Nest makings caught on the fly

Birdwatching: Huge wings power this beaked beachcomber's search for building supplies.

May 14, 2001|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

A sudden streak of charcoal and cream hurtles toward the earth. There is a moment when calamity seems imminent. Then a pair of wings unfurls to a 6-foot span, beats twice, and the blur snaps into focus:

A great hunting bird nearly 2 feet tall, golden-eyed, dark-backed and white-throated, hovers inches from the sand with its talons outstretched.

In the briefest of touch-and-go landings, the talons close around a hunk of driftwood. The shoulders tighten, accepting the weight. The big bird flies away with its burden, picking up speed and altitude as it heads for its nest on a nearby channel marker.

For the osprey, this spring foraging for nest materials is a routine housekeeping chore. For me, it's a thrill that never pales.

I count it a blessing to live within sight of the Chesapeake Bay and a south-facing sliver of beach. Winter storms moving up the bay pile mounds of driftwood, twigs and assorted junk on the little strand.

The debris is a magnet for ospreys from mid-March, when they return from their South American wintering grounds, till sometime in April, when they have finished their nest-mending. For those few weeks, their beach combing begins soon after dawn.

Each morning's air show yanks me out of my bleary meanderings. The first glimpse of a diving osprey tugs my spirit back from wherever it has wandered and settles it into its proper place.

Thirty years ago on the Chesapeake shore, this moment of wild grace was a rare sight. The pesticide DDT decimated the U.S. population of ospreys and eagles, larding the fish they ate with poison that accumulated in the big hunters' bodies. The females laid eggs so thin-shelled they smashed beneath the mother's weight.

Then came Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring," the inspiration for conservationists who lobbied to get rid of DDT. In 1972 the use of the pesticide was banned in the United States. And the ospreys and eagles rebounded.

In 1974, Charles County naturalist Steve Cardano counted 22 osprey nests on the Patuxent River. Last year, he tallied 127.

Now Cardano and other experts believe there are probably 3,000 nesting pairs in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, making this area one of the world's top osprey hatcheries.

One sunny afternoon last week I was invited to sit beside a saltwater creek, sipping homemade lemonade at a celebration of the big birds' recovery.

Several guests initially turned down the invitation from Gerald Winegrad, a former lawmaker and avid bird-watcher. We all seemed to have important work waiting on our desks.

"My first reaction was, `What-ever, Gerald,'" says Don Baugh, vice president for education of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "We've got battles to fight."

The osprey's recovery isn't news anymore. Even David Gessner, the man who wrote the book on ospreys, resisted their appeal at first.

"I was writing a book on something totally unrelated to nature when outside my window the ospreys were insisting that I write about them," says the Cape Cod author, whose "Return of the Osprey" was published in March.

Gessner became obsessed with the big birds also known as fish hawks. He studied their fishing techniques, the fastidious way they carried their prey like a purse, the contents of their nests, including, in one case, a naked Barbie doll.

He even experimented with a pair of plyers and assorted dead fish, trying to find out what it felt like to tear a fish's head off and feed it to a hungry fledging.

As he reminisced the other morning, two ospreys glided over the creek. At this time of year, on the cusp of summer, the birds are a bit harder to spot. The females are roosting on a clutch of two or three eggs, while the males go fishing to feed them both.

The hatchlings should emerge from their shells very soon. Over the summer the adults will take turns feeding the brood. In October they will fly south, follow the coast to the Florida Keys, crossing Cuba and the Caribbean to winter homes in Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador.

Only about half will live long enough to return to the Chesapeake next spring. The youngsters are eaten by raccoons and eagles, felled by power lines, and shot by people. Those who make it back are tough and determined. That, and their marvelous recovery, make them a symbol of hope, Gessner says.

"I have a complicated relationship with hope," he says. "I don't want a schmaltzy, Disney kind of hope. I want a hard-won hope." The kind the osprey inspires, as it rebuilds its nest one scavenged stick at a time.

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