us here in Florida: eating and napping, lounging and preening, and huddling in the sun.

Sometimes the mother soars away for a few minutes to stretch out her wings.  She has been sitting faithfully at home for 39 days until her cinnamon-colored egg hatched and now has to restlessly wait another month for her chick to become strong enough to fly.  Unprotected from the rain, wind, and thunderstorms, this dignified osprey family stoically sleeps above the floodlights ignoring the incomprehensible shouts and cheers of the children beneath them.

The largest birds of prey in North America, forever wild and uncivilized, still dwell in the midst of us, as if we and our flashy, noisy, artificial world do not exist.  They will never be economically useful to people, these great birds, never be good for anything, not even this little bald-headed nestling.  Still I race up the stairs, heart pounding, and run to the window, the late afternoon sun pouring in, to see what the little osprey rascal in particular is up to.  Of course, I can only see her white head every now and then peeking under the flapping six foot wing of her mother.

Ignoring the strong odor of fish and the growing hordes of insects attracted to the reeking nursery, wild parakeets live and sing in the crevasses on the bottom of the large nest, careful not to fly over the aggressively protective female above.  Sometimes big branches lay on the ground by home plate, dropped there accidentally by the tired male who, when he isn’t fishing, is constantly improving his bedraggled home under the careful scrutiny of his grimly attentive mate who insists that they live in a perpetual construction site.

Soaring over the lake, his short chirping whistles express affection, happiness and pride in their helpless featherless juvenile who never seems to get enough to eat, despite being fed eight or ten times a day, and who loves to disappear from sight and take a snooze in the soft grasses lining the nest while her rigidly attentive mother fidgets and constantly looks around for horned owl, bald eagle and red tailed hawk and any other threatening outcast of the osprey world.

This ungainly family would no doubt shriek with disgust if they ever found out they are considered a “species of special concern” in our human world for they are among our proudest and some say our most savage creatures.

But the little osprey, so unskilled and inept and dependent, is anything but savage.  She loves to peer over the rim of her home at the more mature Muscovy ducks practicing their dignified and inscrutable parades up and down the lake.  She carefully studies and admires the great blue heron slowly stalking tiny fish like an assassin at the water’s edge; draws back from the raucous gang of crows screaming atop the bottle-washer tree, is awed by the families of gleaming seagulls turning cartwheels in the middle of the lake.  At night, sleepy and content with a full belly, cherished and watched over by two great hulking parents, she loves to gaze up at the stars though she instinctively knows she will never reach them.

Of course, and I write this with a sigh of regret, one cannot simply watch ospreys all day long.  But buying a home with modest means is a challenge here in Florida and one needs a distraction from thinking about insurance rates, property taxes, what a heated pool costs, condos that don’t allow dogs.  I suppose my osprey family helps me feel free and serene.  Their nest has a function and purpose very different from that of a lot of people buying and selling houses today: it has nothing to do with business.  Land developers have been known to knock nest trees of ospreys and bald eagles to the ground, load the gigantic nests into the back of a pickup, and drive them to a construction site to be buried.  The ospreys seem indifferent to the transgressions of such people, coldly disdainful toward our entire race.  They are too involved in the making of a vital, strong, healthy gloriously energetic little osprey, too focused on presenting their offering to the earth.

So, the father goes out every few hours and immerses himself in an alien environment to stab his talons into the back of a heavy fish, dragging them both up to the surface, struggling into the air, flying off with the dangerous weight gripped tightly until he reaches the nest to fling his catch into the middle of the depression of sticks; and the mother broods her chick for months, giving up all freedom, all flight, all the carefree moments of floating in the sky.  It is such a simple elemental offering, such a pure self-effacement, but there are always one or two or a hundred shrewd condo builders who ask themselves, what good is such an eyesore of sticks if we lose millions of dollars because we cannot build within a few hundred feet of an active nest.

Meanwhile, sticks are continually put together higher and higher, Spanish moss is stuffed into the cracks, grasses line the ever deeper bottom, and a fortress is created for a brand new little osprey, who adds her unpracticed squawk of joy to the heavens when she sees the shiny long strips of raw fish her mother so carefully offers her daughter so that she can grow feathers and flap her wings and jump up and down with the thrill of life, and then after two itchy months stand on the edge of her world and at dusk finally bravely fall into the vast empty air, flailing and then flying around and around in a happiness the condo developers will never quite understand, while her relieved, exhausted and loyal parents scream their shrill praises for all to hear.

“I’ll show you everything!”, their favorite daughter with the ruffled head feathers all askew seems to call out, and she soars and dips and pinwheels round and round as her mother and father whistle and chirp and the faint stars ever so far away seem to twinkle and shudder with appreciation at the sight and sound of such an extravagant spectacle, at such a proud and furiously optimistic ending to a tiny trembling helpless beginning.

Long after the osprey parents have flown south to Brazil, as dust swirls around home plate, I find green parakeet feathers and the old leathery torso of a discarded trout beneath the metal pole holding up their deserted home.  That small wild bald head resting against her mother, that ugly awkward nestling cheerfully waiting for her headless fish, waiting for her feathers to grow in, so happy sprawled about in her comforting stinky retreat, happy with herself and her kind, happy with her bright spring sky and her sun and her moon, and the glittering water reflecting the Sabal palms, happy with the faintly appraising stars (oh, she knows everything belongs to her) – that sacred offering and promise to our planet, well she is gone.

Joanie and I are left to drive up and down the highways and over the bridges looking for our own nest, and otherwise feed and nap, lounge and preen, and huddle together in the sun, alongside all the developers with their cranes and backhoes and shovels, the cheerful real estate agents with their endless MLS listings, and the grim tax collectors, and of course the Muscovy ducks with their eight new ducklings,  the gang of crows, the families of gleaming seagulls, and the great blue heron dozing on one leg under the Sabal palm.

©Linda Clarke  April 2006   Volume 7   Issue  2


The Ospreys — 3 Comments

  1. Linda,
    I finally got around to reading this and it was a great pleasure. Wow, you are such a powerful writer, bringing me into my day feeling one with all that is. I will never tire of reading your observations!

  2. What better way to preoccupy oneself when searching for your own nest, than to follow the osprey. When I first moved to the Gulf Coast I was happy to notice old friends perched and poised for fishing on the Franklin Howard Bridge. An avid birdwatcher all my life, I knew I would be treated to the sights and learning the habits of tropical birds in Florida, so exotic to me. Most of my experience was with raptors– Redtail Hawks in the mid-Atlantic and Bald Eagles, in Alaska, where there is the largest concentration. And in the home I like bed in on the Chesapeake Bay for 20 years before moving south, the osprey was my friend. Excitement would build in small waterfront communities waiting for their arrival in spring. There, many a dedicated homeowner would install a huge pole just off the shoreline with a wooden platform, and then watch the osprey work their magic, breeding, building, borrowing–sticks, flotsam and jetsome, creating a home for their offspring. My own community had two small piers that went out into the Bay, one with tin, pitched roof shelter at the end. and yes, platforms were provided our visitors. But osprey have their own mind, and one pair year after year insisted on building instead on the electrical utility pole. Potomac Electric took a dim view of that, hence the platforms. One aspiring young archetectural student osprey took to building on the metal pitched roof at the end of their pier. Sticks rained down from osprey to roof, sliding into to the Bay, day after day after day. I became this Ospreys biggest fan, crossing my fingers with each attempt at nest construction. After all, the osprey’s stay in Maryland is a brief one in summer. I guess you can lead an osprey to a platform, but the choice is still theirs. Besides, there is always next summer. Or hey, I’ll bet Florida has a longer season for our beloved industrious feathered friend. How about Fort DeSoto Park. I’ve seen tons of successful nests there. Go south young bird, just St like us.

  3. Oh, Linda, getting carried away with the very subject of Osprey, I failed to say how much I enjoyed being taken from the micro of the beauty and intimate details of osprey building nest and family, to the macro, the developer who sets his sights rather on the human species, promising waterfront condos. We all know at what expense to the natural world around us. As we used to say in Alaska, when a family of beavers would move in and take down a stand of willow, or a moose would wander into our cabbage patch and chow down, “they were here first.” I guess that never occurs to the developers. Wonderful piece.

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