Lost in the world of a bird of prey

In the past 30 years, New England salt marshes have sprouted a curious crop of isolated phone poles. Oftentimes the poles are crowned with massive rafts of bleached sticks. If you approach one of these poles in early summer, a big black-and-white bird is likely to jump off it and wheel around you, screeching. This bird is an osprey.

Not long ago, there were few poles and even fewer birds. The osprey, the only hawk that fishes by plunging into water, was nearly eliminated from most of the United States by a synthetic insecticide called DDT. Chemical residues acquired from prey accumulated in the birds and prevented females from laying sturdy eggs. Populations didn't start to recover until the compound was banned in 1972.

In "Return of the Osprey," Cape Cod writer David Gessner logs a recent summer devoted to the birds - more specifically, to close and patient observation of a handful of pole nests within biking distance of his home.

High points include the parents' arrival in early spring, glimpses of nestlings in June, and maiden flights in July. Spending day after day hunkered down at a marsh edge with a notebook and a spotting scope will indeed make you an expert on osprey domesticity.

Gessner is chained to the nests by the book he will write, and much of its interest lies in the way his battle with bugs and boredom gives way, at length, to a sort of ecstasy of selflessness, as his mind empties of everything except birds.

So equipped, he provides a set of vivid pictures: how an osprey rips up a still-struggling trout with its beak and talons; how one fledgling swiftly murders another; how the male, smaller than the female, does most of the fishing and eats his fill while his family waits.

Like the author, we are a bit taken aback by how little interest these voyeuristic dramas generate in Gessner's wife and friends. To him they are revelatory; to them they are merely symptoms of his obsession.

Indeed, as the summer ripens, the rest of his world seems to lose definition. Gessner journeys to Long Island to visit Art Cooley, one of the founders of the Environmental Defense Fund, but the meeting is curiously slack and inconsequential.

Ditto for his pilgrimage to John Hay, dean of Cape Cod naturalists. A fresh recruit to the bird cult, he's a little shocked to learn that its saints do not sport visible halos.

For better or worse, Thoreau conditioned us to expect literature from New England naturalists. But these meetings are so bland that they barely qualify as reportage.

Fortunately, most of the book is free of ritual obeisance. Gessner is a highly skilled writer with a modest, transparent style that rarely soars but inspires confidence in its accuracy.

He includes an interesting picture of the Westport River, a small and fish-rich Massachusetts estuary that was an early hotbed of osprey pole-building and now boasts one of the highest concentrations of breeding pairs anywhere.

The big dead snags that the birds once favored for nesting have been tidied away, but any shoreline home that overlooks an occupied pole carries a premium. Will realtors one day become the chief advocates for wildlife habitat restoration?

Perhaps the best example of the book's merits is an account of a kayak paddle up a narrow salt creek in May with the incoming tide. The creek soon turns fresh as it tunnels into the dense woods and begins to teem with migrating herring. Before long, it is carpeted with translucent flakes that glitter like dimes: fish scales.

Here's the kind of magic we can discover, Gessner argues, if we can bring ourselves to look closely at what anyone can see.

Tom Palmer is an environmentalist and writer in Milton, Mass.

Return of the Osprey: A Season of Flight and Wonder

By David Gessner Algonquin Books 286 pp., $23.95

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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