Return of the Osprey: A Season of Flight and Wonder

Paperback | February 26, 2002

byDavid Gessner

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For six luminous months–an entire nesting season–David Gessner immersed himself in the lives of the magnificent osprey’s that had returned to his seagirt corner of Cape Cod. In this marvelous book–part memoir, part paean to a once-endangered species, part natural history of the Cape–Gessner recounts the many discoveries he made in the course of that magical season.

Hailed by Roger Tory Peterson as the symbol of the New England coast, the osprey all but vanished during the 1950s and ‘60s because of the ravages of DDT. But now these breathtaking birds are returning. Writing with passion, humor, and a reverence for the natural world, Gessner interweaves the stories of the nesting osprey pairs he observed with the narrative of his own readjustment to life on a windblown, beautiful, and increasingly developed landscape he had known as a child. For Gessner, spotting an osprey dive for fish at forty miles an hour becomes a lesson in patience and focus, watching the birds build their nests illustrates the vital task of making a home, and following the chicks’ attempts to fly shows him the value of letting go.

A story of recovery and connection, Return of the Osprey celebrates one of nature’s most remarkable creatures as well as our own limitless capacity for wonder.

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From the Publisher

For six luminous months–an entire nesting season–David Gessner immersed himself in the lives of the magnificent osprey’s that had returned to his seagirt corner of Cape Cod. In this marvelous book–part memoir, part paean to a once-endangered species, part natural history of the Cape–Gessner recounts the many discoveries he made in the ...

From the Jacket

For six luminous months-an entire nesting season-David Gessner immersed himself in the lives of the magnificent osprey's that had returned to his seagirt corner of Cape Cod. In this marvelous book-part memoir, part paean to a once-endangered species, part natural history of the Cape-Gessner recounts the many discoveries he made in the ...

Format:PaperbackPublished:February 26, 2002Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0345450167

ISBN - 13:9780345450166

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March is the waiting time. Everything poised,ready to be-come something else,a world in need of a nudge.The buds on the old post oak bulge hard as knuckles,the first blades of grass cut through the dark purple rim of the cranberry bog,and the wil- low branches yearn toward yellow.Almost every morning I watch the sun edge its way up over the harbor,and the world it lights grows steadily greener and warmer.While the season itself may waver uncertainly,the birds insist on spring.As I head out for my morning walk,all of Sesuit Neck seems caught in the upward twirl of birdsong.Cardinals whistle their upward whistle,mourning doves coo,and the brambles fill with the chittering of finches and chickadees.Down at the beach two hundred sanderlings cover the end ofthe jetty,and when I walk toward them they take off as one,veer-ing east,showing their white bellies,skimming over the water be-fore banking and heading right back toward me.Just when itlooks like I 'll die a silly death --pierced by the beaks of a hundredsmall birds --they split like a curtain around my body.Then thesplit groups split,heading right toward me in seemingly random directions before joining up,reshuffling, and then --one again --banking,theirwhite bellies flicking to blackish backs like a magic trick.They puton their show for some time before tiring of it,and I watch,halfstunned,thinking how this sight has come like a sign of earlyspring or the definition of grace,an undeserved gift.Is it my imagination or do all of us --animal,plant,and human--take a raw,near-doltish pleasure in the coming season?This,more than January,seems the time of year for resolutions,and Ihave already made mine.I have vowed to spend more time out-side.It 's true I 've lived a fairly pastoral life over the past two years,walking the beach daily,but this year I want to live more out thanin,to break away from desk and computer,and see if I can fullyimmerse myself in the life of Sesuit Neck,the life outside of me."Explore the mystery "was the advice the Cape Cod writer RobertFinch gave me long ago.That is what I 'll do.Specifically,I havevowed to spend more time with my neighbors; more specifically,with those neighbors who nest nearby:the ospreys.Also knownas fish hawks,these birds,with their magnificent,nearly six-footwingspans,will soon return to Cape Cod from their winteringgrounds in South America.One man-made osprey platform,whichwill hopefully be the site for a nest,stands directly across the har-bor from me,the pole on which it rests bisecting the March sun-rise.In anticipation of the opsreys 'arrival I,like a Peeping Tom,aim my binoculars directly from my living room into theirs.Othernearby pairs have nested out at Quivett Creek,on the end of thewestern jetty,on Simpkins Neck,and on the marsh by ChapinBeach,and so I set out every day on my rounds,wanting to bethere to greet them,hoping to catch the return of these great birdson the wing.So far there 's been no sign,and I fear I 'm being stoodup.But that just adds to the building anticipation of this indeci-sive month,and soon enough they 'll fill the air with their high-pitched calls,strong eagle flapping,and fierce dives.These were sights I never saw growing up in the 1960sand '70s.Not a single osprey pair nested on Sesuit Neck whenI spent summers here as a child.For me these sights were asmythic and distant as those described by early pioneers headinwest:migrations of thousands --millions --of birds,when thesun would be blotted out and the whole sky darkened for anhour.Of course,the ospreys weren 't that chronologically distant.Only thirty years earlier,in the 1930s,they had dotted the NewEngland shore,nesting on every high perch they could find.In thelate 1940s Roger Tory Peterson wrote of how the abundant osprey"symbolized the New England Coast more than any other bird,"and when Peterson moved to Old Lyme,Connecticut,in 1954,hefound,within a ten-mile radius of his home,"approximately 150occupied Osprey nests."But soon after this the decline of theospreys began,a decline caused directly by residual DDT in thefish that made up their entire diet.The birds were nearly killed offin New England,pesticides contaminating their eggs and pre-venting them from hatching,wiping out 90 percent of the ospreypopulation between 1950 and 1975.The situation on Cape Cod was even more complicated.Herethe birds had been dealt a double blow.This land is a recoveringone,coming back from earlier environmental devastation.By themid-1800s there was hardly a tree left on the Cape,all viable lum-ber having been cut down for the building of ships.Without theirprimary nesting requirement --trees --few ospreys nested here.Acentury later,DDT did in those few.The writer John Hay,ourmost penetrating local observer,has little memory of ospreys onCape Cod in the years after World War II.Twice within two hun-dred years,in ways characteristic of each century,we found waysto expel birds that had likely bred here since the Ice Age.Now the birds are back.It has been a gradual comeback,arefilling of old niches.By the late 1970s a few birds had returned,by the '80s many more,and now a sudden rush.Only recently,inthe mid-'90s,have the ospreys begun to reinhabit my town,EastDennis.The story of the ospreys is a hopeful one in many ways,a rareexample of humans reversing our tendency to try to control na-ture,of recognizing that we have done wrong and then correctingit.It 's also the story of the possibility of cohabitation.Who couldimagine a more wild sight than an osprey spotting a mere shadowof a fish from a hundred feet above the sea and diving into the wa-ter headlong,emerging with the fish in its talons?And yet thiswild creature next turns the fish straight ahead for better aero-dynamics,carrying it like a purse,flapping home to a nest that sitsdirectly above a car-littered parking lot.Ospreys aren 't picky abouttheir homesites.In addition to trees,they commonly nest on util-ity and telephone poles,above highways,and atop buoys nearconstant boat traffic.Osprey expert and author Alan Poole seesthis as a sign of their remarkable adaptability.Thanks in large partto this adaptability,the birds give us the gift of the wild in themidst of the civilized.I understand that it 's a fallacy to see natureas a kind of self-help guide for humans,but there may be a lessonhere.Perhaps we,too,can retain some of our wildness while liv-ing in this increasingly cluttered,concrete world.While I 've vowed to spend more time with the birds thisspring,I will try not to draw too many lessons from them.That is,I 'll try to resist the temptations of my own hyperactive imagina-tion.It isn 't easy.A few years back,during a year spent on CapeCod,I saw my first osprey,and couldn 't help but also see my ownlife mirrored in the phoenixlike rise of the bird.I was thirty goingon eighteen,and my world spun in tight solipsistic circles.PerhapsI made too much of the fact that DDT and its residues had alsobeen found to lead to an increase in the rate of testicular cancer.Having suffered from that disease and survived,I felt even moreconnected to the fish hawks,and even more joyous about theircomeback and return to the Cape.Connections crackled;theirfierce revival boded well for my own.The interconnectedness ofour worlds excited me.

Editorial Reviews

“Thrilling . . . Memorable . . . Among the classics of American nature writing.”
The Boston Globe

“ENGROSSING . . . AN AUTHOR WHO’S BOTH SENSUOUS AND LYRICAL WHILE ALSO BEING PRISTINELY CONCISE.”
Rocky Mountain News