from Return of the Osprey:


Ospreys are the only raptors that dive fully into the water to catch their prey. Try to imagine the physical sensation. To skim across the sky, above the ocean, peering down with eyes that can see into the shallows from forty, sixty, even a hundred feet up. To catch a glint or the shadow of a movement and know it to be a fish, the one thing that keeps you alive. To hover, adjust, beating your wings so that you stay in place, like a giant kingfisher or hummingbird. Then to dive, to commit, to tuck with folded wings and plunge downward at over forty miles an hour while still keeping your eyes on the prey, calculating its size and movement. To adjust in mid-air, re-directing, considering even the refraction of the fish's image in the water, before pulling in your wings and diving again. And then, at the last second before hitting the water, to throw your wings back and your talons forward, striking feet first. To plunge in, splash, immerse, and make contact at the same time, trapping, piercing, clutching a slippery, scaled, cold-blooded creature.

Now imagine what comes next. Securing the fish, aided by the sharp, horny scales on the pads beneath your toes. For a moment being out of your element and in your prey's, feeling wet, awkward, ungainly. Then lifting off from the water with a great thrust of exertion, soaked and heavy, hefting an animal that may weigh half of what you do. Beating your wings furiously and rising, shaking the water off like a wet dog, already using your reversible outer talon to adjust the squirming fish, turning it so that it faces forward to reduce drag as you lift into the air, triumphant (or at the very least successful), shaking off silver flecks of spray.

To even imagine a dive is to get excited. What a bold way to live! To find one thing you do well and then to stake your life on it. It's as simple and direct as passion. It is passion. Peter Matthiessen wrote: "Simplicity is the whole secret of well-being." If so, the ospreys have got it figured out. It isn't hard to picture a band of primitive osprey tribesmen watching the birds and learning from them. One thing they might have learned, and one thing that appeals to me, is how the osprey's dive weds calculated patience to wild aggression. He who hesitates is smart, at least if when he finally commits he commits fully. For the ospreys the hesitation is as important as the dive. The birds have a remarkable success rate, some catching well over fifty percent of what they dive for, (like humans, athleticism varies; a few particularly adept birds catch close to ninety), and this is due in good part to the pre-dive patience, the search for the right target. This careful adjustment will often carry over into the dive itself. After the bird has tucked its wings and dropped down thirty feet, it may pause and readjust, and it may continue this a time or two again as if descending imaginary stairs. But while the pre-dive ritual demands control and calculation, the plunge itself is about the opposite of control. It is a moment of full commitment, of abandon, and finally, of immersion.

* * *

But now a confession. So far I have only witnessed dives in my imagination. Despite having spent the past two months roaming the marsh and the last two years walking the beach, I've never seen an osprey dive. This is a fairly major failing for a budding Ospreyologist. By all accounts the dive--the search, hover, tuck, and foot first plunge--is the pinnacle of osprey artistry. It's also how the birds survive. As a species, pandion haliiaetus has taken Thoreau's advice and simplified. An osprey is built for fishing, and over the last fifteen million years or so has been perfectly honed by evolution to get its food solely by diving from the sky. While most raptors hunt a variety of prey, and in a variety of ways, ospreys eat fish almost exclusively. Despite the nearly constant vocalizations of the Quivet female to her mate, one question she never asks is "What's for dinner?"

An osprey nest is ideal for the beginning bird watcher. It's big, conspicuous, and the birds, who are also big, go about their behavior in a fairly obvious, even-paced manner, as if winking and making sure you get it. With a pair of binoculars and a little patience you can be a perfectly successful voyeur, watching them mate, nest, feed, preen, sleep. But seeing a dive is another matter. The foraging range of an osprey can extend as far as fifteen miles from the nest, depending on the weather and what's running, and ospreys fish in ocean, pond, lake, and tidal inlet. I've spent a good part of May kayaking up the creeks along with the herring, hoping to put myself in the right place to watch a dive, or jumping on my bike and desperately chasing the male as he flaps inland toward the Brewster ponds.

Despite my failures, and a creeping sense of inadequacy, something about the activity itself excites me. For the first time in my life I'm taking what I know about nature--about wind, water, weather, and animals--and trying to put this knowledge to use to achieve something. Though what I'm mainly finding out is that I don't know much, there are times when I feel perfectly content, consumed with the process of hunting for the hunt, fishing for fishing. There's a primitive satisfaction in reducing life to one goal, and I sometimes remember the biologist Alan Poole's speculations about a Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon osprey people. Think of the raw simplicity of a hunter's life. Get food as a commandment is thrillingly reductive. If there is anxiety about the task, at least it's specific anxiety. To track, to hunt, means to focus on one thing, the prey, but to focus well the whole world must be taken into account. My own commandment over the last weeks has been only a little more complex than primitive man's. Mine is: See Bird Dive.

Alan Poole relates a missonary's story of how a Bolivian Indian "slipped a warm bone" from an osprey under the skin of his arm, "apparently in hopes of absorbing hawklike skills at hunting." That seems a little drastic, but it might be worth slipping a bone under my forearm, at least if it instills an enlivened sense of purpose. As it is I'm not above sniffing the air, or playing my hunches. One thing I hope for is that I'll soon have osprey dreams. I fully expect to, not out of any mystical alliance, but because osprey is what I do all day. It's been my experience that dreams steal from life, particularly life's more exciting parts. When I played Ultimate Frisbee in college I'd sometimes spend the better part of the night skying or diving after discs. In The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen writes about his young son's art work: "Ecstasy is identity with all existence, and ecstasy showed in his bright paintings; like the Aurignacion hunter who became the deer he drew on the cave wall, there was no 'self' to separate him from the bird or flower." This sentence may also be less mystical than it sounds, more practical and obvious. To be good hunters we must look at what we're aiming at, seeing and becoming what we stalk.

My Books

My Descent into the Oily Gulf. Coming Next September.
Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism
My story of following the osprey migration from Cape Cod to Cuba and Venezuela and back
"This book is an enormous gift, an act of preservation as important as any chunk of land purchased by The Nature Conservancy. John Hay's stature cannot be overestimated, and David Gessner has done him great justice."—Bill McKibben, author of Wandering Home: A Long Walk Through America’s Most Hopeful Landscape
“A classic of American nature writing.”
--The Boston Globe
"Not since the diatribes from Edward Abbey has anyone in this field come out and made such a sacrilege of our holy texts."
--John Hanson Mitchell
“A highly readable, disarmingly self-conscious meditation on nature, ancestry, and mortality."
The Boston Globe
"Gessner's essays are on fire. He shows us that we can have delightful, imaginative and creative lives by becoming more rooted and connected to the place where we are...Wise and enlivening, provoking us into a higher understanding of both nature and ourselves."
--Rocky Mountain News

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