Of ospreys and teens in ‘wild’ Florida
We all know of “wild” animals particularly adapted to human-made environments. Consider black bears in Adirondack state parks, deer in New Jersey suburbs, pigeons in the city and the ubiquitous raccoons. This winter an opossum was living in our woodpile until the pile got too low, and then it moved into our garage.
This past week I had an opportunity to witness another example, though one somewhat more surprising (at least to me).
Along with four other parents, I accompanied the Mount Abraham Union High School varsity baseball team on its annual spring trip to Florida. Bordering the east side of the training facility where we stayed is half a square mile of undeveloped land with a mix of woods, meadow and marsh. Only a mile to the west is a large lake and the start of ten miles of swampland. And then there is the Atlantic, only a few miles further to the east.
As a result, we enjoyed steady traffic of large marsh and ocean birds overhead. They included herons, cranes, egrets, occasional pelicans, and one bald eagle that passed just over the batting cages one morning. A pair of sandhill cranes would occasionally even make their way out of the woods on foot, striding along on the tall grass just across the outfield fence hunting for something.
But the most interesting and enjoyable for me were the osprey; there were two nesting pairs right in the middle of the facility, both with a fledgling to feed.
I saw the first nest as I went out to practice on our first morning. It sat atop a high light pole between two practice fields. The extra row of lights, one facing each way, made a nice platform atop this high man-made “tree” — nicer not only than the other poles with only one row of lights, but apparently also nicer than any of the natural trees around. Tall. Sturdy. A platform on top. No predators. Great vision of the surrounding territory. What else could an osprey ask for?
When I got closer, I heard the distinctive peeping of a hungry young osprey, and I realized the nest was occupied. Within a few moments, an adult swooped in low over our heads carrying a fish, landed atop the pole, dropped the fish in its youngster’s mouth, and then took off again to the north.
Later that evening, when the boys played against a local team, I realized there was another active nest just 100 yards from the first, on one of the stadium light poles. All through the game, I could hear peeping coming from that nest, too.
Actually, “peep” is too soft and tame of a word for the racket made by a hungry young osprey that wants a parent to bring food. During our entire stay — we practiced on that field for at least two-and-a-half hours five mornings in a row, and we also had an afternoon practice and three evening games — the two young osprey cried almost incessantly. “Screek. Screek. Screek. Screek.” They could be heard a hundred yards away.
And, since the first light pole nest was directly above our dugout, we got an up-close-and-personal experience of both the sights and sounds of that young osprey’s daily life.
Every 15 or 20 minutes, an adult would circle low over the field bringing in a meal. The second adult usually stayed perched on a nearby light pole, apparently guarding the nest. When one adult would return with food, the other would usually glide over to the nest and the three would be together briefly. Then they’d swap places; the newly returned adult would take up a guard post on a nearby pole, and the previously resting adult would head out on the hunt.
It was as I observed this behavior the fourth or fifth time that it dawned on me what was really happening, and why the osprey were so successful at adapting to human surroundings.
These birds, it turns out, are very much like human parents — and, in particular, parents of teenagers, They have a fledging nearly as large as themselves, wanting to eat constantly, but not really willing (or able) to do the work necessary to bring in food. So the adults have to work nonstop to feed junior, getting only a few rare minutes with their mates over the course of the day.
But the real insight came to me as I sat out in the lounge listening to the loud racket that 12 teenage boys on a high school baseball team were capable of making.
Why did the adult osprey whose turn it was to guard the nest not want to stay in that nice, wide, cozy structure it had invested so much energy in making — not to mention the mortgage or rent payments, heating bill, lawn mowing, etc., invested in the place? Why did it always fly off 100 yards and perch in a less comfortable spot rather than enjoy the comforts of home?
Three minutes of listening to junior Screek and the answer was obvious. Adult osprey, apparently, need a little peace and quiet to maintain sanity.
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