Penataquit Creek, the little creek which borders my home on the east, is approximately sixty feet across although further south it gets much wider and more beautiful with lovely old homes along each side. Across the creek from my home is a dredging company, which has probably been there for a hundred years, replete with tug boats, barges, cranes, pipes and all manner of rusty equipment and big burly watermen who are surprisingly kind to all the visiting waterfowl. To most, kind of a big messy jumble. Although, to me it has a certain panache and a rather quaint charm, evoking a long-ago waterfront way of life. Definitely a case of beauty being in the eye of the beholder!
I see a unique charm in my garden, as well. When my more more serious gardening friends visit, I know exactly what they're thinking when they see munched hostas, gobbled gazanias, sat upon sunflowers and stepped upon daylillies. But, I see happy little "wild-faces" feasting on a smorgasbord of delicacies, then satiated, lounging in the shade of a slightly nibbled rhododendron. While it is true that my "wild-friends" sometimes do pig out on a few of my favorite plants, they also leave little seeds all over my garden. Sunflowers magically appear in the most extraordinary places. Species buddleia bushes, which took me years to grow from seed, now miraculously multiply. And, their natural way of gardening is so much more interesting than mine. Who else could conceive of six foot tall sunflowers wending their way through ten foot high holly bushes???!!!
There is a wonderful sense of contentment that I get from living alongside my "wild-friends" and I've found that they reward me each summer with truly wonderful surprises which more than make up for a few not-so-perfect plants. Truly a very small price to pay for such immeasurable enjoyment!
Looking back, there was the summer when my muscovy girls were young and healthy and in full swing, so to speak, and over two hundred babies were born. There were so many new families that it was hard for me to tell them apart. The lawn was overflowing with bright yellow ducklings of all different sizes and personalities, from tiny little golf balls to gawky teenagers ... all running after the same bugs, digging up the same worms, falling on their heads, frolicking in the grass which, at times, was taller than they were, bickering with each other and giving their mothers worry after worry as they frantically tried to keep them together in proper family groups.
Then, there was the summer of the squirrels. I dearly love my squirrels and they are just as pampered as my ducks. They enjoy their very own munchbox filled with fat sunflower seeds. And, on my terrace, I have a beautiful bird feeder wired to the wrought iron railing which is always filled with peanuts that I buy in economy size fifty pound bags. For some unbeknownst reason, this particular year, my squirrels were extra plentiful and extremely friendly. One unique little gray guy would tug on my jeans for his peanuts. I named him "Fatso" because he ate so many peanuts that he actually had little roles of fat, something quite unusual for my agile little friends. Of course, I could never leave my house without peanuts in my pockets. In fact, whenever I was in my garden, I had the distinct feeling that mischievous brown eyes were constantly watching my every move and, sure enough within minutes, my little gray friend would appear, begging, so pathetically, with his hand over his heart. As the weather grew colder, I began to wear a light sweatshirt jacket ... of course, one with squirrels on it ... and Fatso quickly ascertained that I now kept his peanuts in that jacket and if I dared to take it off, he'd find it no matter where and just reach into the pockets and help himself. He even made himself an old-fashioned pocket-door entrance. If I took Gypsy for a walk, he'd follow overhead on the utility wires. On one of these walks, my husband, "doubting Thomas" that he is, refused to believe that the squirrel tagging along and doing daredevil tricks on the highwire above was indeed Fatso. All I had to do was put my hand in my pocket and, lo and behold, much to the "doubter's" chagrin, down raced my furry little fat friend for his treat.
Then there were the summers of the swans ... when Sara Beth and Diablo took over my sanctuary behind the garage, raised their cygnets, devoured my new plants which were supposed to be the beginnings of my own personal wetlands, ate tons of cracked corn and, in general, created a lot of havoc but thoroughly delighted everyone who saw them. The adorable little cygnets grew from little fluffs into gawky teenagers, as big as their parents. It was such a thrill to watch their different personalities emerge. Just like us, some were shy, others brash and some so mischievous that Sara Beth or Diablo were always snorting at them and, on occasion, the harried parents even left them with me while they went off on a much needed vacation!
But, I've learned that nature gives and nature takes away and the summer of 2002 proved to be no exception. For some unknown reason, my swans have only returned sporadically with their babies, my squirrel population has decreased drastically over the past two years, and, in the last few summers, I've sadly said goodbye to some of my very special muscovy girls.
And, so, on a beautiful warm late June evening ... the 20th to be exact, which was my son Michael's birthday ... as my husband and I were just about to enjoy a wonderful pasta dinner made with my sauce from last summer's tomato harvest, I heard such strange screaming that I couldn't imagine what the seagulls were up to, what was upsetting them so. I'd never before heard these cries. The next night and the one after that, the screaming grew even louder and more frantic, if that was at all possible and I was determined to get to the bottom of it. I looked all over to try to find the source, to no avail. I just never thought of looking in the dredging company complex.
In the morning I was awakened before dawn by the same strange loud cries. By nature, I am a very early riser. I seem to always awaken with the sun and, because of the peace and quiet and the soothing sounds of the birds, I consider early morning to be one of the most special times of the day for me. Although on this particular Sunday, my curiosity was really aroused as my peace and serenity was disrupted by the unusual screeching.
Around eight, my bell rang and when I answered the door, I was surprised to see my neighbor Eric, a retired professor, avid sportsman and nature buff. "Did you see them?" "They're making a nest in the crane!" "You can really see them close-up from my backyard!"
My husband, Eric and I all looked out my French doors and, sure enough, forty feet above the ground on top of the huge crane which belongs to the dredging company across the creek, were a pair of magnificent ospreys leisurely going about building their nest. It seems my gift for this summer had arrived ...
In awe, I watched as these majestic birds, second only to eagles, soared and glided and flapped their powerful wings building their mansion in the middle of the sky ... talk about penthouses with a view! It utterly fascinated me. The male brought large three and four foot long branches in his feet and then had to land atop the crane. What spectacular aerodynamics! Mesmerized, I couldn't stop watching. Mrs. Osprey, of course, sat on her nest helping with the placement of whatever branches didn't fall to the ground and sort of screeched "helpful" comments to her husband. As for the branches, it was a win one, lose two or three situation, but, the nest did keep very slowly growing.
In late morning, the ospreys left and I called Betty, a wildlife rehabilitator I greatly respect, who is active in the Great South Bay chapter of the Audubon Society. She gave me several names and phone numbers and soon I was speaking with Jack, the president of our local chapter. He came over early that afternoon, binoculars around his neck, and confirmed for me that a pair of ospreys were indeed building a nest on top of the crane. He explained that since ospreys usually build their nests in early spring, this was probably a juvenile pair who were "checking out the neighborhood for next year". He also explained that it would probably be best if the ospreys laid no eggs since the babies wouldn't have enough time to grow up. He told me to call the DEC first thing on Monday morning, to ask their advice, which I did. I spoke to Dave, a marine biologist who was as excited as I was about our new family. However, this not being his field of expertise, he promised to call back as soon as he spoke to the proper agents.
True to his word, Dave called right back informing me that since ospreys are federally protected birds, I had to call the U. S. Department of Fish and Wildlife in Massachusetts where I learned that while they are federally protected, they are no longer endangered which evidently makes a big difference. The osprey nest could be disturbed again and again to discourage them from building on the crane as long as there were no eggs in the nest. Once the eggs are laid, the nest cannot be touched and, of course, losing the use of their crane would be a hardship on my neighbors across the creek.
For a week, my husband and I faithfully watched before dawn each morning and again at dusk as the diurnal ospreys screamed and flew and built their nest. It was too much to hope that the workers at the dredging company wouldn't notice their new tenants since, more than likely, there was a huge pile of branches and debris at the base of the crane. Sadly, right before the weekend, they fired up the old crane, lowered it and cleaned out the nest which, surprisingly, took them quite a while. They left the crane in a lowered position, but, they didn't bother lowering a big yellow companion crane. Over the weekend, the ospreys decided that perhaps they might enjoy a yellow guest cottage and they started construction immediately on their second home.
On Monday, the old crane went back up and the ospreys went back to building their dream house. Every night, the guys at the dredging company took the nest down and the minute they left, the ospreys began to rebuild. Finally, just before the July 4th weekend, which was an exceptionally long one this year, they lowered the crane one more time, cleaned out the nest and wove hot pink plastic ribbon around the crane and through all its many mechanisms. They even placed a jaunty hot pink flag atop which fluttered almost patriotically in the warm ocean breezes. Well, the ospreys, far from being afraid of it, loved it. They worked feverishly over the four day weekend as they constructed their mansion in the sky.
My husband and I watched as the male osprey who incidentally, is the smaller of the birds, flew right over our home and into our front yard and, while in flight, without missing a wing beat, pulled dead branches from the trees with his extremely powerful feet. We also watched as he unsuccessfully tried to rip off a live branch from my zelkova tree and, seeing it limply hang, I realized that he had been here last summer too. Now the trick for him, was to land on the nest which is on top of a forty foot high crane with a four foot branch between his feet. It was truly amazing to watch, the wings flapping furiously, the many attempted landings and finally the branch put down on the nest. My husband and I held our collective breaths, especially since most of the branches dropped to the ground
One morning, the male flew back from the bay with a big silver fish between his talons. The female was screaming for some, but, he nonchalantly went on the nearby utility pole enjoying it all by himself. It was evident that he must be a juvenile since he certainly had a lot to learn about sharing with, caring for and pleasing his wife!
By the end of July 4th weekend, the nest was about four or five feet wide and looked fairly deep. The ospreys, delighted with the hot pink ribbons, decorated their home rather artistically, I thought. However, it didn't take long for me to realize that ospreys are not the greatest of nest builders. Their nest looked just like a pile of branches thrown on top of each other. Whenever, one or the other would land, some of the nest fell down. Being such a careful mother myself, it seemed to me a rather precarious place to raise babies. I silently wondered how many eggs would become osprey omelets!
My friends at the dredging company left the nest up until the following Friday. I secretly suspected that they, too, were excited by the ospreys. When they finally did lower the crane, it took them over a half hour to dismantle the nest. They left the black crane lowered for the weekend and, once again, the ospreys worked on the yellow crane. There was no discouraging them. It seemed no matter how many times their mansion and guest cottage were destroyed, they just kept on rebuilding.
Not knowing that much about ospreys, I went online to do some research. What I learned only fascinated me more.
Ospreys, or fish hawks, are fairly large birds of prey approximately two feet long with a wing span somewhere between four to six feet. They feed exclusively on live fish and in their quest for a fresh fish dinner, they fly thirty to one hundred feet above the surface of the water searching with what only can be described as a phenomenal pair of eyes. Once they sight their prey, they hover, making their calculations, their wings beating and their legs trailing underneath their body. Sometimes, they plunge straight into the water and at other times, they make several readjustments before the final plunge. When they make their final dive, their feet and head project ahead while their wings are held tight high above their back. They make a spectacular dive, striking the water with a tremendous splash and sometimes disappearing momentarily below the surface, almost completely submerged, with only their wingtips showing. They rise from the water dripping wet with the twisting, slippery fish gripped in their sharp talons and then they pause in mid-air to shake the water from their plumage and to rearrange the fish so that its head points forward which reduces its resistance to air thereby making flying easier for the ospreys. The pads or lower surface of their toes are covered with spicules, which help them hold onto the slippery fish. Additionally, as with owls, the outer toe is reversible which enables them to grasp their prey with two toes in front and two in the back. Their plumage is compact not feathery like egrets, which helps blunt the impact of diving into the water at top speed and also reduces the amount of water retained. What truly incredible, remarkable fisherbirds!
Ospreys arrive here on Long Island during March and April and, generally, use the same nest year after year. The nest can become quite large as more material is added prior to each nesting season. Ospreys three years or older usually mate for life. Spring courtship marks the beginning of a five month period when the pair work together to raise their young who fledge at about eight weeks of age, then remain in the area of the nest for about two months. Then, in late August, they leave for their four thousand mile flight to South America with nothing but their internal compass to guide them. Once safely in South America, the youngsters stay there for two years and then return to their exact place of birth to begin the centuries old ritual of mating and raising their young. Utterly amazing!
Here on the Island the ospreys nest mostly in high dead trees, (cranes, too, I suppose!!!) and the many nesting platforms put up by LIPA (the Long Island Power Authority). Fortunately, for us, the ospreys are reasonably tolerant of human beings. When these raptors are respected as interesting, though noisy neighbors, they will nest close to people. I have spoken with Tracy who is in charge of community relations for LIPA and am anxiously awaiting a visit from their "osprey representative" to see if LIPA will put up a nesting platform in the town dock adjacent to the dredging company so that my friends will come back year after year.
Every evening, my husband and I sit on our
terrace where we always enjoy the beauty of our garden, the fragrances, and, of
course, the antics of our "wild-friends", but, now our eyes go ever upward,
above the crest of the trees east of us, waiting to see the incredible sea
eagles return, their powerful wings beating a steady rhythm in the sky. I can't
help but hold my breath. The ospreys in flight are truly majestic! There is so
much beauty here in Penataquit Creek, but nothing compares to the majesty of this
magnificent raptor. Their grandeur is unsurpassed. I feel so privileged to have
shared in this wonderful gift of nature and I will always remember the splendor
of a special pair of ospreys soaring high in the summer sky ...
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Copyright (c) 2000, (c) 2001, (c) 2002, (c) 2003, (c) 2004 by Maria's Duck