For the Birds: Summer’s last grasps

Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England publications.

Photo by Chris Bosak An osprey eats a catfish at Cayuga Lake State Park, October 2019.

Summer is hanging on, if only by a thread.

It’s always fun to see the nutty people who refuse to dig into their long-dormant jeans pile and insist on wearing shorts even when the temperature dips into the 40s. I see one of those yokels every time I walk past a mirror.

In the natural world, some flowers are still putting on a show, but it’s mostly the late bloomers such as goldenrod and asters. Some, but not many, traditional summer bloomers are toughing it out, but store-bought mums are the most commonly seen flowers these days.

The other day I walked past a pollinator garden and a monarch caterpillar stuck out like a sore thumb on the top of a milkweed plant. I hope the caterpillar does what it has to do quickly before the prolonged deep freezes come. It also made me think of all the fields that have been cut down already and I wonder how many monarch caterpillars lost their homes because of it.

Eastern phoebes, which are one of our first migrants to appear in spring with their late March arrivals, are still seen from time to time. I saw a few perched over a pond and bobbing their tails last week. The tangle of brush a few yards away from the pond was teeming with white-throated sparrows, however; a sure sign of fall and pending winter.

I had another exciting reminder of summer during a recent camping trip I took with some long-time friends. We were having breakfast at the picnic table when Wayne pointed to a distant snag and asked: “Is that a hawk or what?”

We grabbed the binoculars and trained them on an osprey eating a fish. We closed in on the dead tree for a closer look and noticed the bird was eating a fair-sized catfish. No blackened seasoning was necessary as the “fish hawk” tore through the skin and into the meat of the fish. Anyone who has ever caught a catfish knows how tough that skin is. The osprey didn’t struggle in the least.

I attended a presentation last week by Alan Poole, the author of two books on osprey. His latest book is “Ospreys: The Revival of a Global Raptor.”

Poole noted interestingly that an osprey has self-sharpening talons. The hard upper part of the talon, or claw, grows at a faster rate than the softer under part of the talon, leaving the large bird of prey with sharp claws at all times.

The osprey we watched did not push the timetable too far, but most ospreys in New England and nearby states have started their journey south by the end of September. Ospreys are not like most hawks and eagles whereby some individuals remain north throughout winter. All ospreys go south so to see one in October is a nice treat for a birdwatcher.

Poole noted that, while ospreys do mate for life, they go on separate migratory journeys.

Much of Poole’s presentation focused on the amazing comeback of the osprey population. After being nearly wiped out in the 1950s due to heavy pesticide use, the osprey has made a remarkable comeback and is now flourishing in North America and northern Europe, as well as on their winter grounds in South America and Africa.

The population turnaround is welcomed news considering the study released a few weeks ago that shows that North America has lost 29 percent of its birds in the last 50 years.

Poole concluded his presentation with this: “Ospreys are a good example that we can get things right if we pay attention and get organized.

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