Monday, September 7, 2009

Family 214

Near Clayton, New York, in the middle of one of the busiest sections of the St. Lawrence River, where the freighters lumber past and the speedboats roar by, on a nesting platform at the top of a channel marker, is an osprey family. Seeming oblivious to the noise and frenetic activity of all those humans in the area, this couple returns, year after year, to the same nest, where they raise 2 or 3 nestlings.

Osprey nearly died out in the 1960s. DDT in the food chain made its way to the fish they are dependent on, and it leached calcium from their bones, making their eggs weak and liable to crack. When DDT was banned in 1972, their outlook improved, but it took an extensive program of building nesting platforms throughout the breeding area before they really came back. Now, you can see them everywhere, their distinctive M-shape soaring majestically through the sky as they hunt for fish, or perched on trees and utility poles. They like to nest on those poles, which can be dangerous -- another good reason for the nesting platforms.

We visit Family 214 every year. We don't get to see them in May, when the chicks are young and helpless. In July, they're pretty big, almost as big as the adults, but they still have the speckled back that marks them as juveniles. They can usually fly short distances by then, but it takes a long time before they are proficient hunters, and both the female and the nestlings rely on dad for food throughout the nesting season. By the first of September, they are starting to migrate south, following rivers or the Atlantic coast so they can hunt for fish along the way.

Family 214 raised 3 chicks this year (3 is the average for all osprey nests). When we visit them, we canoe out to the channel marker and "park," as well as we can in a canoe, nearby. If we get too close, the female, standing guard, will fly out and circle around us, just to remind us that this is her territory. We try to stay back and not alarm them. Photographing them in a bobbing canoe is a real challenge, and I have taken hundreds of blurry, tilted photos! The thrill of seeing these magnificent birds and watching their progress keeps us coming back for more. I can't wait 'til next year!

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