J. Darris Mitchell
When the Osprey first flew by above the pond by the street across from my house, I did not think it was an osprey. Truthfully, I didn’t know what it was. Just that it was big, and looked like a waterbird. I don’t know exactly how to describe what that means, but there is a look to water birds. Gulls have it most of all, a sort of streamlined appearance to their wings and a way of flapping that reminds me of rowing oars. Terns have the look as much as gulls, while pelicans have it slightly less, but I find that all of the water birds have this vibe. Ducks. Herons. Egrets. All the little wading birds. They have this way of moving and something to their silhouette that—after seven years of birding—makes me automatically think water.
So when this large, streamlined bird doubled back for my pond instead of flying off, I ran for my binoculars.
It circled back and hovered above the pond, flapping its large wings into a headwind to stay in one place. Now that I was armed with a birder’s most precious tool, I could easily see the osprey’s black and white patterned face, its hooked beak, the way it holds its wings with a bend that reminds me of a human’s elbows. The ends of its primary flight feathers are darker than the rest.
None of that is the water bird vibe that drew me in though, that’s all just osprey.
It was the way it moved its wings, the way its feathers seem to be carved from a single piece of something smooth, like a bar of soap.
And then I saw why it looked that way.
The Osprey spotted a fish beneath the surface of the pond—their eyes can see through the glare of water better than my cheapo polarized glasses—and it dropped in height. Three meters. Another couple. Then it tucked its wings and plunged into the water feet first.
It missed, bad luck for the osprey, but good luck for me, as I got watch it pump its wings and rise back into flight. It got clear of the surface of the pond, and then—amazingly—shook its wings in midflight, sending water droplets raining down. Then it caught the wind, rose back up to the edge of the pond, then turned around, and did it all again.
I got to watch this amazing hunter dive into the pond four times in a row. Each instance a better example of just why water birds look the way they do. Its feathers shed the water, allowing it to splash again and again.
It was a neat moment, and a miniature vindication that I know enough about birds to blurt water in my brain based on nothing more than a silhouette.