Every morning I drive east along the Columbia River to get to work. The haze of early light casts the rocky landscape in gray and blue lines. Mount Hood’s perfect cone is sometimes visible in front of me. Since spring, a large nest and birds have also become part of the landscape. The forty-inch nest rests on a platform constructed above a power pole. This was my first introduction to the pair who, according to scientific research, has mated for life, reuniting with each other every spring in the same nesting site. Before spotting the nest and birds, I knew nothing about them. I was awestruck and curious.
One evening, I pulled off the road to look at them with the weathered Airguide binoculars of my great Aunt Ruby. I saw two birds almost the size of eagles with dark back feathers. The breast and head were white, a brown stripe extending from the eye. One of them spotted me watching from below and whistled loudly. They are called Osprey, I later learned, or Sea Eagle in Latin.
My friend Mel once told me that in her work counting and identifying birds during their migration, she had to be careful to distinguish the residents from the migrators. “How can you tell,” I asked. “Sometimes you can’t,” she told me. I could relate. I silently questioned people in the same manner, “Are you a resident or just passing through?” For most of my life the two have melded together, residing and passing through at the same time. Unlike the Osprey who nest and migrate with consistent regularity, I seemed to have a migrating residency to the tick of my own inner, irregular clock.
I admired the Osprey’s determination to show up, year after year, to the same place and to the same mate. Scientists call this “nest site fidelity,” so strong is their connection that attempts to move their nesting site are more successful if sticks from the old nest are provided. Mates migrate separately, each on their own route, to places south like Mexico or Honduras, and return, like the Osprey on 145th, to an electrical pole beside a busy road. The location, even the sticks that they formed into a nest the year before, seem to be sacred. Barring difficulties they may face on their journey, they find their way home.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the Osprey, imagining the simplicity of their lives and coveting their loyalty. Some part of me deeply desires attachment to location, to know a place well and to come back to it. But I know that it's not that simple. Osprey has struggled to survive through environmental poisoning, and the disappearance of forested areas along water has forced them to build their nests on electrified power poles. Mel, the friend I mentioned at the start, told me of an experience that sums this up well. Finding a dead warbler at the end of the migrating season, she was stunned by both the fragility and strength she saw demonstrated by its life. “It flew all the way from Guatemala just to die hitting a window.” She paused long, letting out a guttural exhale. Finally, she said, “You know, there are so many creatures out there just trying to make a living.” I realized that was the one unifying life element for us all, whether we settle in and show up like the Osprey, or keep moving on as I have done, we are all just trying to live. Either way, it’s a struggle we faithfully pursue.
(Originally published in Issue 2 of the Northwest Women's Journal)