Welcoming the osprey in one person’s Silent Spring


Awhile back, the Salisbury Independent featured an article heralding the spring arrival of the osprey.

It caught my attention because I came to live on the Eastern Shore in 1972, the year DDT was banned, largely in response to Rachel Carson’s prophecy of a “Silent Spring,” and for the next 20 years or so I enjoyed the resurgence of the osprey and the bald eagle.

Along the way, I read James Michener’s novel “Chesapeake,” which says that the osprey return every year in the middle of March.

So, every year on St. Patrick’s Day, I take my dog out to Pemberton Plantation to welcome them.

And yet, this year – despite daily dog-walking at Pemberton, I didn’t see an osprey until the last week of April, the Independent article notwithstanding. Finally I saw a new nest atop an electrical tower and another just starting up on a channel marker.

I also realized that I haven’t spotted a bald eagle in years. Same story for the marsh hawk, the red tail and the kestrel. What’s happening?

The shortage of raptors is but the tip of the iceberg of avian absence. For years, I used to see an abundance of birds on my Pemberton walks. To be clear, I am not a birder. I haven’t the intellectual interest to memorize bird calls (thrilled though I am by the cheery anthem of the Carolina wren.), study migratory patterns, or focus on the small differences between our several species of woodpecker.

I take a more emotional, even spiritual pleasure in this particular celebration of the beauty and variety of life.

I remember hordes of chickadees year round, and cardinals and flickers and several varieties of woodpecker, including the relatively rare pileated woodpecker. In those days, I would sit on my porch in town listening to the symphony of mockingbirds and watch the modest catbirds twitter unobtrusively around my yard.

I even built a birdhouse for the house wren, never occupied. I guessed that Ms. Wren had spotted my cat. Once, as I mounted the park’s footbridge, I found a barred owl staring at me from the other end.

As I approached, its face disappeared! It had turned its head 180 degrees to check me out.  Now it spread its wings and sailed silently away, threading between the trees. The owl, and others like the spectacular goldfinch, were relatively rare. Now I see almost none.  Pemberton, for several springs now, is eerily silent.

Still more striking is the departure of waterfowl. Twenty years ago, I delighted in the spectacular beauty of the wood duck, the graceful hauteur of the merganser, the subtle shades of the teal and the widgeon, the hectic dive and breach of the cormorant.

Now I consider myself lucky to spot an occasional pair of mallards or geese.

So … am I just another old fart longing for the glories of his mythologized youth, or are we approaching the fulfillment of Carson’s Silent Spring prophecy?

Does anybody know? Does anybody care?

Joel Roche lives in Salisbury.

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