The Harbingers of Spring by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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As light returns and the days begin to lengthen, we rouse from our self-imposed cold storage, shake off our winter numbness, and look around to find all manner of wonderful things. Just the other day, I saw a hundred turtles sunning themselves on the bank of a pond and while I’ve yet to glimpse the flash of a ruby-throated hummingbird (should happen any day now), I’ve already smelled the sweet scent of silvery Russian olive (Elaeagnus, wonderful name!) in bloom and stared in awe at a swatch of wild forsythia in vibrant yellow or a graceful twig of red bud in shy magenta. Our lamprocapnos—common Bleeding Heart—out by the shed is poking up out of the ground and the three tiny Chinese lantern plants I put in the ground a few years ago to celebrate my daughter-in-law’s birthday (two weeks hence) look like they will be appear on stage right on time. The lilac and hydrangea along the garden wall are in bud; our colorful wisteria and clematis vines are not far behind. The crepe myrtle that now overlooks the neighbor’s fence is swelling. The hammock is out of the shed, ready and waiting. Spring has us squarely in her sights.

But of all the harbingers of a Kent County spring, I love ospreys best; it’s their annual return from Central or South America in the last days of March or the first days of April that truly signals the imminent arrival of spring in town. Their piercing keening call—cree! cree!—reminds us of our place in the natural order of life along the river. Soaring overhead or warily watching us from their nests, ospreys must think us pretty small trespassers; after all, they were here long before God started draining the swamp for the first time and they’ll be here long after we’re gone. To them, we’re just a nuisance living on borrowed time.

Ospreys are unique among North American raptors because of their diet of fish and their ability to dive into water. We’ve all seem them hunting on high or with a fresh trophy dripping from their sharp talons heading home to feed the kids. Once in peril, their numbers have begun to increase following the banning of pesticides containing DDT—let’s hope that’s one thing that doesn’t change because of the current winds blowing out of Washington!

Compared to humans who depend on lines or nets to catch fish, ospreys are excellent anglers. They have a reversible outer toe that allows them to grasp their prey with two toes in front and two behind. They also have barbed pads on the soles of their feet to keep a slippery fish secure and when they fly with prey, they line up their catch head first for less wind drag. Because they can’t dive down more than three or four feet, ospreys prefer shallow water. According to the scientists and ornithologists who make their living observing such things, they’re very efficient predators: they catch about 70% of the fish they dive for—that’s a lot better than me with my fly rod! I’ve spent hours trying to catch a fish, but it takes an osprey about twelve minutes to make good on a fishing expedition. Hmmm…

Male ospreys hunt; females (larger than males) aggressively guard the nest. Since eggs in the nest don’t all hatch at once and older chicks feed voraciously, life can be difficult for newer arrivals. In times of plenty, that may not be much of a problem, but we humans know all-to-well that times aren’t always plentiful. Fortunately, around here, the fishing’s pretty good and the osprey population is thriving.

Fledglings make their first flight 7 or 8 weeks after they hatch. If they survive their first migration, young birds remain south for a year or two before returning home. Ospreys don’t breed until they’re about 3 years old, but once they do, they’re monogamous. An osprey will live about twenty years and over the course of a lifetime, each bird may log nearly 200,000 migratory miles; think about that when you trade in your next car!

There will come a day in the fall when the sky falls silent and we’ll know winter is coming. But that’s then; this is now. Look up; listen. Spring is back!

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “A Place to Stand,” a book of his photographs, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015. He is currently working on a collection of stories called “Musing Right Along.”

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