Tuesday, July 14, 2015


                                                                                                                                 Sydney M. Williams
Note from Old Lyme


“Within the slightest moment’s breath,
Two mighty wings released,
Two claws full-stretched, two legs reach out
The sinews, strained, unleashed.”
                                                                                                                The Osprey, 2008
Steve Hagget

Nature is filled with wonder: The changing of the seasons; the life-cycles of plants and animals; the symbiotic way in which all life co-exists. I am in awe when considering that from single-celled, microscopic bits have emerged millions of different forms of life. The Osprey, with its fierce yellow eyes, graceful flight and sharp talons, is one of nature’s most beautiful creations.

They are not uncommon, though the pesticide DDT and the then Coast Guard policy of removing Osprey nests from channel markers came close to killing them off in the 1950s-1960s. The banning of DDT in 1972 and a change in Coast Guard policies permitted their survival. The recent return of Menhaden have allowed them to thrive, at least in our part of Connecticut – the tidal marshes that compose the estuary where the Connecticut River meets Long Island Sound. From my dock I count 22 nests, most are located on Great Island, a marsh island that separates the Back River from the Connecticut. A nest was recently erected on the marsh in front of our house; another is in a large tree three hundred yards to the north.

The Osprey, like Hawks and Eagles are Raptors – birds of prey. The word raptor derives from the Latin word, rapere, meaning to seize or take by force. In ornithology, birds of prey have four characteristics: excellent vision; strong, curved talons for catching and killing fish; strong legs for holding what they have caught as they return to the nest; and a strong, curved beak for tearing flesh. The Osprey is unique among raptors in that its two outer toes are reversible. It is sometimes known as a “Sea Hawk,” as it is the only raptor that dines exclusively on fish.

Ospreys can reach two feet in length, with a six-foot wing span and weigh three to four pounds. They soar high above the water. When a fish is spotted they dive at high speed, hitting the water feet first, often fully submerging to bring up their catch. Their barbed pads allow them to hold their victim, which they then carry back aerodynamically, the head leading. The female is heavier than the male, with stockier legs. She guards the nest; her mass providing coverage for unhatched eggs and newly-hatched young. The smaller male is better suited to be the hunter, diving for a fish, eluding Sea Gulls and carrying his catch back to the nest.

Nests are built high to avoid predators like raccoons. In our area, they are usually built on man-made platforms. The bed typically consists of sticks, sod and grasses. Ospreys tend to mate for life and have one brood a year. Eggs, of which there are generally two to four, are hatched in sequence, usually three to five days apart. In times of food shortages, the weakest will be sacrificed for the strongest, usually the first born. Chicks fledge in eight weeks – around the beginning of August, but it takes about three years to reach maturity. Life expectancy is anywhere from ten to twenty years.

Migratory habits are, as they are with all birds, fascinating. Alan Poole, author of the 1989 book, Ospreys, wrote of their migration from Martha’s Vineyard. He strapped a 0.75 ounce, solar-powered satellite transmitter to the back of a few. Cuba and Hispaniola (the island containing Haiti and Dominican Republic) were the preferred destination of most, though some stopped in the Florida Everglades and others flew on as far as South America. One female flew the 2700 miles from the Vineyard to the rain-forest rivers in French Guiana in 13 days. The trip included layovers in Maryland, North Carolina and the Bahamas.

The name Osprey first appeared around 1460, according to researchers at Cornell, presumably derived from the Medieval Latin phrase for birds of prey – avis prede. The scientific name for the bird is Pandion haliaetus, and is of the order Accipitriformes, which includes most of the diurnal birds of prey. Pandion comes from the mythical Greek king of Athens. While man can be traced back about 1.8 million years, Accipitriformes date back 44 million years.

With a rap sheet like that, one would expect grace, majesty and beauty. And one would not be disappointed. There is nobility in the way they patiently wait, either perched on a pole, or in the way they soar effortlessly through the skies. Observers note that on average it takes about twelve minutes for an Osprey to catch a fish – a shorter time than it takes most fishermen.

Paul Spitzer, a conservation biologist who grew up in Old Lyme, was a neighbor and friend of Roger Tory Peterson who made his home here for almost fifty years. After graduating from Wesleyan, he received his PhD from Cornell the year of the first Earth Day in 1970. Conservation became both his avocation and vocation. For forty-five years he has observed and studied Ospreys. While he spends most of the year on the Eastern Shore, he often returns to Old Lyme in summers.

It is Paul Spitzer to whom I owe thanks for the nest erected in the marsh in front of our house – a nest that was occupied within less than a day of its being erected. As he once said, “…I think of us on a voyage of understanding.” On the first of June he wrote us of the nests he had been watching, and of the Osprey and their love affair with the Connecticut River estuary: “I find spiritual freedom out here in the tideland. I have entered a separate world: Sky so blue and crisscrossed with Osprey. A succession of males arrive with freshly caught Menhaden hanging below in their talons: Held parallel to the Osprey’s flight, thus streamlined. The lowering evening sun illuminates yellow forked Menhaden tails, and blood streaming bright from talon wounds. Arriving males hover, scream and display – which reports the direction and species of fresh prey to others.” His words evoke the beauty and the purpose of this estuary.

It is that completeness – the interdependency of nature, with its necessary cruelties, the success of evolution, man’s role in correcting past faults, so now playing a positive role – that can be observed by those of us lucky to be living in this place. Dr. Spitzer told me that man-made nests were put up not only so that we could be witness to this wonder of nature, but also so that the Osprey will know man as a non-threatening co-inhabitant.



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