My youngest son, Ian, has developed a few new passions at two years old: swimming, pretzels, singing Wheels on the Bus, and most recently, ospreys. I remember the first time I saw an osprey, as a teenager visiting my friend Drew’s cottage on Stoney Lake in Ontario. I fell in love with these raptors, too. Staying with friends in a rustic home with no electricity or hot water, we passed the time playing cards, reading and talking on the dock while the osprey soared above the dark lake.
Now my family shares a habitat every summer with a growing number of ospreys. For the past six years, we have spent summers on Shelter Island, a small island tucked between the forks of Long Island. Shelter Island has winding coastlines and shallow, calm water. This uncorrupted setting and a commitment from island naturalists have worked in tandem for over thirty years to rebuild the osprey population after the pesticide DDT placed them on the endangered list in the 1970s. Every time I see these birds, I am in awe of them, their natural beauty serving as a reminder that we have harmed them in the past and owe them our protection.
Our house is situated on a small spit of land between two narrow causeways. Coecles Harbor and Gardiners Bay, picturesque bodies of water that eventually connect with the Atlantic Ocean, flank the causeways on either side. Poles the height of telephone poles line the road, providing platforms for the ospreys to build strong nests. It is an ideal setting for hunting and raising their young, with a broad horizon and tranquil waters below. Every spring and summer, we watch the osprey babies appear, grow, and leave the nests.
This summer, we arrived on Shelter Island on July 3rd, a bit later than usual, after yet another move into a new year-round home. We have moved three times in three years, first from one apartment in Manhattan into another, trying one final attempt to make the city our permanent roost. Still weighing alternatives, we then moved to a nearby suburb, where we rented a home for a year to test the waters of suburban life. We fell in love with the town and community and decided to buy a house. We moved in on June 29th and it immediately felt like home. We plan to raise our children in this new nest for years to come, long enough to put down roots and build a foundation for their future.
This move was local and fairly straightforward. The children will be in the same school and will still see their friends from the old neighborhood regularly, but it was a change nonetheless. Ian, being our youngest, seemed pretty comfortable with his new surroundings, but still had a lot of questions. Ian had played with the boy who lived there before us while I measured rooms and picked paint colors. When we moved in, he asked, “Our house? Someone else’s house? Where friend?” Once we landed on Shelter Island a few days later, his confusion was gone, our beach house being the one home that the kids have known consistently for their whole lives.
Our pace abruptly slowed from one of organizing and unpacking to relaxing and connecting. We noticed the wildlife around us, from the rabbits in the yard to the crabs in the water and the birds overhead. In that first week, Ian learned the word osprey and called out to them, both in their nests and as they flew above our yard. We became attached to one particular family of ospreys, two adults and two babies. They live in the nest closest to our house, an impressive tangle of branches resting atop a pole only a few feet off the causeway. The birds built the nest years ago and despite its precarious appearance, it has held steadfast through the strongest of storms, losing only branches in Hurricane Sandy. We developed a routine of looking for the osprey family every time we drove past, hoping to see the babies’ heads bobbing up out of the nest.
My older children marveled as the adult birds flew towards the nest with freshly caught fish in their talons. Robert, my six year old, fired away questions about the osprey lifecycle that I was unable to answer, but researched later to quench his thirst for facts. Eliza wondered if they were boy babies or girl babies and developed stories about the family, placing them in her imaginary world. They asked me to open the sunroof for easier viewing. A couple times, we pulled over on the causeway to give Ian a chance to watch them for a minute before returning home. I thought about taking pictures with my outdated iPhone but put it off until later, making a mental note to bring a better camera along to capture this family in action.
These birds are a symbol of the island, and this growing family tucked away in their nest reminds me of my own motherhood. My three children are still very young, with each Shelter Island summer defined by new milestones and increasing independence. Sometimes I found myself daydreaming about this family of birds as I admired them. Is the mother osprey ever exhausted by her motherly duties, or are her animal instincts to survive and protect so strong that she always brings her best to parenting, regardless of the weather, her children’s squawking or a bad night’s sleep? Their story, both fact and fiction, evolved each time we drove by the nest. Their presence was a predictable comfort.
Thursday morning, July 9, started in the same way as the previous days. Robert and Eliza chatted away in the back seat during the five-minute drive to camp, and then I spent the rest of the morning with Ian and a friend of mine on a different part of the island. As we drove home along the causeway after camp, Ian started his chant to see the ospreys. We spotted the first nest with three babies, set back from the road, and then curved around the bend toward our nest. The scene was jarringly changed. I slowed the car as we approached the orange cones marking the accident. Looking out the passenger window, I stared in disbelief at a huge pole snapped in two, and the massive, sturdy nest, now sitting empty on the side of the road. An adult bird circled overhead.
“Oh, no! What happened?” I asked no one, as the chorus in the back seat began asking similar questions. We continued slowly past the nest and up the hill towards our home. A thick canopy of maples and other giant old trees shaded our view of the sky, blocking out the sun and distracting me as I fought back tears and thought about what to do. I explained to the children that we would call Mashomack, the nature preserve on the island, and find out what happened.
“Where baby osprey?” Ian asked. I didn’t have an answer.
When I called Mashomack, the woman on the other end of the phone reassured me that the babies had been rescued. Mike Scheibel, the osprey expert on the island, had been called to the scene once the Chief of Police arrived. The local tree removal expert, Christian Johnson, would remove the pole and install a new one. A few neighbors also helped rescue the birds and get them to safety where their injuries could be assessed.
My next-door neighbor was one of the first to drive by after the accident and help with the rescue of the baby birds. His son filled me in on the pieces of the story that were still missing. A driver wasn’t paying attention, perhaps because he was texting or on his phone, and drove directly into the pole, bringing the whole thing crashing to the ground. The driver, luckily, was not injured. The two innocent baby birds were not as fortunate. We would have to wait and see.
Every time I drove by the nest over the course of that day, evening, and into the next morning, the mother osprey was there in the sky, circling her nest as her cries resonated in the open air. Someone drove a small yellow digger over and placed it next to the fallen nest, but it remained empty and motionless until Friday morning. Neighbors told stories of the adults having to build a new nest, of potentially reinstalling this nest, of babies who would have to be raised by humans because they couldn’t be returned to their mother once exposed to human touch, of parents who would have to start fresh. I spread some of the rumors, also, finding hope in the babies’ survival and deep sadness in their separation from their mother.
After camp on Friday, we drove back along the causeway and saw an uplifting scene. A team was working to secure the nest at the top of a brand new pole. Seeing a small crowd gathered, we pulled over to the side of the road. Eliza and Robert eagerly came with me to take a closer look. One baby osprey sat in a large cardboard box at the center of the group. My children watched the bird, surprised at how big it was up close when it looked so tiny up in the nest. I introduced myself to Mike Scheibel and he shared the news that the other baby had not made it. A few serious injuries including a broken wing, impossible to fix for proper flight, left her unable to survive. This baby would have a good chance.
Mike explained what he knew about the fate of this bird, clarifying the misinformation that we carried around from our youth and offering a reassuring truth. Birds don’t smell. They don’t care about their young being touched by humans. They just want their babies home, as quickly as possible. This baby would heal in the nest with her mother. We are powerful in our ability to harm these birds and other wild animals, but we also have the power to save them.
My children, while saddened to hear of the death of the other bird, smiled in awe of this survivor who waited, frightened, in a box at their feet. We watched as the team took the bird and lifted it up to the nest, out of our world and back into nature, where it belongs. The mother osprey suddenly reappeared, circling above, anxious to return to her baby. Of course I wondered if the baby longed for its sibling, and if the mother grieved for the baby who didn’t return. But every day when I drive by, a bit more slowly and carefully now, I see the parents hunting and caring for their baby who is getting stronger, now perching on the side of the nest, ready to fly.