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just before it's gone

once a reporter, always a reporter

but now I have a dog

island dispatches

The Fishhawks

    June is the time to band osprey babies. They are still helpless and fill your hand like a velvet bag of weightless bones. Their down melts like butter through your fingers.
    “Don’t look at her,” osprey expert Steve Cardano advises when a baby’s huge mother circles overhead, watching her baby weighed, measured and banded. Her tiny cry is incongruous. “Kree, kree, kree.”
    Years later I avert my eyes walking past the nest at the crook of the road. I bargain that if I do not look directly at her, the mother will eventually remain as I walk by.
    They are not known as osprey on St. George Island. They are called fishhawks and are our summertime neighbors.  This nest I pretend to ignore is in Island Creek which runs to the west of the spillway I walk, day in, day out, year in, year out. To the north and east is the soupy marsh of  St. George Creek. Only this narrow strip of asphalt holds  the bulb of Indigo Point, where I live, to the rest of St. George Island.
    On this particular June day I wrap my toes over the asphalt of the spillway and stare at the emptied nest. She has, as always before, flown. I am ashamed for chasing the osprey to the ends of the earth. I suspect that the asphalt that drove them here will eventually drive them from this island as well. It is the same asphalt that marks the end of my flight too; where I found my mate and where we nested.
    This low fishhawk nest in the crook of the road stands about twenty yards offshore. It is nearer the water than most, but still much too tall to see into, even from atop a truck. Even when the babies grow large and you snatch glances of the tips of their wings when you drive too quickly past, even then the chicks disappear completely. Even in the harsh late springs following rough winters when all the ospreys must start their nests anew, even in those shallow, first-year nests the chicks vanish.
    On this particular June day the nest is seven years old. Rather, the nesting site is seven years old. Pairs of fishhawks reunite and court anew each spring at the exact same spot, sometimes ludicrously so, such as when a chimney no longer exists or when a house replaces a tree. They drop twigs and sticks and branches, staggeringly large branches into the nest. They weave the nest taller and taller, renewing their annual bond.
    It is not one another they seek, Steve Cardano says. It is nest site fidelity.
    I averted my eyes for years. I imagined Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s little prince and the fox begging, “tame me!” To tame, explained the fox in the story, “means to establish ties.”
    I wanted to establish ties. I wanted to look at her babies. I willed myself to stare at the asphalt the length of the spillway, to and fro. Always they flew, first the male and then the female; although as the season wore on she lasted longer on the nest as I approached, presumably remaining with chicks. Still, she flew. And at her squealing departure I would look. But no matter how strongly I willed my eyes to carve those baby shapes from their camouflage I could not.
    Then came this particular June. If I did not glance up she would sometimes remain on the nest as I walked past. At the mere roll of my eyes she was away. But still. It was such a step.
    There were a half-dozen fishhawks in the sky that summer scanning two creeks and two rivers for dinner. There were more of other birds as well, although the flocks of  Canada geese and starlings and of ducks had been diminishing for a decade. That was the first year we heard the fox and the first time I’d seen deer tracks this side of the island. There were more otters, snakes and turtles than in the dozen years prior.
    I supposed the varmints and vermin displaced from the old Burch farm just up the river. The property had that summer finally turned into a subdivision with houses and people instead of empty lots marked by stakes and pipes.
    We’d driven for years on the roads of the unsold lots, marveling at the asking prices, hearing of developers going broke, ownership shifting, banks foreclosing. We would visit at dusk, coaching our daughters to carve sight of the does and their fawns from the foliage. Snakes striped the road following scurrying lizards into ditches. My husband would drive to the end lot, the largest and the only one still heavily wooded, and find anew his boyhood and long to hunt there again.
    But that year, on a sudden impulse to visit the deer and the point, we found quarter-million dollar homes aproned with manicured lawns attended by small shrubs, swing sets and Suburbans. I stared unabashed into the gaping garages lined with primary colored toddler toys and new riding mowers. Porch swings and geraniums hung from freshly appointed porches. As the future carved itself clear from the camouflage I realized I was staring in a way the fishhawks would never allow. I struggled to avert my eyes.
    Walking later toward the bend along the spillway road I pondered my sense of righteousness in staring down my own species. I wondered at my inability to muster the shame the fishhawk provoked. I counseled myself to avert my eyes from the people homes as well. I have no standing to be righteous.
    But I was still angry, angry with myself for chasing the osprey to the ends of the earth. It was July and with my toes wrapped about the asphalt of the spillway, my driveway, I stared directly at three screaming fishhawks. Two chicks wildly flapped their wings standing upon the rim of their nest. They cannot fly yet but they were trying. Neither dropped back into the nest despite their mother’s near screeching demands.
    She is between them, her wings hunched forward but not unfurled. She is scolding me, too.  The chicks send their peals up and down the creek, but the mother stares back at me. Not flying. Staring at me and e.e. cumming’s poem burst full blown into my mind.

        Me up at does
        out of the floor
        quietly Stare
        a poisoned mouse

        still who alive
        is asking What
        have i done that
        You wouldn’t have

     With my toes lapped over the asphalt, digging into the marsh, there is no farther I can flee. The mother osprey suddenly flies and some of my shame and much of my anger is just as suddenly lifted. It is I quietly staring. She is soaring, canvassing the creek for food to feed her growing babies.

     I feel relieved.



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