Chronicles of Ubo: the Osprey of the Upper Newport Bay

by Elizabeth C. Creely

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Looking east from the Shellmound Island Science Center

I went kayaking yesterday with my cousin Elizabeth and her small, lovely daughter Becca. “How’s the bay?” she asked innocently and was saved from my natural long-windedness by the appearance an osprey, one half of a mated pair, now living and loving in the Upper Newport Bay.

The considerate folks at California Department of Fish and Wildlife built a roosting platform for the raptors and their growing family, and the osprey are using it: one fledgling is in the nest.

I first saw the osprey three or four years ago, sitting in the middle of a mud flat. I never saw these birds, these mythic sea eagles, growing up. Now, I am. The osprey tells you what you need to know about how the bay is, I think I finally said.

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Looking at the osprey nest from the path.

Two ospreys living–they mate for life– and reproducing in the Back Bay means that the bay is doing better. Seeing them, I explained, means some assumptions can be made.

You can assume things about the water. The water quality is better than it used to be back when half of the bay was diked off for salt production and the other half was water laced with petrochemicals that leaked from the ostentatious yachts parked around Linda, Harbor and Bay Islands. I remember the rainbow sheen of the water very clearly, as a child in the late sixties  back in the seventies.

The snazzy motor boats and jet skis that used to race around the bay are now forbidden to do so. Consequently, there is less disturbance, and probably more fish to catch. And importantly, the fish they catch and eat don’t have as much DDT bio-accumulated in their oily flesh, and therefore do not compromise the osprey’s reproductive system.

You can assume things about noise. The airplanes that take off from John Wayne airport were forced by angry people living under the runway to take off at a steep angle so as to gain altitude quickly. This diminished the roar of the airplane. I can all but guarantee that the good people of Santa Ana Heights were not thinking about ospreys but managed to do them a good turn anyhow. Anthropocentric noise ruins avian habitat, plain and simple: the sweet song of the sparrow as it quests for a mate cannot compete with the roar of a chainsaw (this is a sentence I’ve written before). Neither can the high, thin cry of the osprey compete with the huge sound of an airplane. A bird’s habitat is the atmosphere, as much as the bush or the twig, and that aether should be as free as possible of manmade noise.

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Papa Osprey keeping an eye on his fledgling.

You can assume things about predators. Raccoons are going to have a tough time getting up the platform. Other raptors–bald eagles, golden eagles and some owls which prey on eggs, fledglings and sometimes adult ospreys– are not in evidence. Yet. Corvids are a problem: they love to eat chicks and eggs. I watched the parent osprey chase three ravens away, very efficiently. But there is an explosion of corvids because they are efficient generalists and will eat anything from an egg in a nest to garbage lying on the ground. Corvids claim lots of attention for their guest appearances in various mythic tales. I love their appearance in the Táin Bó Cúailnge or in the Poetic Edda. But in the state of California, they are ubiquitous, rapacious and I have lost my fascination with their mythic origins. They don’t mean as much to me. They do not indicate balance.   

The osprey mean everything. They are an apex predator, at the top of their food chain, and as such, increase my understanding of ecology and life, a phenomenon best understood in the aggregate, not the singular. (That’s an idea that belongs to theocrats.) My understanding becomes both tightly concentrated and widely diffused when I see ospreys. I don’t just see them: I see all the systems under, adjacent and above. I see the web.

A last word on assumptions: some things you can know, like this fact: the Upper Newport Bay was saved because of action by individuals, institutions and flat-out governmental fiat. In the late sixties and early seventies, hard-working scientists wedded their work to human wonder to save the bay. The bay was left undeveloped and some ecological balance was restored because of the intervention of Fish and Wildlife, and the EPA. When I was a seven-year old, the EPA banned DDT in 1972, clearing the way for raptors like the osprey to begin their comeback, which was helped along by the passage of the Endangered Species Act. All of this protection transformed the bay into a refuge. 

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The fledgling tests its wings.

I kayak every chance I get. As I do, I think about the bay ecology that supports the ospreys and the fact that this tiny little circle of life is situated in an old river delta, the bit where the end of the river meets the beginnings of the sea.

This river, an antecedent river of the Santa Ana river, rose and ran west during the last glacial period of the Pleistocene, a rainy, fluvial/pluvial epoch that made Orange County look more like the Pacific Northwest (think big wet trees). It made a gap in the Santa Ana mountain range, ran over the Tustin Plain and emptied into the Upper Newport Bay.

When I paddle my kayak upstream into the wildlife refuge, I move backward in time, into a space made by that old, old river. Somewhere below the muddy bottom of the bay is a still older passage.  It’s the world beneath ours, the one you see in a puddle on a stormy day, when the small, silvery pool of wet dissolves into pure transparency and you are invited to jump in and through. (I saw these puddle worlds often when I was a kid.)

I would jump, if I could. I assume things are better there; no revanchist government; no theocrats, no supremacist, belligerent patriarchs with their handmaids. I don’t know this. I shouldn’t assume. It’s not wise. Ask the questions–Is the bay better? Will it continue to gain in health? Will the ospreys stay put? Will the fledgling fly?–stay put and remember to consider the osprey in its hybrid habitat made by ancient rivers and human intervention.

It’s at rest in its world, the one next to ours.

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This is Mama Osprey who landed carrying a silver mullet in her talons, which she proceeded to eat there, on the marsh plain. Wish I had a better camera.

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