Cover image for Return of the osprey : a season of flight and wonder
Return of the osprey : a season of flight and wonder
Gessner, David, 1961-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Chapel Hill, N.C. : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2001.
Physical Description:
286 pages : map ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QL696.F36 G48 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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When David Gessner returned to Cape Cod, where he spent summers as a child, he noticed something he had never seen before: hawks with magnificent six-foot wingspans and dark masks.

In Return of the Osprey , Gessner sets himself on a simple quest: to watch these great birds and learn about their astonishing comeback to the Atlantic coast after a twenty-year absence. In the process, he takes us on a journey into the wild and the tame, the beautiful and the fragile.

Over the course of a full nesting season, Gessner immerses himself in the lives of these majestic birds. He observes their remarkable adaptability, their astonishing fish-catching skills, their housekeeping habits, and, when the chicks are born, both their savage and gentle ways of nurturing. 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 show him the value of letting go. He discovers the rewards of slowing down and the discipline of waiting and watching. And he witnesses an extraordinary event: the survival of ten young ospreys, the most his Cape Cod neighborhood has seen in more than half a century.

Return of the Osprey is a story of a remarkable recovery, a celebration of place, and a thoughtful meditation on finding one's way in the world.

Author Notes

David Gessner lives with his wife, Nina de Gramont, on Cape Cod and teaches creative nonfiction at the Harvard Extension School. His work has appeared in a number of publications, including the Boston Globe, Creative Nonfiction, and Orion

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

Imagine a fish hawk, its six-foot-wide black and white banded wings backstroking 40 to 100 feet above coastal waters. In a flash of feathers, it hurtles 80 miles per hour headlong toward its prey. Then, in a moment of near suspension, it reverses to dive completely beneath the waves, talons first. Usually it emerges with a wriggling meal, adjusts the fish to the most aerodynamically efficient position and returns to its high perch to share a meal with mate and nestlings. In search of such moments, Gessner (A Wild, Rank Place) explores the salt marshes near his Cape Cod home. In this chronicle of a spring and summer breeding season among four mated pairs of osprey, the author crafts a naturalist's jewel. Kayaking through brackish waters at the ocean's edge, he details life among diverse shore birds and other littoral creatures. Peopling the tale with noted avian authorities, family, friends and local fishermen, he supplements his own seamless writing with citations from his wide reading. After 15 million years of evolution, the osprey ranks high on the seaside food chain. It was nearly decimated in recent decades by DDT-poisoned plankton, nourishment for the herring and other fish this coastal raptor exclusively feeds upon. Now, as it returns to habitats long left vacant, it reoccupies its former ecological niche. Through textured anecdotes and graphic details, Gessner provides insights into the life and history of this great sea bird of prey that will delight both the committed birder and the general reader. BOMC Selection. (Mar. 30) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Gessner is an essayist of nature and with this book he shares a deep admiration of the osprey, a majestic coastal raptor. He spent a year making careful and loving observations of four pairs nesting along the bay shore of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. His seasonal chronology documents the intricacies of the osprey's annual life, including courtship, nest building, spectacular fishing, rigorous rearing of families, and eventual migration far to the south. The writing is accurate and informative, but also respectful and filled with a romance of the natural world. Gessner frequently shares his and other writers' reflections with the modern world and its human impact on bird life. It is encouraging to read of the bird's resilience and recent population recoveries throughout much of its breeding range. The book leaves the reader with awe and a heedful elation about nature. General readers. C. Leck emeritus, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick

Booklist Review

Ospreys, formerly known as fish hawks, were one of the flagship species in the fight against DDT. At the apex of the aquatic food chain, ospreys concentrate DDT in their tissues, leading to reproductive failure and ultimate death. Over 90 percent of the osprey population in New England was wiped out between 1950 and 1975, and then DDT was banned. Gessner writes of the return of nesting ospreys to Cape Cod. Ospreys build huge stick nests in elevated places and may now nest on platforms on top of telephone poles on the logged-off Cape. Watching the birds court, catch fish, and build nests, Gessner finds that their lives become increasingly woven into the fabric of his own life. He adjusts his schedule to that of the birds, rising early to watch adults feed chicks, resting at midday when they do, and spending hours observing behavior. It is this learned patience that allows him to observe a rare instance of fratricide at a nest as the third hatched of four chicks kills the youngest. This beautifully written story of a season with birds of prey makes for engrossing reading as we learn about osprey life from a master essayist. --Nancy Bent

Library Journal Review

The osprey, the only bird of prey to dive underwater for its food, suffered a great population decline due to the use of the pesticide DDT. Ospreys have gradually recovered, and this work celebrates their return to the coast of New England. The author anticipates osprey arrival in the spring and follows their nesting, fishing, raising young, fledging, and return migration to South America, often presenting a tale of his own reactions to and feelings for the birds as opposed to a story of the ospreys themselves. The descriptions of nest building and of the young birds learning to fly and leaving the nest are wonderful, but the reader may be somewhat disconcerted by the mix of natural history and personal, environmental, and philosophical issues. The latter themes are of interest in themselves but don't always work well in the context of this book. Osprey information is more accessible in other works such as Alan Poole's Ospreys: A Natural and Unnatural History (Cambridge Univ., 1989. o.p.). Tim McKimmie, New Mexico State Univ. Lib., Las Cruces (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Openings March is the waiting time. Everything poised, ready to become something else, a world in need of a nudge. The buds on the old post oak bulge hard as knuckles, the ?rst blades of grass cut through the dark purple rim of the cranberry bog, and the willow 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 ?ll with the chittering of ?nches 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, veering east, showing their white bellies, skimming over the water before 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 off in seemingly random directions before joining up, reshuffing, and then-one again-banking, their white bellies ?icking 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 de?nition 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 outside. 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. Speci?cally, I have vowed to spend more time with my neighbors; more speci?cally, with those neighbors who nest nearby: the ospreys. Also known as ?sh hawks, these birds, with their magni?cent, 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 harbor from me, the pole on which it rests bisecting the March sunrise. 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 indecisive month, and soon enough they'll ?ll the air with their high-pitched calls, strong eagle ?apping, and ?erce 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 heading west: migrations of thousands-millions-of birds, when the sun would be blotted out and the whole sky darkened for an hour. 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 ?nd. 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 ?sh that made up their entire diet. The birds were nearly killed of in New England, pesticides contaminating their eggs and preventing 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 lumber 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 hundred 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 re?lling 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 Dennis. The story of the ospreys is a hopeful one in many ways, a rare example of humans reversing our tendency to try to control nature, 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 ?sh from a hundred feet above the sea and diving into the water headlong, emerging with the ?sh in its talons? And yet this wild creature next turns the ?sh straight ahead for better aerodynamics, carrying it like a purse, ?apping 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 utility 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 living 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 imagination. 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. Excerpted from Return of the Osprey: A Season of Birds, Flight, and Wonder by David Gessner All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Openingsp. 1
Coming Backp. 15
Buildingp. 35
Fishingp. 62
The Divep. 88
On Osprey Timep. 100
Neighbors, Good and Badp. 120
A Deeper Visionp. 138
Respecting Our Eldersp. 158
Growth and Deathp. 179
Flightp. 195
Learning Our Placep. 216
Saving the Worldp. 233
Living by Waterp. 250
The Off Seasonp. 262
Bibliographical Notep. 281
Selected Bibliographyp. 283
Acknowledgmentsp. 287