The Mast-Head: The Osprey Pole

Blood, fish guts, and seawater

Driving past an osprey feeding on a utility pole on my way to Lazy Point the other morning, I noticed something that had not caught my eye before. Grasped in a talon was a flatfish of some sort, which the bird was tearing apart with its beak. This was not a fresh sight for me; I had often watched hungry ospreys atop this pole in the past. What was new was that I noticed a dark stain at the top of the pole, as if it were a blunt pen that had been dipped in a foul ink.

Over time, blood, fish guts, and seawater had drizzled down the wooden sides of the pole, memorializing the birds’ many meals up there as on an abattoir floor. Back for another look several days later, I watched a single fish scale flutter, sparkling in the bright sun like a snowflake, down, down, and then disappear into the spartina.

It is not that my eyes have gotten better as I have put on the years. It is instead that there are far more ospreys around than there used to be and their habits have become much easier to discern. Or maybe, like an interest in the Roman Empire, birding takes on more significance in middle age.

Lately, I have puzzled over the fascination for the winged inhabitants of my neighborhood. Unlike deer, which only sleep, eat, defecate, and get hit by cars, birds are always up to something, eking subsistence from the last hard berries of winter or gorging themselves at dawn on summery invertebrates at the shore’s edge. Deers’ idea of a good time is lining up at a hedgerow as do pigs at the trough. A lawn? Hot damn, the deer think. Let’s bring the kids!

Osprey migrate thousands of miles in a year. Action in deer town is when deer that had been sterilized and ear-tagged in East Hampton Village go rogue and make it all the way to Bluff Road in Amagansett. 

An osprey pair at Promised Land have their own guts-soaked feeding pole, maybe 200 feet away from their tilting top hat of a nest alongside Cranberry Hole Road. Passing by recently, I noticed one of the pair there, eating a shad or bluefish while its mate glared from across the street. Sharing among adult fish hawks, as the old-timers called them, may not be that much of a thing.

Yet these big forked-winged birds soar together. On sunny mornings I hear them high above the scrub oak and pine and low bearberry, screeching or whistling or what we earthbound folks might hear as the sound of joy on the wind. And the milquetoast deer, they just snuffle about in the brush below.