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Several years ago I lived on a property where gnarled, overgrown bushes reached out from the back edge of the yard toward my vegetable garden. Beyond the mass of crooked, tangled limbs, my yard ended in a sharp drop down to the alley that bordered neighbors’ backyards.

Many small birds – I don’t know what kind they were – would seasonally sit deep among the arthritic limbs of the bushes and in one motion emerge together and fly to a nearby tree. They would chirp excitedly, then, in one returning swoop, fly back to their bushes, to invisibility. Their activities were entertaining to watch – so many birds traveling a short distance as one shape, moving back and forth in what seemed to be a ritualistic game that would go on for hours.  But my thoughts always came back to how ugly and overgrown the bushes were. I wanted to take them out.  In fact, I needed to put up a fence where the bushes stood, so, really, they needed to go.

About a week after removing the bushes, a neighbor from across the back alley, someone with whom I had never spoken, much less seen, yelled up to my yard, “What did you do with your bushes?” I replied that we took them down because they were so ugly and overgrown, and we were replacing them with a fence. She asked, hardly containing her anger, “Where are the birds going to go?”

Immediately, I felt a wave of indignation sweep over me that this…stranger…would dare question my action on my property.  I replied with a “Who cares?” type of reaction and walked away.

While it might have been nice for the neighbor to have chosen to have a conversation with me long before registering a complaint – or at least to have introduced herself – her words haunted me several years later when I began to recognize that we humans in general are taught not to care “where the birds are going to go” because we view our property – or the property where the newest shopping center or housing development is going up – as ours, as if no other breathing, eating, breeding being lives there or even deserves to live there. We don’t want to share. We paid to live on or use the property. It’s our right to evict whatever else inhabits the area.   

I realized that these must have been the thoughts and feelings of the people associated with a nearby community property where a huge osprey nest had been comfortably and expertly wedged among  lights positioned on a cement pole. This was certainly not the most convenient place (for the lights or the people) for the nest to have been built, but the osprey was apparently quite happy there for years. So, I was surprised last fall when I saw that the nest, as well as the lights, had been taken down.  The cement light pole, of course, remained.   

“Where are the birds going to go?” I worried.

I left messages for the people associated with the property. Having a fundraising background, I planned to offer to help raise money, if necessary, for a platform to be installed nearby so that when the osprey pair returned to breed in the coming season, there would be a place to nest.  

Ospreys return to the same place to breed each year. If a nest is removed and there is no suitable location nearby to rebuild, they will not breed that year.  While these birds are  federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, land owners can get permits to remove inactive nests that are causing problems. But replacement structures must normally be erected in the immediate area.

When I realized no one was going to return my calls concerning the local nest, I approached a man who appeared to be the property caretaker and asked him what happened to the nest. He replied that it “…came down.” I asked him who I could speak with about it, and he gave me the name and number of the person I had already attempted to contact.

By then, breeding season here in Florida was upon us. I contacted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in hopes that they might convince the people at the property to install a platform. The officer called me back a few days later and said that the people associated with the property said the nest blew down, that it blows down every year and the bird rebuilds it.  I laughed and told him that no osprey can build a nest that size each year – this was years of work that came down. The officer asked me if I could provide him before and after pictures. I did.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission contacted me about a week later. The people were sticking to their story. The officer investigated, asking  others, including a maintenance crew, about the situation.  Even though 2012 was a pretty mild year storm-wise – much milder than years when osprey nests withstood extremely high winds and days of pounding rain – everyone agreed that the nest blew down. No one mentioned that the lights on which the nest had been built had been removed, too – a strange coincidence.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission officer said the people did volunteer to erect a platform. By now, neighboring ospreys had already met their mates for the season and were busy with their nests. This particular male osprey returned to his nest site and perched himself on the empty cement tower where his home had been. He made some fruitless efforts at building a nest on nearby light posts.   

It was disheartening to witness a protected bird’s home destroyed regardless of the law. Therefore, a few weeks later, I felt elated to see that a platform had been installed, and within a few days, the osprey got to work building his nest there. I watched with anxiety the next several days during early morning walks as the male osprey began his displays to the sunrise each morning:  He would shoot high in the air, flap his wings, suspend his body and call loudly, seeking the attention of his/a mate. Then he would swoop sharply down, to shoot back up again and repeat his display. I was probably reading too much into it, but his calls sounded forlorn and desperate. I was still worried.

Shortly thereafter, the female – or a female – returned, and the breeding season at this nest began. While I was happy, I soon learned that not everyone else was.  It was around that time that a woman associated with the property followed me as I walked near the property to check the nest. She approached me and angrily told me to stay off the property.  Within a week, I began to find strange things in my backyard. The first was a snake – a black racer – that appeared to have been chopped in half. I thought it was odd that a snake would enter a small fenced area where two dogs live when there is so much land and greenery outside of the fence. I also couldn’t understand why my dogs would bite a snake cleanly in half and leave the two pieces lying there. 

A week later, something much worse was hurled over my fence:  a badly decomposing cat. It smelled so awful that the person who threw it used an old pillow case (and, I hope, gloves) to chuck the animal over the fence, so that the pillow case landed in the yard, too. Thankfully, our dogs left the dead animal alone. Even better, they did not grab it and bring it into the house.  Long after the animal’s removal, the stench remained.     

I made a police report, and allowed the police to say it first: this was very likely done in response to my report to the Fish and Wildlife Commission. I found it pretty incomprehensible. Then I thought back to the indignation I felt when asked by the old neighbor where the birds in my yard were going to go after I cut down my bushes. While my response to my old neighbor was not quite as pathological as throwing dead animals into her yard, I saw the connection: it is the sense among so many of us that birds, or any wildlife, just don’t matter. These are our yards, our gardens, our lights, things that matter so much to some people that they will break the law to try to intimidate their neighbors into minding their own business. We break the law, remove nests illegally, lie about it and then dare anyone to say anything about it.   

Although I was rattled by the thug-like behavior in reaction to me looking out for the ospreys, the whole situation showed me how far we still have to go when it comes to our attitudes and thoughts about wildlife, about the earth itself. I recognized even more how the birds and other wildlife hardly stand a chance against these attitudes, and since they don’t speak, they need more of us to ask, and to ask more loudly, “Where are the birds going to go?”  Even when others don’t like hearing that question.  Even when we ourselves are uncomfortable with it.

http://www.jamaicabayosprey.org/

What a great project!

Another good project is OspreyWatch. But there is a drawback: Since reporting to OspreyWatch, I have been neglecting this blog.

http://www.osprey-watch.org/

The other day my husband and I were at the traffic light at the Taco Bell nest. This nest has been somewhat of a disaster through the years — until now. It was a young bird I saw 3 – 4 years ago building a nest near Taco Bell on an electrical pole in the fall, when ospreys normally aren’t building nests. I watched that guy work hard. He was persistent, flying repeatedly to the woods (no quick trip) and returning to the nest site with twigs and other materials. Over and over.

The following year, there was all kinds of activity, but his nest burned after a storm. The next year, he built a nest on a platform supplied by Florida Power & Light. Nothing came of that. I watched, feeling helpless, as a mockingbird harassed and harassed the female in the nest. This year, for the first time, it looks like the tide has shifted.

Finally!

I know it isn’t a choice; it’s just nature:  The osprey tried and tried until he was successful. He persisted, and when everything failed, he kept going. At the beginning, I think he was testing things out. I think he was too young to breed, but was learning the tasks involved in breeding successfully. He was on his own and had to fail in order to keep learning. Finally, his persistence paid off, and there is a successful nest this year. We can see at least one chick in there, and will be keeping an eye out for more.

So,  we are observing the nest while stopped at a red light, watching how the father is bringing more twigs to the nest, and both parents are busying themselves fixing the nest, ensuring the chick doesn’t fall out, when we hear a man’s voice from the sidewalk nearby. He has left his two small children — one not older than 18 months — on the sidewalk while he has walked up to the corner, several yards away, to get something from a woman. The youngest of his two children is literally sitting on the sidewalk next to a very busy road. The other is in the stroller wiggling around. The father is yelling at them to stay put. Within seconds, one of those children could have moved just two feet to the side and been in the road, where cars travel  between 40 and 60 mph. Before the light turned green, the man was walking back to his children, but still too far from them to have prevented them from entering traffic had they decided to do so. When the light changed, we passed the opreys who were being so careful to ensure that their young wouldn’t fall out of the nest.

I have watched in awe as these birds — from various nests — have devoted so much effort to caring for their young, sitting in the hot sun day after day, hunting for food not only for themselves but for their babies. I have watched as they spur on the young to leave the nest, the parents sitting on a nearby branch coaxing the young birds out. The parents stay around not only until the young can fly, but until they can hunt successfully. It is only then, unless a parent is totally exhausted, that the older birds leave, allowing the young to start out on their own and continue the cycle.  It is a beautiful thing to see fledglings circling the sky above, almost as if celebrating independence, and hear all the communication among them and between them and their parents.

Easing away from the nest onto a limb — all in safety — 2009 or 2010

Learning to fly

Jasmine

I always considered myself an animal lover, and certainly an environmentalist. I stopped eating tuna due to the netting of dolphins and sea turtles. I have always been against using chimpanzees – or any animal, for that matter—for medical experiments and product testing. I pick up turtles trying to cross the road.

But it was walks with my dogs, specifically my old German shepherd Jasmine, that caused me to see wildlife completely differently – not as animals that are victims of humans, not as animals needing our help. I was able to see and experience wildlife as it is, and I was totally amazed.

As my old girl Jasmine grew increasingly ill with a tumor, I would walk her more often in her favorite place, a jungle-like area that borders a wide stream of calm flat water. A thick canopy of trees shades the wide sandy path we would walk.  Jasmine would meander down the path, looking back at me every so often to make sure I was still with her. She would smell the animal smells – raccoons, a bobcat or two, squirrels, even otters. And we would continue through the lushness of the Florida greenery.

One day my husband and I were together walking Jasmine. We hadn’t yet entered the jungle area. We were approaching a grassy hill that sat by water’s edge. Suddenly, a large bird that looked something like an eagle startled us. It had been on the ground when we approached, and it flapped its wings and took off, holding a large fish in its talons.  In amazement, we watched the bird in what appeared to be a distracting move circle away from where we were, then glide back around in a wide circle to the place where three tall pines stood. To our surprise, there was a huge nest dripping with Spanish moss at the top of one of the trees. This is where the bird landed.  The racket going on in the nest assured us that fledglings were there, waiting to be fed.

That was in the spring of 2009. That is when I started watching ospreys. I was a little ashamed of myself that I had walked by that nest numerous times – driven by it countless times – and never bothered to notice it. What was happening there, hidden in plain sight, I soon realized, was an incredible cycle of life, an exhibition of devoted behavior, hard work and responsibility that  was more like us (well, to be honest, we humans could probably follow the osprey example and be better for it) than not like us.  I was in awe watching the fledglings cared for, observing the commitment of the two parent birds, seeing first flights prompted by the mother and father, then watching the young ospreys soar – communicating to one another at incredible heights – and noting the youngsters move further and further from the nest, perching overnight on trees a few blocks away as they seemed to be taking the steps to leave home.

By mid-July, right after Jasmine died, the ospreys all left.  In fact, during our last walk together, one of the fledglings swooped down at my Jasmine, who reacted in a half-hearted rocking-horse motion as if to chase the bird. I wasn’t so sure either the osprey or the dog was necessarily being aggressive.

I never would have noticed any of this, not at this level, had it not been for simply walking my dog. Jasmine opened up a whole new way of seeing the world.  My fascination with ospreys has helped me to view other types of birds and animal species more intensely. I find myself talking to mocking birds outside of my house, sitting in my kayak watching with delight families of dolphins feeding, laughing over curious manatees, working to capture a local owl on film. And still picking up turtles in the road. While I walk my other dogs, including our newest German shepherd who is ever-so Jasmine-like.

Layla

One day I was riding by and there were Mom, Dad & fledgling sitting at the nest in a row, with the baby in the middle, of course. So cute.

Here’s a little more activity from Nest 2:

It happens so fast. February – June and there are fledglings flying already. Mom in Nest 1 was much more secure this year, and the season was successful. Of course, I didn’t have my camera with me when the most exciting things (in my view) were going on:  the fledglings flying to other trees, a family flight party, the father coming to sit on a branch near one of the fledglings, who seemed to get nervous when we walked by.

There has been a lot of racket. There are 3 fledglings, I think.

Here is Mom —

 

 

 

 

Mom eats across the way from the nest, where the fledglings are making a racket

 

Gorgeous -- Returning to the nest

 

Youngsters

 

Amazing ospreys

Last year, while Nest #1 was unattended, the V-shaped branch that held it cracked and fell to the ground. I thought that perhaps when the ospreys returned, the male would decide to build a nest elsewhere. To my surprise, I looked up one day recently and he had already completed a new nest — same tree, same location. His mate met him back here, and they are busy preparing for babies!

New nest

Female

Here he comes

Mating

He takes off

Relaxing together the next evening

Birds at sunset

A new season has started

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