Life on the wing above our pond

We live on a rise above a pond that is the primary larder for a pair of ospreys, sometimes called fish hawks. Early spring, both ospreys fish the pond. Then one tends eggs and then young, and only one osprey fishes at a time.

The osprey circles about 50 feet above the pond and watches the water. The bird, about two feet tall from beak to tip of tail, with a wingspan of up to six feet, is dark brown or dark gray and black as seen from above. When seen from below, with its wings outstretched, the osprey's white belly is easy for humans (and hard for fish) to spot. The osprey hovers in the air when it sees a meal possibility: a fish near the surface. If the possibility becomes probability, it dives, graceful and fast, toward the surface of the pond. Near the water, it reaches down with talons and drops into the water feet first. If it has calculated everything right, it closes its talons on a fish and flies up from the water and away toward its nest, with prey clasped tightly in its talons. If it misses the fish, it regains the air and resumes circling and watching.

One morning, an osprey I hadn't seen before sat on a nearby ponderosa pine tree, turning its head back and forth, scanning the surface of the pond. It had more black than the two I'd seen before, and more white on its head. While it scanned the pond, it made a high-pitched, insistent shriek over and over. Another osprey flew into view, circled the pond, dived, caught a fish, and regained the air with a shake that sent water flying. The osprey in the pine tree launched into the air and pursued the successful hunter closely, screaming at it. They flew out of my view.

I'd never seen this before, and it took me a moment to sort out. The new osprey must be a competitor. A thief had moved into the area. No. I think the osprey that perched in the tree was a fledgling, just learning to fish, still dependent on its parents for food, not ready to go out on its own.

Part of the pleasure of watching birds is figuring out what they're doing. Do birds play? Twice, I've seen a raven approach a circling osprey adult, and they have seemed to play in the air. They circled each other, seemed to show off their aerobatics, and then danced in the air together. There were no threat displays, no signs of competition. Both times, the osprey broke off the play and returned to fishing, as if to say, "This is fun, but I have to earn a living for me and my young, so perhaps another day."

The day after I saw the fledgling osprey follow its parent back to the nest, five ospreys circled the pond with a lot of loud calling. Ah, a family lesson: How to fish. The fledglings were as large as their parents, but they weren't as finished looking, as sleek. Markings vary from bird to bird. The fledglings have more dark areas than their parents do. According to my reading, colors change as the birds mature.

The first fledgling I saw returned to the pond alone recently and fished. He dived toward a flotilla of mature wild mallard ducks, leveled off, and flew three feet above them. The mallards flapped their wings and sounded off. Was the osprey playing, or was he learning, sizing up the ducks to decide if they could be food?

Usually, the mallards ignore ospreys. Ospreys eat fish primarily, but will sometimes eat small birds and rodents. However, adult mallards seem to know they aren't in the osprey's diet. When a bald eagle - which does eat ducks - flew into the neighborhood and circled the pond, the mallards huddled and peeped. The eagle flew on.

An adult osprey dived toward a mother and father mallard swimming with seven new ducklings. It looked to me as though the osprey were diving for a fish about two wingspans away from the mallards, but mother and father thought that was too close to their ducklings. They rose toward the osprey on rapid, aggressive wings. The osprey veered from the two-pronged attack and fished the other end of the pond.

Life in, above, and around the pond goes on in an orderly fashion. I catch glimpses of it and try to figure out how the small part I see fits into the harmonious entirety as I go about my days in my effort to achieve harmonious, sensible existence.

Nighthawks appear as dusk begins and fly on long, narrow wings in swooping, swerving flight. They harvest insects from the air above the pond and make deep, resonating booms as their wings vibrate the air in their steepest dives.

Night settles on us. Hunting by sonar, bats feast on the bounty of insects flying through summer. Ospreys have flown to their nests. Ducks swim on the pond at night. Nighthawks disappear. I retreat to my study, search my bird books, and write about what I've seen.

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