It’s raptor and waterfowl week at Johnson Point. Other kinds of birds have also arrived in strength over the past few days. The red-winged blackbirds, true harbingers of Spring in these parts, ride the breeze perched on what’s left of last year’s reeds at the edge of the pond. All week long squads of goldfinches, males resplendent in the bright yellow raiment of Spring, have been squabbling at the bird feeder with the resident chickadees and the mourning doves. But the stars of the show these days are the newly-returned osprey and the diving hooded merganser.
The ospreys arrived late last week and have been in high gear from the moment they touched down. If I had just gotten in from South America or the southern Caribbean, I’d be out of commission for several days. Not this pair. They’ve been feverishly gathering branches and other found objects from forest and riverbank to rebuild their nest. It’s a hodgepodge of detritus that takes the approximate form of a scraggly basket held together by what looks like haphazardly-placed, oversized pick-up sticks.
Every morning I watch these raptors fish for breakfast in their distinctively energetic and elegant style. They begin by soaring high above the water where they use their remarkable eyesight to locate schools of fish in the river narrows far below. Once they’ve spotted their prey, they quickly descend to about one hundred feet above the river. There, with a remarkable circular movement of their wings, they hover in mid-air as they make their final calculations. Suddenly they plummet, dropping with fantastic speed until, in a last-moment maneuver, they head up and enter the water talons-first.
The spectacular splashdown lasts only a moment. With a single motion of their powerful, six-foot-long wings, they are air-borne again, the fish firmly impaled on their rounded claws. As they gain altitude, they make a final, delicate adjustment — something no other bird will do. They maneuver the fish so that it is pointed head-first, parallel to the line of flight. Thus, the remarkable osprey soars elegantly back to the nest in aerodynamic perfection.
When it comes to elegance, however, in my book it’s the hooded merganser that swims off with top honors. All week long, a female of the species has been diving for tadpoles in the meadow pond. The male, who prefers to stay close to the river, is something of a show-off. He sports a jet-black head with white crest emblazoned on the sides, fierce golden eyes, a snowy breast, flanks of burnt-umber, all set off with white racing stripes running down his lower back. But it is the female, who, first diving deep and then serenely gliding across the pond’s still waters, captures my heart. With her rust-red crest composed of scores of plumes, her regal feathering in ebony, grays and mottled browns and the beautiful double white lines curving sensuously down her sides toward the tail, she is the duchess of the domaine to whom I defer and refer to as “her grace.”
Her male counterpart is a bit of a rake and is justly famous for the alluring mating display with which he woos her. Once she is won, he continues to swim around her, treating her to additional energetic displays. And then, that’s it: the drake abandons his mate. The hen goes on to assume sole responsibility on the domestic side. She chooses the tree in which she will nest, she creates a cavity with her bill, she forms it into a bowl and lines it with the down of her breast. Once the ducklings hatch, she alone will raise them to maturity.
Contrast these arrangements with the domestic niceties of the osprey. The pair who have settled by our river, mates for life, are the soul of parity when it comes to dividing household duties between them. Male and female go about the task of nest-building with equal fervor. She roosts on the eggs while he fishes and feeds her. At times, she will take a break from the nest and fly off. He is there to take over the roosting duties. When the chicks are born, she remains with them while he supplies food for the entire family. As the young develop, both parents switch off on hunting and nesting duties. It’s a lovely sight at the end of the day to behold the female tending her brood in the deep well of the nest while the male stands guard on a perch a few feet away.
With late summer comes the ospreys’ great domestic accommodation. Just before the end of August, the female puts her child-rearing duties behind her and takes off for the long migration south, leaving the rest of the family behind. The male stays on to tend the adolescent offspring, and, as the fish gather in increasing numbers for their end-of-summer runs, he schools his brood in the fine art of piscatology, osprey-style.
Finally, as the end of September approaches, father osprey heads out with his progeny on the same flight path that his father taught him, south to the Caribbean islands or perhaps all the way to the warm forests of South America. His life partner may or may not be wintering somewhere close by, but she will not meet up with him or their offspring while they remain south of the border. In fact, the couple won’t meet again until the following Spring when each returns, almost simultaneously, to the same nest they established together and will share for years to come.
When you consider the osprey’s life rhythms, it’s hard not to indulge in some bald-faced anthropomorphizing. Think of it: the stalwart mutual faithfulness, the genial sharing of domestic duties, the individual travel arrangements over thousands of miles — all with the added spice of separate vacations! Of course it is more than silly to draw metaphors from the highly-evolved life patterns of nature and try to apply them to our own existence. But the natural world does offer one over-arching lesson that we would do well to remember: nature thrives on diversity. Variety is the mark of the wild: variety in kind, variety in detail, variety in every aspect and function of life. Thus, there are as many mating patterns as there are mating species to be sure, and it all proceeds by instinct.
Living by instinct alone, however, can never be enough for us. Life always presents further complications. Take, for example, the bonds we form and the partnerships we establish as instinctively social beings. The common life of every human couple, if it is to survive, must develop over time to become a fine weave of utility and necessity, a dynamic and delicate blend of desire and consideration, a finely-tuned marriage of aspiration and accommodation. In this grand endeavor, the natural world provides a great lesson for us. In all their incredible diversity and adaptability, the creatures of the wild demonstrate how richly varied are the ways available to us for living successfully in the world. Nature reminds us that we are resourceful beings, that we have the capacity to pursue an array of solutions as we live out our instincts and our aspirations, and that this all can be accomplished with simple beauty and surpassing grace.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2012