Summer's Gift
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Life along Penataquit Creek, especially in the summer, is sweet and simple. Two great blue herons enjoy an eel dinner while a lone egret visits late every afternoon. The creek is filled with ducks and swans and, of course, way too many Canadian geese.

My garden, just nine years ago a barren half-acre, is now lush with beauty and fragrances which not only delight my senses, but, more importantly provide food and shelter for the wildlife I so dearly love. There is a wonderful sense of contentment that I get from living alongside my "wild-friends" and I've found that, each summer, they reward me with truly wonderful surprises.

Looking back over the years, there were so many special summers. The one in which over two hundred muscovy ducklings were born and my garden was overflowing with bright yellow fluffs of all different sizes and personalities. Then, an overabundance of very exuberant squirrels that followed me everywhere, begging, hand over heart, for peanuts. And, then, the summers of the swans when they raised their cygnets, devoured my new plants, ate tons of cracked corn and, in general, created a lot of havoc, all the while thoroughly delighting everyone who saw them.

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 I've sadly said my goodbyes to some very special muscovy ducks.

So, when I heard strange screaming on a beautiful warm late June evening, my heart began to beat in anticipation of something special. 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. I became very determined to get to the bottom of it. I looked all over trying to find the source, to no avail. I just never thought of looking in the dredging company complex across the creek.

On what would have normally been a peaceful and serene Sunday morning, I was awakened before dawn by the same strange loud cries. My curiosity was really aroused now as the quietness of morning, which I so treasure, was totally shattered.

Around eight, my doorbell rang. 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, 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, when the ospreys left, I called Betty, a wildlife rehabilitator I greatly respect, who gave me several names and phone numbers and soon I was speaking with Jack, the president of the Great South Bay Audubon Society. He came over early that afternoon, binoculars around his neck, and confirmed for me that a pair of ospreys was, 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 was "checking out the neighborhood for next year", adding that it would probably be best if the ospreys laid no eggs. He told me to call the DEC first thing on Monday morning. 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 wildlife experts.

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.

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. 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. Losing the use of their crane would be a hardship on my neighbors across the creek, so every night, they took the nest down and the minute they left, the persistent 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 constructing 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 us 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 a 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 young 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 would fall 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 wingspan somewhere between four to six feet. They feed exclusively on live fish and fly thirty to one hundred feet above the surface of the water searching for their dinner with what can only 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. Ospreys make spectacular dives, 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, then pause in mid-air to shake the water from their plumage and to rearrange the fish so that its head points forward reducing 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, filled with exciting aerial displays above the nest, mark 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. 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. 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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