Return of the Osprey: A Season of Flight and Wonder


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 ...

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

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

Rocky Mountain News

Tom Palmer
In the past 30 years, New England salt marshes have sprouted a curious crop of isolated phone poles. Oftentimes the poles are crowned with massive rafts of bleached sticks. If you approach one of these poles in early summer, a big black-and-white bird is likely to jump off it and wheel around you, screeching. This bird is an osprey.

Not long ago, there were few poles and even fewer birds. The osprey, the only hawk that fishes by plunging into water, was nearly eliminated from most of the United States by a synthetic insecticide called DDT. Chemical residues acquired from prey accumulated in the birds and prevented females from laying sturdy eggs. Populations didn't start to recover until the compound was banned in 1972.

In Return of the Osprey," Cape Cod writer David Gessner logs a recent summer devoted to the birds - more specifically, to close and patient observation of a handful of pole nests within biking distance of his home. High points include the parents' arrival in early spring, glimpses of nestlings in June, and maiden flights in July. Spending day after day hunkered down at a marsh edge with a notebook and a spotting scope will indeed make you an expert on osprey domesticity. Gessner is chained to the nests by the book he will write, and much of its interest lies in the way his battle with bugs and boredom gives way, at length, to a sort of ecstasy of selflessness, as his mind empties of everything except birds. So equipped, he provides a set of vivid pictures: how an osprey rips up a still-struggling trout with its beak and talons; how one fledgling swiftly murders another; how the male, smaller than the female, does most of the fishing and eats his fill while his family waits.

Like the author, we are a bit taken aback by how little interest these voyeuristic dramas generate in Gessner's wife and friends. To him they are revelatory; to them they are merely symptoms of his obsession. Indeed, as the summer ripens, the rest of his world seems to lose definition. Gessner journeys to Long Island to visit Art Cooley, one of the founders of the Environmental Defense Fund, but the meeting is curiously slack and inconsequential. Ditto for his pilgrimage to John Hay, dean of Cape Cod naturalists. A fresh recruit to the bird cult, he's a little shocked to learn that its saints do not sport visible halos.

For better or worse, Thoreau conditioned us to expect literature from New England naturalists. But these meetings are so bland that they barely qualify as reportage.

Fortunately, most of the book is free of ritual obeisance. Gessner is a highly skilled writer with a modest, transparent style that rarely soars but inspires confidence in its accuracy.

He includes an interesting picture of the Westport River, a small and fish-rich Massachusetts estuary that was an early hotbed of osprey pole-building and now boasts one of the highest concentrations of breeding pairs anywhere.

The big dead snags that the birds once favored for nesting have been tidied away, but any shoreline home that overlooks an occupied pole carries a premium. Will realtors one day become the chief advocates for wildlife habitat restoration?

Perhaps the best example of the book's merits is an account of a kayak paddle up a narrow salt creek in May with the incoming tide. The creek soon turns fresh as it tunnels into the dense woods and begins to teem with migrating herring. Before long, it is carpeted with translucent flakes that glitter like dimes: fish scales. Here's the kind of magic we can discover, Gessner argues, if we can bring ourselves to look closely at what anyone can see. Christian
Boston Herald
A compelling nature study....a wonderful meditation, filled with anecdotes and characters, about time and hope and place.
Publishers Weekly
A naturalist's jewel...Gessner provides insights inot the life and history of this great sea bird of prey...
Library Journal
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.
A year well spent and carefully recorded: heedful, respectful, and filled with the romance of being out of doors.
Boston Globe
Elegant....Among the classics of American nature writing.
David Gessner offers a satisfying, vivid account of the resurgence of nesting ospreys on Cape Cod and elsewhere on the New England coast.
Copley News Service
By the end of the book, you feel as if you've been out there with Gessner much of the time, shivering in the woods, mucking through the marsh, kayaking upriver to an isolated nest site. It's strangely satisfying, imparting a sense of the profound. And you don't even have to venture outdoors to experience it.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
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 Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An attentive year with the ospreys of Cape Cod, from the capable hands of Gessner (A Wild, Rank Place, 1997, etc.). In the spring of 1999, the author made a resolution to spend more time with his neighbors, the ospreys. Once abundant, the fish hawk went into serious decline in the 1950s as a result of DDT poisoning. Then, due in part to the bird's adaptability and ability to cohabit with humans to a degree, it bounced back from a mortality rate of 90 percent. Much in the manner of his earlier work, Gessner concentrates on the elemental facts of daily life on the Cape: walking, writing, observing, napping, being with his wife. Of particular importance to him is gaining a sense of place, of homeplace, and one aspect of that search are the ospreys, in whose revival he found a glimmer of his own recovery from cancer. This is, in effect, a calendar of days on the osprey watch: watching nests being built and repaired (including one with a naked Barbie doll woven into the woodwork); watching for nestlings, and watching as nestlings get carried away in the night by raiding owls; being witness to the courtship ritual known as the sky dance; recording the daily changes in the salt marsh. While Gessner includes much research he has done into the bird's biology and behavior (relying heavily on Alan Poole's work), he is more content (and better at) observing, waiting, letting the season deepen, the flowers bloom, the marsh come to vibrant life. And in the process, through his incessant poking about and hungry curiosity, he does approach a notion of place, perhaps never more so than when he attunes himself to"osprey time." A year well spent and carefully recorded: heedful, respectful,andfilled with the romance of being out of doors.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345450166
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/28/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,483,500
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

David Gessner is the author of the critically acclaimed A Wild, Rank Place and Under the Devil's Thumb. He lives with is wife, Nina de Gramont, on Cape Cod and teaches creative nonfiction as the Harvard Extension School. His work has appeared in a number of publications, including the Boston Globe, Creative Nonfiction, and Orion.
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Read an Excerpt

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 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 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.

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Table of Contents

Openings 1
Coming Back 15
Building 35
Fishing 62
The Dive 88
On Osprey Time 100
Neighbors, Good and Bad 120
A Deeper Vision 138
Respecting Our Elders 158
Growth and Death 179
Flight 195
Learning Our Place 216
Saving the World 233
Living by Water 250
The Off Season 262
Bibliographical Note 281
Selected Bibliography 283
Acknowledgments 287
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 8, 2009

    Great Read

    If you are interested in Ospey, this is a good informative book. Throughout the book, the author observes several Osprey nest, and records what he sees. It is not a very scientific book, but I don't think the author was going for that. The author also talks a lot about his life. Overall it is an interesting book, and I like the authors style of writing. If you are considering this book, then read it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2003

    Live Osprey Web Cam

    I would like for David Gessner to check out our Osprey Web cam at ( I think that this would be of interest to him.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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