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Volume 14, Issue 11 ~ March 16 - March 22, 2006

Bay Reflections

Return of the Osprey

by Dotty Holcomb Doherty

When tundra swans gather in large pre-migratory flocks and the air becomes a zephyr of promise, carrying the echo of spring peepers from the marshlands, she returns. Talons gripping the worn velvety wood of the sycamore snag, she stands majestic above the briny waters of the Chesapeake, her summer home.

With a sharp cry, she flows off the branch and soars onto an updraft, wings bent, as though the wind itself forged their shape. She peers with amber eyes below the surface of the sea, watching for menhaden and perch, for rockfish and eels. Spying a lone bass, she pulls into a dive, rearing as she hits the water, talons projected. She grips firm flesh below the froth and, with muscles creaking, rises from the waves.

Talons locked through silvery scales, she pauses in her ascent to give a quick shudder, and droplets, like dew, fall from her wings. She retreats to the snag to feast, emitting harsh cries, warnings to stay clear.

She flies to her nest, the one she and her mate have returned to each year, on a platform overlooking the Bay. They, like all osprey, reappearing after near annihilation, rebuild each year, to once more populate the skies with their young. Her mate, with strong wingbeats — pistons, never tiring — brings long branches of deadwood to their nest. With practiced motions, she slides and cajoles each piece into place, creating a haven for the eggs she will lay, the young she will protect, the fledglings who will one day replace her.

Twin eggs, creamy and speckled with garnet, nestle beneath her as the Milky Way arcs over her head, a path to worlds unknown. Each morning, at dawn, her mate brings an offering of fish. She stretches, gathers the sleek breakfast and glides to the snag, to eat in peace while he settles over the eggs, adding his warmth to hers. Soon, she resumes her vigil, the sun grazing the trees for a month of nightfalls, the moon waxing to a glowing disk, fading, then reemerging like a silvery fish returning to its blue-black sea.

The hatched chicks grow strong inside their cloud of ginger down, dark eyes blazing, bellies always ready for more, yes more, yes more. She selects flakes of translucent pink, of milky-white and deep brown: fresh fish turning into birds.

Her daughters, her mirrors; soon their youthful buff will give way to the sharp black and white of adulthood. On humid afternoons, she hovers above them, shading them from the soaking heat. They peer over the edge of the nest, eager for their new lives.

On the hottest day of summer, they seek the skies, letting the rising wind catch their freshly outstretched wings. Together, the family soars, their exuberant cries piercing the thick air. The wind becomes their home, the snag their seating above the fish buffet. They return to the nest for rest and sleep, but already their blood stirs under the setting stars of the Summer Triangle, luring them away to their winter roost.

Lyra entices with a Brazilian beat; Aquila the eagle points the way. Cygnus the swan calls to her own — the tundra swans who soon will replace the ospreys on the winter Bay. Before the oaks shed green overcoats for their final moments in gold, the osprey are gone, following the surf where blue meets tawny sands in a foamy collision.

Her daughters will feast on South American fare for two years before they are seen again on the Bay, but she will be back. When spring maples glow with winged red seeds, when the redbuds sparkle with fuchsia and the oaks emerge from their slumber with fresh buzzcuts of lime, she will return with her mate to rebuild and begin again.

A native of Buzzard’s Bay in southeastern Massachusetts, Dotty Holcomb Doherty now explores the edges of the Chesapeake Bay in her kayak and lives in Annapolis with her husband Jonathan and two teenage daughters. Her last Bay Reflection was Telling Creek Time on October 13, 2005.

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