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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Anne Arundel 100

Nature Notes: Weathering Life's Storms -- Lessons from our Feathered Friends

Written by Kate Chandler, Associate Professor of English

Osprey nesting in working crane. (Photos by Sandra Robbins)

I stopped by Kent Hall at St. Mary's College to look through the new nature photographs college staffer Sandy Robbins had taken. I admired her pictures, but when she showed me the osprey nest, we both marveled. How did those birds anchor such a large, heavy nest in the crook of that old metal crane? Bird nests often exhibit structural, design, or balance ingenuity, and this one surely warranted a prize for the latter.

Sandy returned to the marina to see if she could catch a parent with some offspring. Our admiration increased because this time, Sandy learned that the crane was-unbelievably-still working. And still used!

The old crane looked as if it had been rusting and abandoned along the shoreline, making its stolid height appealing to the osprey couple. But the crane owners assured Sandy that when a boat needed lifting, the crane moved into operation-nest and all.

ospreyWe humans are accustomed to mobile homes, but what did that pair of osprey think when suddenly the protective home for their young began rumbling into action? Apparently, they learned to live with that predicament. They accepted the danger or, at the very least, that disruption as part of life and carried on.

I like to think that when adversity staggers my life, I do not let it scare me away. I envision myself as one of those hardy pioneers who, after the oxen pulling the wagon sicken and die, boosts her resolve, grabs the yoke, and carries on.

Confessedly, that is not always the case. I recall crossing Albemarle Sound during a nor'easter back in our sailing days, huddled behind my husband who was wrestling with the wheel. Wi t h e v e r y crashing wave knocking the boat over 40 or more degrees, each one re-soaking the wool blanket I wound around me, I moaned. Unrelentingly sick (yes, my head was hanging over the side), soaked, cold and exhausted from my own stint at the wheel, all I wanted was OFF. I am not proud of this.

So, perhaps birds are better models at this overcoming-adversity business because the nest-in-the-crane ospreys are not the only ones who have demonstrated calm resolve during misfortune or catastrophe.

Every summer, we enjoy watching Carolina wrens who come for the birdseed we throw out our kitchen window And every year we get to watch them build their nests.

Two summers ago was the tough one.

wrenFirst, the wrens built a nest in a helmet in my husband's motorcycle garage. I did not see them make that one because we did not discover the nest immediately. Apparently, the wrens had built their home in a day when the garage doors were propped open. When my husband parked and closed up for the night, the birds could not get in. With no access to it, they had to abandon their newly-constructed nest. We found it several days later, with its one lonely, unattended egg.

However, rather than flutter about in desperation or despair, the wrens got to work. A day or so after the garage incident, I remember watching an entire nest being built. Both male and female construct unless there are young that need to be fed in another nest-they commonly have two or three broods-and the male takes over feeding duty. I recorded on my calendar that these busy wrens worked all day building a new "mess."

Of all the types of bird nests I have seen, wrens' are the most loosely constructed.

They look thrown together. The abandoned one in the bike shed? A heap of pine needles, leaves, and twigs that almost disintegrated when I picked it up. It was extremely light; no intricate weaving or mud cementing this one. Maybe that is why they can build their nest in a single day.

The wrens raided the ground litter in the woods behind our kitchen, so I had a perfect view of them energetically flying back and forth all day. This time they chose a ladder that is hung horizontally on the exterior kitchen wall where we scatter the birdseed. By my 4 p.m. feeding time, she was sitting in her completed nest. Just like the one in the helmet, the entrance was on the side, and there she was in her "cave." Face-to-face as I leaned over to see her, I nodded in admiration.

Because her tail juts upward at a jaunty angle, the little wren always appears lively and energetic. Perhaps that is why I love these birds-they look cheery, contented. Even if she was discouraged at losing her egg and all the work of her previous nest, this wren got right to work and started the next.

In the face of adversity, she carried on.

The little wren laid five eggs. I checked them every day and watched as her brood emerged and went from a silent pile of skinny birdlets to feathery, open-mouthed greedies. On one ordinary morning, when I came out to scatter seed, expecting to see the young ones ready to fledge, I found nothing.

A bit of leaf litter lay on the ladder. That was all. The nest and fledglings were gone. During the night, something had scattered the nest and probably taken them all. In the lifeabundant summer smells of damp soil and sounds of constant crickets, all my senses stopped. I couldn't breathe. But, more important, what about the wrens?

Their family gone and their efforts destroyed, for days I thought the adults had given up reproducing for the season and left our woods, traumatized. I did not want to think that the raccoon or cat or snake had eaten them, too.

About a week later, there they were. First at the feeder, then traveling back and forth, twig in beak.

The wrens were building again.

I could learn something from that.