Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Fish Hawk's Visit

London's Tate Modern has its resident peregrine falcons. New York's got red-tailed hawks nesting on 927 Fifth Avenue. Not to be outdone, little Ballard's home to a pair of ospreys that raise their young near an old train trestle close to the Ballard Locks.

(Never mind that Seattle boasts not only red-tails and peregrine falcons but also Cooper's hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, and even bald eagles and merlins among its breeding birds. But today I'll stick to Ballard, the city within a city that is still disgruntled about being annexed to Seattle in 1907.)

The Ballard ospreys started nesting on an old telegraph pole belonging to a railway in 2009. In 2011, the pole was removed as a hazard, depriving the birds of a future nesting site--but was replaced early in 2012 by a platform tower built just for them. The ospreys quickly moved in (even birds know that the three most important real-estate considerations are "location, location, location") and raised a new brood.

I had never seen an osprey before moving to Washington State in 1989; the first one I spotted was flying over Lake Easton carrying a massive fish headfirst, osprey-style, in its talons. Since then they've turned up on nearly every trip we've taken: nesting atop a snag on the Oregon coast, plunging into a lake in Yellowstone National Park, tearing apart fish while perched on a pole in an apple orchard near Lake Chelan.

The most recent osprey soared into view as I sat with my mother on a porch swing on Bainbridge Island. There we were, sipping lemonade, winning front-row seats to wildlife drama without exerting a speck of effort.This bird lugged its heavy load to the tipped-over top of a nearby conifer. Its sharp beak ripped into the fish. It tossed fins and scales aside as it fed; they sparkled as they tumbled to the ground. In between bolting fish, the osprey turned to fix us with its golden glare.

After a while, it paused, still clutching the fish's backbone, the head and tail flopped over on either side of the branch. Then the bird most dramatically displayed the behavior beloved of professional bird photographers--namely, a perching bird's tendency to release waste before taking off, thereby giving the photographer a signal to get ready for the beautiful soaring scene.

Well. It's one thing when you're talking about a little wren letting loose before flying. When it's a big, hefty raptor expelling its cargo against a deep-blue sky--to a distance of six or so feet behind the bird--let's just say you would be very glad not to be within striking range.

(A long time ago I heard someone at a reading share a poem that called bird poop "the white apotheosis of the cloaca." We used this term for a very long time, as in "You might want to wash that white apotheosis of the cloaca off the picnic table before we set it" and "Ick, there's white apotheosis of the cloaca on the windshield." I can only think the poet had a defecating osprey in mind when he penned this line.)

Ospreys are found worldwide and always near water--the best place for these fish hawks to catch fish, after all. Their toes, with undersides covered in rough, spiky scales, are adapted for the task of grappling slippery, wiggling fish. They can also move one of the outer toes so that they have either one or two of their four toes pointing backward, which further aids them in gaining a grip on a struggling fish.

It seems remarkable that a bird circling 50 to 100 feet above the water can pinpoint a fish visually, compensate for the way water bends light, then suddenly drop and smack down on the surface to seize its prey. Yet they manage to succeed in this task nine out of ten times when they dive. Then off they flap, usually carrying the fish pointing forward to minimize air resistance.

In his epic work Birds of America, John James Audubon rhapsodizes about the courtship and shared incubation of ospreys in a manner most wonderfully anthropomorphic:

"[During the breeding season]....The males are seen playing through the air amongst themselves, chasing each other in sport, or sailing by the side or after the female which they have selected, uttering cries of joy and exultation, alighting on the branches of the tree on which their last year's nest is yet seen remaining, and doubtless congratulating each other on finding their home again.....The male assists in incubation, during the continuance of which the one bird supplies the other with food, although each in turn goes in quest of some for itself. At such times the male bird is now and then observed rising to an immense height in the air, over the spot where his mate is seated....

When the Fish Hawk has attained its utmost elevation, which is sometimes such that the eye can no longer perceive him, he utters a loud shriek, and dives smoothly on half-extended wings towards his nest. But before he reaches it, he is seen to expand his wings and tail, and in this manner he glides towards his beloved female, in a beautifully curved line. The female partially raises herself from her eggs, emits a low cry, resumes her former posture, and her delighted partner flies off to the sea, to seek a favourite fish for her whom he loves."

I think the Ballard birds are an old married couple by  now; they'd probably just order in fish-and-chips from the local Red Mill if they  had cell phones instead of engaging in volatile public displays of affection. Either way, I'm looking forward to their return in the spring.