Taking flight

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The island where I live for about a third of the year was busy by early September with the summer colony getting ready to take flight in various directions. Along the roads one could see lines of parked cars, often shepherded by the chief of our town's two or three-man police force. The local people call this last round of parties porch breakers, and indeed I myself on one occasion have been among those who felt the structure collapsing beneath them as the host and hostess paid off rather frantically the debts accumulated in a busy August.

By September there was also a feeling of agitation in the airs above and around my rocky point. Like the people, birds were departing--though some were arriving at the same time for brief stops, overnight or for a week, and a few were evidently settling in to spend the winter. But as houses on the island were being boarded up, nests that through the summer had been scenes of activity were suddenly abandoned. One osprey nest in particular, its pile of intricately woven sticks crowning a promontory that almost daily we pass when sailing, was now without its youthful tenant. The two old folk remained at that time, but silent and, one could believe, forlorn.

On the evening I first noted the young osprey's departure we picnicked along the shore--the surf was breaking and the new moon setting. I mentioned to my host, Will Russell, this item of local news. Will is a birdman, and he was not surprised. I call him a hirdman, for he sees and feels birds with an instinctive sympathy and, has an uncanny skill at recognizing them in their environment, so that to say he is an ornithologist, with all that connotes of dissection and classification, does him less than justice. The grandson of the Irish poet "AE," he finds his own poetry in the inhabitants of air, and his life consists in organizing and leading small bird-watching tours on all the continents.

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So I asked him about that young osprey. The young of most species, it seems, set off before the parents and often take the longest and most hazardous flights. Only a few months before, I had seen the fledgling, helpless and dependent within the nest, chirping lustily as his parents soared above. He had learned to fly awkwardly--balanced precariously in the summer air. Now he was off on a journey into the Southern Hemisphere, with dangers unimaginable and often fatal along the route; if ever he met his parents again he would probably not know them.

The phenomenon of migration, as my neighbor expanded upon it in the gathering dark, seemed a thing almost of fantasy. lndeed in earlier ages, when man was himself not much of a traveler, the disappearance of the birds in autumn was explained as being due to their hibernating at the bottom of lakes, or sometimes upon the moon. That creatures so small and seemingly frail could find their way into new climes each year, enduring the perils of long flights and finding their way back to a first home, required discovery and for its confirmation man's own breaking out of his small community and making himself at home throughout the earth.

Even today, with all the instruments of science to aid in the research, much is still mysterious in the migration of birds. The skilled observer sees the comings and goings of various species and with thousands of his kind, traces out the hidden theme. I have noted myself that the elders, under the quaint impression that Maine has a warm climate, pass the winter along my shore. But then I am told that warmth is not what the birds seek after all; the Florida sun does not appeal to them as overwhelmingly as to humans. What they seek is food, and their journey's end is where it occurs in good supply.

They pass often at night, these. wayfarers, and their trek begins well before most of us dullards are aware of it. Will Russell came back this year from one of his own odysseys in the middle of summer, and he told me that standing in the August night he could hear the faint beating of wings overhead and the small cries of one bird to another. As to what those cries meant, he wasn't certain. "One can say things of which one isn't entirely sure," he told me, "but one mustn't seem more sure than one really is." That seemed to me good advice for birdmen, as well as for the rest of us.

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