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  • Return of the Osprey
  • Written by David Gessner
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780345450166
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Return of the Osprey

A Season of Flight and Wonder

Written by David GessnerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by David Gessner

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nature (10) birds (10) cape cod (4)
nature (10) birds (10) cape cod (4)


For six luminous months–an entire nesting season–David Gessner immersed himself in the lives of the magnificent osprey’s that had returned to his seagirt corner of Cape Cod. In this marvelous book–part memoir, part paean to a once-endangered species, part natural history of the Cape–Gessner recounts the many discoveries he made in the course of that magical season.

Hailed by Roger Tory Peterson as the symbol of the New England coast, the osprey all but vanished during the 1950s and ‘60s because of the ravages of DDT. But now these breathtaking birds are returning. Writing with passion, humor, and a reverence for the natural world, Gessner interweaves the stories of the nesting osprey pairs he observed with the narrative of his own readjustment to life on a windblown, beautiful, and increasingly developed landscape he had known as a child. For Gessner, spotting an osprey dive for fish at forty miles an hour becomes a lesson in patience and focus, watching the birds build their nests illustrates the vital task of making a home, and following the chicks’ attempts to fly shows him the value of letting go.

A story of recovery and connection, Return of the Osprey celebrates one of nature’s most remarkable creatures as well as our own limitless capacity for wonder.


March is the waiting time. Everything poised,ready to be-come something else,a world in need of a nudge.The buds on the old post oak bulge hard as knuckles,the first blades of grass cut through the dark purple rim of the cranberry bog,and the wil- low branches yearn toward yellow.Almost every morning I watch the sun edge its way up over the harbor,and the world it lights grows steadily greener and warmer.While the season itself may waver uncertainly,the birds insist on spring.As I head out for my morning walk,all of Sesuit Neck seems caught in the upward twirl of birdsong.Cardinals whistle their upward whistle,mourning doves coo,and the brambles fill with the chittering of finches and chickadees.

Down at the beach two hundred sanderlings cover the end of
the jetty,and when I walk toward them they take off as one,veer-
ing east,showing their white bellies,skimming over the water be-
fore banking and heading right back toward me.Just when it
looks like I 'll die a silly death --pierced by the beaks of a hundred
small birds --they split like a curtain around my body.Then the
split groups split,heading right toward me in seemingly random directions before joining up,reshuffling, and then --one again --banking,their
white bellies flicking to blackish backs like a magic trick.They put
on their show for some time before tiring of it,and I watch,half
stunned,thinking how this sight has come like a sign of early
spring or the definition of grace,an undeserved gift.

Is it my imagination or do all of us --animal,plant,and human
--take a raw,near-doltish pleasure in the coming season?This,
more than January,seems the time of year for resolutions,and I
have already made mine.I have vowed to spend more time out-
side.It 's true I 've lived a fairly pastoral life over the past two years,
walking the beach daily,but this year I want to live more out than
in,to break away from desk and computer,and see if I can fully
immerse myself in the life of Sesuit Neck,the life outside of me.
"Explore the mystery "was the advice the Cape Cod writer Robert
Finch gave me long ago.That is what I 'll do.Specifically,I have
vowed to spend more time with my neighbors; more specifically,
with those neighbors who nest nearby:the ospreys.Also known
as fish hawks,these birds,with their magnificent,nearly six-foot
wingspans,will soon return to Cape Cod from their wintering
grounds in South America.One man-made osprey platform,which
will hopefully be the site for a nest,stands directly across the har-
bor from me,the pole on which it rests bisecting the March sun-
rise.In anticipation of the opsreys 'arrival I,like a Peeping Tom,
aim my binoculars directly from my living room into theirs.Other
nearby pairs have nested out at Quivett Creek,on the end of the
western jetty,on Simpkins Neck,and on the marsh by Chapin
Beach,and so I set out every day on my rounds,wanting to be
there to greet them,hoping to catch the return of these great birds
on the wing.So far there 's been no sign,and I fear I 'm being stood
up.But that just adds to the building anticipation of this indeci-
sive month,and soon enough they 'll fill the air with their high-
pitched calls,strong eagle flapping,and fierce dives.

These were sights I never saw growing up in the 1960s
and '70s.Not a single osprey pair nested on Sesuit Neck when
I spent summers here as a child.For me these sights were as
mythic and distant as those described by early pioneers headin
west:migrations of thousands --millions --of birds,when the
sun would be blotted out and the whole sky darkened for an

Of course,the ospreys weren 't that chronologically distant.
Only thirty years earlier,in the 1930s,they had dotted the New
England shore,nesting on every high perch they could find.In the
late 1940s Roger Tory Peterson wrote of how the abundant osprey
"symbolized the New England Coast more than any other bird,"
and when Peterson moved to Old Lyme,Connecticut,in 1954,he
found,within a ten-mile radius of his home,"approximately 150
occupied Osprey nests."But soon after this the decline of the
ospreys began,a decline caused directly by residual DDT in the
fish that made up their entire diet.The birds were nearly killed off
in New England,pesticides contaminating their eggs and pre-
venting them from hatching,wiping out 90 percent of the osprey
population between 1950 and 1975.

The situation on Cape Cod was even more complicated.Here
the birds had been dealt a double blow.This land is a recovering
one,coming back from earlier environmental devastation.By the
mid-1800s there was hardly a tree left on the Cape,all viable lum-
ber having been cut down for the building of ships.Without their
primary nesting requirement --trees --few ospreys nested here.A
century later,DDT did in those few.The writer John Hay,our
most penetrating local observer,has little memory of ospreys on
Cape Cod in the years after World War II.Twice within two hun-
dred years,in ways characteristic of each century,we found ways
to expel birds that had likely bred here since the Ice Age.

Now the birds are back.It has been a gradual comeback,a
refilling of old niches.By the late 1970s a few birds had returned,
by the '80s many more,and now a sudden rush.Only recently,in
the mid-'90s,have the ospreys begun to reinhabit my town,East

The story of the ospreys is a hopeful one in many ways,a rare
example of humans reversing our tendency to try to control na-
ture,of recognizing that we have done wrong and then correcting
it.It 's also the story of the possibility of cohabitation.Who could
imagine a more wild sight than an osprey spotting a mere shadow
of a fish from a hundred feet above the sea and diving into the wa-
ter headlong,emerging with the fish in its talons?And yet this
wild creature next turns the fish straight ahead for better aero-
dynamics,carrying it like a purse,flapping home to a nest that sits
directly above a car-littered parking lot.Ospreys aren 't picky about
their homesites.In addition to trees,they commonly nest on util-
ity and telephone poles,above highways,and atop buoys near
constant boat traffic.Osprey expert and author Alan Poole sees
this as a sign of their remarkable adaptability.Thanks in large part
to this adaptability,the birds give us the gift of the wild in the
midst of the civilized.I understand that it 's a fallacy to see nature
as a kind of self-help guide for humans,but there may be a lesson
here.Perhaps we,too,can retain some of our wildness while liv-
ing in this increasingly cluttered,concrete world.

While I 've vowed to spend more time with the birds this
spring,I will try not to draw too many lessons from them.That is,
I 'll try to resist the temptations of my own hyperactive imagina-
tion.It isn 't easy.A few years back,during a year spent on Cape
Cod,I saw my first osprey,and couldn 't help but also see my own
life mirrored in the phoenixlike rise of the bird.I was thirty going
on eighteen,and my world spun in tight solipsistic circles.Perhaps
I made too much of the fact that DDT and its residues had also
been found to lead to an increase in the rate of testicular cancer.
Having suffered from that disease and survived,I felt even more
connected to the fish hawks,and even more joyous about their
comeback and return to the Cape.Connections crackled;their
fierce revival boded well for my own.The interconnectedness of
our worlds excited me.
David Gessner

About David Gessner

David Gessner - Return of the Osprey
David Gessner is the award-winning author of Return of the Osprey, My Green Manifesto, The Tarball Chronicles, and other books. He currently lives and teaches in Wilmington, North Carolina.


“Thrilling . . . Memorable . . . Among the classics of American nature writing.”
The Boston Globe

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