I never paid much attention to birds. Living in sun-drenched Florida, which is subject to long dry spells and hordes of biting insects, I focused downward, navigating around anthills in sandaled feet.
But now, I've turned my gaze skyward, and birds have become my passion.
From the kitchen window I watch sparrows, crows, cardinals, and blue jays compete for space on the feeder, while warblers and woodpeckers poke about on the heavy limbs of the old elm tree. Lately, I've become enamored of the shore birds found along the bay, inlets, and ponds on my bike route.
At first I was only a casual observer, catching snatches of white plumage in tall trees. But these days, I frequently stop to watch these birds as they search for a meal, eat it or feed it to their young, and soar on the wind currents, their long legs tucked back and their necks coiled into an "S" shape.
On bright blue mornings, I've watched them all in flight: great blue herons, snowy egrets, ibises, wood storks, ospreys, and snake-necked anhingas, all stretched long on their feathery wings.
The edge of the bay and its inlets provide a ready meal for the hungry herons and egrets that stalk quietly at the water's edge, stretching out their long necks to snap up minnows or small crabs at precisely the right moment.
Nearby, an American wood stork, distinguished by a thick white body and sable head and beak, wanders on long, reed-like legs, searching for larger sea prey. On a post or tree close to the shore sits the buff-throated anhinga, his wide black wings fanned out to dry in the sun after a deep dive for whatever fish is available.
Other birds fish from the air. The osprey and pelican are spectacular divers. The pelican is particularly beautiful to watch as it hovers over the water, sometimes appearing frozen in flight before taking the plunge.
The large brown pelican flies high enough over the shimmering bay to plunge straight down at first sight of a fish. He swallows it whole, and then returns to the air for another sighting.
The dark-brown-and-white osprey, poised on a raised wooden platform made expressly for him, or on a high tree branch, has the best view of the water. When hungry, he, too, hovers over the bay, crystal blue in the summer sun.
From a remarkable distance he can spot his prey, swoop down, and catch it. Clasping the fish in its talons, head pointed forward, the streamlined osprey spreads his long, black-tipped wings and takes to the sky.
Since ospreys tend to return to the same roost, I grew attached to a particular one, which perched on the uppermost branch of a tall tree for days on end, eye level with the flow of humanity passing over a high bridge. The bridge, an overpass encased in wire mesh, carries bikers, walkers, and inline skaters across a busy highway.
Twice a week I stopped on the bridge, got off my bike, and grasped the metal wires that separated me from the osprey's world. No doubt I appeared to be a caged animal in his eyes. I stood in my cage as he soared with the wind, caught his dinner, and then dined, overlooking the sea.
He did not take much note of me, although occasionally he glanced my way with a look suggesting I held little interest for a being as regal as he. I noticed everything about him, though: the black curves swooping away from the yellowish eyes, his sharp little beak, and his sleek white breast. He was a wild and beautiful bird, largely unheeded by other bikers and skaters who sped by.
One warm, ordinary morning, this creature jolted me into a new appreciation for airborne life. That day, when I saw him catch a fish, I remained on the bridge for what seemed like hours to see what he would do.
Soaring up from the water, he went back to his tree perch, where he placed the fish on a branch, held it down with one talon, and began his meal. Almost no part of the fish went to waste. Bit by small bit he devoured his feast, at times looking toward the bridge or scanning the sky.
Suddenly, he gave a low, sustained cry, and I, too, glanced up to the cloudless sky above us to see why. Amid the multitude of birds peppering the summer sky, a lone osprey appeared in flight some distance away. It slowly circled, like a plane awaiting its turn to land. Making concentric circles in the deep-blue sky, the bird soon approached the tree and returned the call. Unfortunately, none of the fish was left, and the second osprey did not linger long.
At that instant, I felt my throat tighten. "This is his world, too," I thought. This magnificent wild bird recognizes his own kind, perhaps his mate, from a great distance, enjoys his meal, builds a home for his young, protects them until they fledge, and stakes a claim on his own homestead, a leafless branch high in a tree. His own waterfront property.
That morning on the bridge, I began to reexamine my place in the scheme of things, and contemplating life in the sky, above the human fray, atop a spinning orb, slowly making its own circles around a glowing sun.