One of the most extraordinary seasonal birds of the Pacific Coast is the osprey, easily identified by its white head and undermarking, distinctive black eye stripe and the curved scythe of its sharp, black beak.
Ospreys are superb fliers and hunt by diving to the water’s surface from heights up to 100 feet. They have gripping pads on their feet to help them pluck fish from the water with their talons and carry them for great distances. If a person is in the right place at the right time, they may be treated to a flyover, water dripping from a fish wriggling inside strong talons, wind whistling through huge wings, the next generation of predator waiting anxiously to receive its gift from the sea.
From a high point on the rocky headland, I spot a nest, a jumble of irregular branches, atop a huge Bishop Pine, and enjoy an unobstructed view of the nearby cove where I watch the osprey for hours noting their interaction with each other as well as their soaring and hunting techniques. In mid-summer, the spectacle appears to be a training session where the adult bird appears to demonstrate the proper hovering position, target acquisition, diving and capturing technique, and emergence from the water.
Despite several dives from the adult, none of which result in a catch, the juvenile bird merely circles aloft or perches on the tall pines crowding the headland, occasionally squawking a sharp kee kee, but making no attempt to dive on a fish itself. Perhaps this is early in the season, and the next lesson will include a full throttle head and feet first dive by the youngster. These animals are teaching and learning, manifestations of intelligence interwoven over eons, in a way that brings together creatures, water, wind, and landforms.
Like other birds of prey, the osprey is a patient hunter. Watching the bird hover above the cove, it’s clear when they spot prey as they appear to focus intently, head pointed downward toward the prize. It’s a game of yo-yo as the bird tucks its wings and begins a dive, only to pull out, work to regain altitude, reacquire sights on its prey and begin the process anew.
The adult goes through several partial dives before the wings are drawn in and head thrust forward indicating total commitment before finally hitting the water with an impressive splash. Not all dives are successful so the process begins anew. Regardless of whether a fish is caught, upon lifting off, the osprey lets loose a couple of vigorous body shivers to shed water as it works to regain altitude.
Like many top predators, the North American Osprey became endangered in the 1960’s due to bioaccumulation of chemical pollutants such as DDT, which thinned their eggshells, hampered reproduction, and placed the osprey in the unenviable role of “indicator species,” a living warning signal about the state of health of entire ecosystems. Fortunately, the osprey has rebounded significantly in recent decades, though they remain scarce in some locales according to reports. Do we know how the osprey is doing elsewhere in the world, in places where DDT is still in use decades after it was banned in these United States?
I assume the aboriginal people along this stretch of coast, the Pomo, observed the osprey, bade them farewell as they migrated, anticipated their return, and welcomed them back with some sort of ceremony. Did the Pomo, or their ancestors, mark the seasons by the arrival and departure of the osprey? As a result of manifest destiny, little written record exists about the Pomo worldviews generated here. I imagine the osprey likely occupied a prominent place in the myths and lore of people inhabiting the wild coast given the bird’s remarkable presence along with its inspirational and impressive performance in the air and water.
What legends might have been inspired by the osprey? Certainly, such an extraordinary creature, which inhabited the area long before Homo sapiens, must have inspired the aboriginals here. Did the osprey teach people how to fish? Was the osprey involved in the creation by pulling life out of the ocean after a dive on a mysterious sea monster? I certainly feel inspired after just a few days of observation and can only imagine the depth of feeling after years of watching osprey on the fly.
These are my simple observations over the course of a handful of days across different seasons. It would be compelling and important work, and a worthy contribution to our grossest national product, to spend months camped out here to make a more detailed and insightful set of observations about the magnificent osprey.
by Bertram Lazarus