ON THE WING

Feathered friends bring neighborhood together

Posted July 16, 2011, at 11:58 a.m.

I’ve always been more of a country and nature girl than a city girl. But there is something to be said for having a good neighborhood around you, especially when it includes people who share your interests.

A few weeks back, I was reminded of this while out on my run, which usually takes me by the osprey nest near Spring Point Light in South Portland. Because this nest is so easily viewed, it has become well-known, and the locals are invested in the health and success of the resident osprey pair. As I stopped to glass the nest — of course I had my binoculars with me, just in case, and it was convenient for me to multitask by combining exercising and birding — I encountered three other people who also were watching the nest.

“How many chicks this year?” I asked, since I hadn’t been able to confirm this myself yet.

They all enthusiastically responded, “Three!”

An older gentleman went on to describe that there was competition among the young raptors. Chicks hatch asynchronously, with the last being smaller and weaker than its siblings. If food is scarce, sibling aggression occurs, with the older, larger chicks pecking the younger ones into submission over access to food. The younger chicks sometimes may die of starvation or be killed by their siblings. This is nature’s way of increasing the odds of survival for the stronger chicks during lean times.

As various passers-by — a young mother with baby strapped to her back, a few older men and women out for a walk — approached our little group, they each asked about the status of the nest. Everyone got an update; it was similar to neighbors inquiring about one another’s children or other family members. That the objects of concern were birds in this case didn’t matter; it still drew everyone together, if only briefly.

A more recent visit to the nest yielded good news: all three chicks, now grown to almost half the size of their parents, appeared to be strong, healthy and well-fed. The female was tearing off small bits of fish and gently, carefully reaching out to give each morsel to her young. It was a scene of such tenderness that it made up for those early reports of strife.

As I watched, the male flew in with yet another fish, which he immediately deposited in the nest before flying away again, presumably to resume hunting. The female tore into the fresh fish, eating some herself, but continued to feed her young. I noticed one of the chicks actually feeding itself this time.

It was obvious food was plentiful because the osprey weren’t the only birds eating well. Common terns were everywhere, their elegant, scythe-shaped wings rowing them through the muggy air. They twisted and turned with ridiculous ease, plummeting with sudden swiftness into the water and reappearing with small silver fish — juvenile herrings. The sea appeared to be teeming with the fish, as almost every dive for food was successful.

I continued on my run past Spring Point and was brought up short in surprise to see three black-crowned night herons on the concrete dividing wall in the marina. They perched phlegmatically, surrounded by the wheeling, diving terns. The scene was quite comical.

As I stood there smiling to myself, an older woman approached me and asked whether the birds were, in fact, black-crowned night herons. When I assured her they were, her face lit up with a delighted smile and she shared her own story of an encounter with these birds. I offered her a look through my binoculars, after which we went our separate ways — total strangers connected through shared appreciation of nature and wildlife around us.

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