The ospreys have been gone longer than usual this year. Unlike the rest of us, they seemed happy to be waiting for the arrival of spring. They had left the previous year on a warm September day and I waited six long months for them to return. Six months in the strangest year of my life, and the nest I’ve seen on a webcam for five years is now full again.
I first met the ospreys in the spring of a year of broken promises. During this first breeding season, the osprey became one constant in my life, an integral part of my computer, which sang full-throated through the darkness of my screen. Colleagues passed by and caught me spellbound. I would keep up to date with what’s going on in the Nest daily at all staff meetings. Sometimes I saw what could only have been domestic quarrels about the correct placement of a twig in the nest. Another time, when the birds switched parenting, I caught a glimpse of three mottled brown eggs, and finally three voracious, light gray chicks no bigger than mandarins, so different from their parents in every way that I could hardly believe In a few months they would be catching fish themselves and roaming the skies with the ease of their ancestors.
The osprey, Pandion haliaetus, is a slender bird of prey in a family of its own with brown wings and a mottled white crown that weighs about three pounds when mature. It’s known for dipping almost ninety degrees straight into the water like a fighter plane. Its claws are outstretched in front of it and almost completely submerged before emerging again with a fish sometimes equal to its own weight. An osprey rotates its catch in the air until the fish is parallel to its torso to make itself more aerodynamic. It doesn’t screech like the red-tailed buzzard or cackle like the bald eagle. his song is a sweet, quiet, disarming behavior, disarming for the size of the bird. Around March, ospreys migrate north for six months, returning to the same nest every year. Once they have raised their young, 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, does not defend its feeding area, since it is impossible to claim a parcel of fish that move freely in a moving body.
Ospreys often mate for life. This does not make them unique in the animal kingdom, but only a few other animals migrate separately from their partners to different countries in order to often revisit each other in a certain corner of the earth no larger than a sofa cushion on the very day they are met in the previous year. Even in the paradigm of long-term monogamy, the osprey is distinguished by its ability to travel thousands of kilometers while still maintaining that unwavering sense of home. As someone from a family of immigrants and exiles who have tried for centuries to find a place to belong, it seems to me an enviable quality.
Rarely, if ever, had I experienced really intimate moments between parent and child in the animal world. Shortly after the chicks hatched, I watched as the father’s osprey, its feathers rustling in the afternoon wind, tore tears from a trout carcass that was clenched between its claws, while its clumsy brood chirped in anticipation in a tender robin to be fed by the mouth. He walked around her cautiously, with great attention and care. The osprey rested on a branch nearby and buried itself in a fish head that the male had given her.
At the end of the season, I could guess when they would be leaving – sometime in the first week of September. It was around this time that I stopped looking because I knew I couldn’t stand to see her go. A month later I went back and looked at the footage of their departures. Usually the female goes first, then the fledglings and a few days later the male. I found a video of the moment the last boy left the nest. It was early morning and the water was already sweating from the reflections of the sun, the beginning of a hot late summer day. The man turned his head towards the boy, and the breeze tugged gently on their plumage. A moment later the boy flew away. The father watched the little bird disappear before looking away. That last moment stayed in my head for days. I’ve seen the clip ten times, maybe more. Does he know that this is the last time he will see his son? How does he not feel what i feel?
Last spring, when I was watching this original pair of ospreys with them during my fourth season, some of the webcam viewers quickly realized something was wrong. It’s not entirely uncommon for some of the eggs not to hatch, or not to survive, or even to be stolen by a predator, but one of the fledglings appeared to be sick. His movements were sluggish. It died a few days later. Then the other boy died too. Experts suspect contaminants or a parasite. Mama and Papa’s entire litter was canceled; It turned out that 2020 was also the worst and strangest year of her life. I watched the ospreys re-calibrate after their young died. They sat next to each other in the nest and stared into the horizon for hours. Some days they disappeared for unusually long distances. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were sharing the extent of their grief. Grief among ospreys seemed as calm and contemplative as it is sometimes among humans. I watched all season even though there weren’t any fledglings and the audience has dropped significantly.
There was a time when this was the story of almost every osprey nest. Although their population is strong and healthy today, they were nearly wiped out fifty years ago because of toxic pesticides like DDT. What is notable about their recovery is not only their complete success, but also that the osprey seemed eager to partner with conservationists’ efforts to save them. They adapted seamlessly to life on artificial platforms that were supposed to hold nests. All over the east coast there are wooden boxes on long poles, similar to the one I watch.
When the ospreys finally left in the fall, I didn’t know if they would come back. Does tragedy disrupt the rituals of osprey life like it does in humans? Experts noted that the nest – weighing around 400 pounds and doing years of cumulative labor – had to be largely destroyed in the off-season to clear it of the parasites that had infested the young last spring. And would the osprey even want to return to this place? Nothing in her temper on the day she left gave any indication of what was to come. Your quiet departure is always the same. It’s quick and unsentimental. Even in the face of an indescribable loss, they left with the same equanimity, which I will probably never have weeks apart, as if there were still young birds to be taken out of the nest.
First, this year, I saw footage of park rangers diligently dismantling the nest to get rid of all sorts of toxins. I was waiting quietly for the third week of March when the man usually came back. He was an elderly osprey, probably over ten years old, and when his usual arrival date came and went, I suspected he hadn’t made it until spring. Even so, I would sometimes leave the camera on in the background anyway, not necessarily in anticipation of his return, but just to hear the sounds of the wind and the trumpeting of geese nearby and the muffled vibrations of motorboats passing by, all of which brought with them memories past years. Then one day in early spring a shadow began to fly in a circle over the ruins of the nest. A few minutes later I watched a familiar woman drift onto the platform; For a moment she sat on the foundations of her old house, almost completely still, her feathers still curling in the wind like the first day I saw her. And here she was as if nothing had changed, a long spring ahead of her, ready to rebuild her home.