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The Mast-Head: Refugees, Avian and Human

Wed, 05/06/2020 - 18:18

When the coronavirus refugees began arriving about the middle of March, I wondered what the ospreys would think.

It was a weird confluence of timing. Almost to the minute that people worried about spending the lockdown in the city showed up, so did the fish hawks, as the magnificent birds are known here.

Osprey are particular about their nesting spots. As best I can tell, pairs seem to return to the same locations each spring, freshening up their stick-pile bowers and waiting for the fish schools to arrive in earnest. A fair number of pairs appear indifferent to activity below; along the Long Island Rail Road tracks mid-Island, for example, there are dozens of nests. And at Promised Land, near my house, a pair contentedly returns year after year to a pole alongside the fish farm driveway. Not far away on Napeague Meadow Road another pair readies their future generation of osprey at a sharp bend that provides a broad prospect of the saltmarsh and harbor.

The finest osprey haunt and one of the first mainland Long Island sites that hosted a nesting pair as the species came back from near-extinction in years gone by is a tall brick chimney at the southernmost curve of Gardiner’s Bay. This seamark can be picked out on a clear day from the Orient ferry or from far in the ocean, and it has been depicted on navigational charts for at least a century.

The smokestack, as we called it as children, is just about all that remains of a coal-fired plant that once provided electricity for the houses in the Devon Colony on the highland to the west. As we understood it, the plant had been built in line with a deep spot in the bay, with a pier for ships bringing coal. Glassy clinkers, the solid dross of the coal fires, can still be picked up along the beach after a storm.

Though the smokestack is an attractive place for breeding-minded fish hawks, the pair that alight there in March have often seemed more retiring than other, brash birds that nest nearby. More than once, I have noticed that a pair beginning to carry new sticks there would suddenly vanish if there was too much activity for their taste below. Not so this year. Arriving together, the people from away and the osprey have found a way to live together.

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