Speaking of Nature: Bill’s vacation nemesis

  • Bill Danielson photo<br/>Victory at last, my nemesis vanquished!

    Bill Danielson photo
    Victory at last, my nemesis vanquished!

  • Bill Danielson photo<br/>Dive after dive, this osprey tried for fish. It didn’t succeed until I was loading up the car in the parking lot.

    Bill Danielson photo
    Dive after dive, this osprey tried for fish. It didn’t succeed until I was loading up the car in the parking lot.

  • Bill Danielson photo<br/>Three hungry siblings and only one fish leads to conflict in the nest.

    Bill Danielson photo
    Three hungry siblings and only one fish leads to conflict in the nest.

  • Bill Danielson photo<br/>Victory at last, my nemesis vanquished!
  • Bill Danielson photo<br/>Dive after dive, this osprey tried for fish. It didn’t succeed until I was loading up the car in the parking lot.
  • Bill Danielson photo<br/>Three hungry siblings and only one fish leads to conflict in the nest.

Back in January, when my beautiful wife Susan approached me about planning our summer vacation, I listened intently as she explained her reasoning about attempting our longest vacation to date. Instead of just one week, she wanted to try for two and, in her mind, the only feasible destination was Martha’s Vineyard. No phones, no electronics, no communication with the outside world by any means other than the mail. In my mind, it was a perfect plan.

So when we boarded the ferry in Woods Hole, I started visualizing my photography plans. I never really go on vacation as much as I simply change photography venues, but I have to admit that even “slaving away” at my work is pretty enjoyable when I’m in a beautiful spot. Thus, it was an easy 40 minutes as we crossed Vineyard Sound for I was making wonderful plans even if they were serious ones as well.

I’d actually been to Martha’s Vineyard once before in 2010. I had spent a week on Cape Cod hoping to catch some of the shorebirds headed north in their breeding plumage. One day, Susan and I took the ferry over to Oak Bluffs. We rode our bikes around the town, where I managed to spot a utility pole planted well off the road with an osprey nest on top of it. The only problem was that it was April and there wasn’t a lot of activity at the nest.

Fast forward to 2014 and I was arriving at the end of July, which meant there would be much more activity at the nests. Chicks would have grown to fledglings and I envisioned hungry offspring begging loudly for food and dutiful parents responding with regular deliveries of fish. Of any of the goals I set forth for myself, the image of an osprey carrying a fish was the No. 1 mandatory photo I had to get. I arrived with a plan, but I had no idea that a new nemesis awaited me with plans to foil my every effort.

I’d like to say that it was one osprey that had targeted me for mental destruction and there is some evidence to support this hypothesis. The house we rented was within sight of the water, but not at the water’s edge. Instead, it was somewhat up the hill from the water and a forest of stunted trees stretched out between the house and the shore. But every day, just a few hundred yards away, I could see ospreys hovering, wheeling and diving for fish. They were simply too far out of range.

There was, however, the immediate notion that this might not be a problem. Off to the northwest of the house, in the trees, I could hear the unmistakable sound of an immature osprey calling for food — music to the ears of the nature photographer. As long as the youngster kept calling, there was a chance that I’d see my fish-laden osprey fly by — and see it I did!

Time and time again while I was preparing breakfast, or reading the paper, I would look up to see an osprey flying by in perfect silhouette with fish in its talons. If I positioned myself on the porch with camera at the ready, this wouldn’t happen. But, if I let my guard down, the bird would invariably fly by. The taunting had begun. My nemesis was born!

A bit farther down the road at Lobsterville Beach (I’m not kidding, that’s the name), there was another utility pole planted in the dunes especially for use by ospreys. And, like every such pole on the island, the pole was in use. Full-grown osprey chicks stood atop the massive pile of debris that is an osprey’s nest and called for food incessantly. It didn’t take me long to figure out that these young birds were perfectly capable of flight, for, whenever I arrived at this particular nest, I never knew how many birds would be home. Sometimes there were three birds, other times there were none, but flying and successfully fishing for a living are very different things and the young birds would still need a great deal of assistance from mom and dad before they were self-sufficient.

So, regardless of their ability to soar and swoop above the clear, shallow waters of the shoreline, the young birds regularly came home for dinner. In many ways, young ospreys are like young humans making tentative forays out into the “real world.” They still come home to raid the refrigerator and do some laundry in a place that is safe and familiar.

Two weeks is a long time in the life of any bird, but that’s especially true during the crucial “growing up” phase. I was able to detect a big difference in behavior between the day I arrived and the day I finally left. As time moved on, the young ospreys seemed to do less begging as they spent more and more time away from the nest. I was quite happy that I had invested a couple hours in getting “squabble-at-the-nest” photos when I first arrived because I may not have had any luck by the time I left.

But the actual delivery of the fish eluded me. Everywhere I went, I would see ospreys carrying fish. It actually got the point where I would hear Susan say, “Hey Bill, what’s that?” I’d look up to see a fish-laden osprey and then glance over to see an impish grin decorating the tanned face of my beloved. I eventually started shaking my fist in the air and grumbling “damn you!” before bursting out with laughter. I had become Ahab and the osprey (all osprey everywhere) was my white whale.

I would not — could not — walk away without my trophy. I carried my camera with me everywhere and I explained to Susan that I would have to stop if the situation for success presented itself. She indicated that she understood with a warm smile, but I suspected I was being “handled” like some sort of diva.

Then, as we were headed home from the beach after another day of taunting by the ospreys (they were actually diving for fish in front of me), I finally got my chance. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed an osprey sitting on a pole and I also noticed that a couple on bicycles had just passed beneath the bird without it flying away. Could it really be that easy?

I pulled up and parked the car beside the road. The osprey gave me a good look, but stayed where it was. I reached back for my camera, groped around for it while keeping my eyes fixed on my nemesis and found nothing. Then I remembered that I had placed my camera back behind the passenger seat to keep it away from the sand on the beach chairs. Damn!

I cautiously opened the door. The osprey watched. I got out of the car. The osprey glared. I opened the back hatch. The osprey turned its gaze to a different car passing by. I got in position. The osprey bored holes into my soul with its piercing stare. And that’s when I finally noticed the fish in his talons.

My thumbs spun dials without any conscious knowledge of what they were doing. Optimal settings simply popped into existence as I prepared for the inevitable. The gods had watched me for two weeks, they had heard my anguished cries and they had decided to reward my tenacity. The bird lifted off the pole, fish in talons and I got the shot.

I made sure to wipe the tears from my face before I got back into the car and when Susan asked, “Did you get it?” I simply said, “yep.” Then, without missing a beat, she asked where I wanted to go for dinner, but I could barely put a sentence together. I had vanquished my vacation nemesis and I was basking in my own inner glow of victory. Best vacation ever.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. He currently works as a high school teacher. To contact Bill, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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