Spring brings out the osprey lover in me. Some might even call it an obsession.
On a recent family tour of Florida real estate, I was in charge of taking pictures of the properties. But I kept forgetting my assignment, distracted from the lanais and laminate floors and aiming my telephoto instead at one or another of the abundant ospreys I saw there, scanning the skyline, treetops and nesting poles for yet another view.
Luckily, there was an osprey perched on the roof of the most appealing condo. I got a lot of pictures of that unit.
The ospreys are compelling birds, with their dramatic fishing skills, their long and perilous annual migration, their loyalty to one nest and, usually, one mate, and their inspiring recovery from near-extinction — with an assist from humans, like the Vineyard’s own Gus Ben David. At this time of year, when ospreys around the world have returned to northern climes and are nesting, I scour the Gazette’s bird column online for osprey news, follow ospreycams, and root for the safe return from migration of birds in Florida, Scotland, Massachusetts and elsewhere.
I even put the Martha’s Vineyard ospreys at the center of my first novel, which was published last fall.
But until recently, I never considered why, of all the fascinating animals in the world, I latched onto the ospreys. My aha! moment came the other day, when I tabbed over from the Woods Hole ospreycam website to a search engine to begin looking for someone to help get my Chilmark grass trimmed before the ticks take over.
Just part of re-feathering my seasonal nest.
You see, I live in Ohio but have a summer house on the Vineyard. And, like the ospreys, I’ve been instinctively returning to the Island in summer without fail for almost four decades. Like an osprey female, I usually serve as the advance party for my family, returning to the Vineyard in April or May to prepare the nest.
Flying is free for the ospreys but expensive for us, so we drive: a two-day odyssey that may not rise to the level of the ospreys’ feat but is, nevertheless, daunting. And just like the birds, once on the Island we enjoy the plentiful fresh fish and long days near the water’s edge.
In my novel, the teenaged protagonist longs for the return from migration of the Vineyard ospreys in part because they are a stand-in for something else that is missing in her life: her father. But they also reflect her sense, as a newcomer to the Island, of being an outsider.
The ospreys, who can travel 3,000 miles without a map or a GPS device and arrive at the exact same nesting platform that they left six months earlier, are powerful representatives of the homing instinct. But they don’t stay at home. As soon as their chicks are grown, they leave again. It seems that they are always either arriving or departing. And therefore they are always, to some degree, outsiders.
I don’t think I’m alone in relating to this aspect of the ospreys. Deep in our hearts, don’t we all feel like outsiders? No matter how assured our membership in a group or community, we are all alone inside our heads and essentially unknown to others. And the question persists: do I really belong?
A place, though, can give us a different sense of belonging. We don’t need to share our thoughts or opinions with a place to feel connected. We don’t need to feel understood or accepted. To feel at home, we only need a whiff of wet pine needles, salt air, wild roses or drying beach wrack. The ring of a line slapping against an aluminum mast, or the hoot of the Islander’s fog horn. A spray of green pine needles against a blue, blue sky.
Scientists think the ospreys may use their sensitivity to the earth’s magnetic field to help them find their way back to the nest each year. But they may also be guided by the quality of the light, the smell of the beaches and the trees, and the landmarks they remember from their distant youth. I know I am. And I can hardly wait for summer.
Suzanne Goldsmith’s novel for teens, Washashore, a finalist for the 2014 Green Earth Book Award, is set on Martha’s Vineyard in 1976-77.