Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Visit With the Murrays

The more time we spend watching osprey nests in the Thousand Islands (see previous posts), the more impatient we are to see more of these birds, and to see them up close. We were pretty much as close as we could get, oggling them from our canoe, bobbing in the middle of the river, until we brought our telescope into the picture. The telescope was an inspired anniversary present a few years ago from my mate4life. It's difficult to aim, and it's most useful when you have a stationary target, like the moon, a favorite perch -- or an osprey nest. This summer, we hauled our scope all the way, by canoe, to a vantage point from which we could peer into an active nest, and the results were most gratifying.

Murray Island is a small, wooded island in the St. Lawrence River, separated from Wellesley Island by a narrow channel. On the top of a telephone pole along the shore of this channel is an osprey nest that has been occupied each breeding season for several years. Although Murray Island is, like most of these islands, covered by privately-owned vacation homes, Wellesley is home to a huge state park. On the Wellesley side of the channel there is a high, open, rocky cliff, from which you can see for miles in every direction. You can look down into the channel, or down the river, or across the channel to the nest.

So, feeling very adventurous, we got up at dawn, packed the car with our gear and drove to Wellesley State Park. Launching from the point nearest the parking lot, we paddled around the island to the channel. To protect the camera equipment, we had the waterproof Pelican case, -- except that this protection was mostly hypothetical. In reality, I kept seeing birds to photograph (herons, terns, warblers, sandpipers, a scarlet tanager, etc. etc), so it rested in a towel on my lap, not at all secure. The telescope was in its very-non-waterproof case, wrapped in a plastic tarp. That was the best we could do. (We pointedly refrained from imagining our losses, should the canoe capsize.)

We pulled the canoe out of the water and dragged everything up the rock to the overlook. We set it all up, focused on the nest, and -- omigosh! -- there was the nest, and one chick all alone, but so huge, and so close, that I felt I could reach out and touch the downy feathers. It was amazing, and we stayed as long as we could, and returned twice more during the week. In the photo at left, you can see the speckled chick on the far right, while the parents look down the channel to the left.

The nest was unusual in that there was just one chick. The average is three, and most of the nests we watch have three chicks. Not only that, but it seemed to us (amateurs though we are) that this chick was somewhat behind schedule. Chicks are usually flying short distances around the nest by July, and they must be ready to take off on their own by the end of August, when migration begins. But our Baby Murray simply hunkered down in the nest all day. Finally, on our third visit, we saw him "fly" from one side of the nest to the other.

We heard from the nature center staff that a lightning strike burned the nest a couple of years ago. There was concern about the birds, but it seemed that they were old enough to fly to safety, and the parents began rebuilding the very next day. I don't know why the nest had just one chick this year, or whether Baby Murray is going to make it through the winter. We hope so. Whatever happens, we'll be back next year to see the next installment of "At Home With the Murrays!"

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