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  • Writer's picturePam Narney

Catching the Wind

Prelude to Flight

Number 11

Which one is Mom? Hint: check out the eye color.

For four weeks our nestlings have done nothing but eat. Soon they will fledge or leave the nest. Thelma and Louise have reached 80% of their mature size, while Resolute is about 50% full grown.

Thelma’s wing span is as wide as her mother, Gracie’s, about five feet. When Thelma fully extends her wings, everyone gets whacked and shoved around. The nest action looks like the latest teenage rave. Everyone is moving, bobbing, and weaving.

YIKES sister! What are you doing?

YIKES again!

Mom don't sit on me.

The nest is now too small for the four of them. Their flapping, hopping, and jumping have beaten the nest flat.

A flattened nest

Gracie’s efforts at refurbishment are over. She has stopped bringing and rearranging sticks to make the nest bigger.

Due to all of the commotion and lack of space, Gracie spends more and more time away from the nest. She might even hunt for herself. She has taken over some of George’s protection duty by chasing other Osprey, heron, and vultures away. In the marsh across form the Osprey nest five heron were born. They have not learned the rules about who owns the airspace.

Suddenly Thelma works her wings rehearsing for her first flight. Muscling up is the instinctual progression toward flight. It’s all about strengthening and conditioning their wings by flapping them up and down.

This Osprey aerobics is catching on as the others begin to flap too. But why do they start flapping their wings? Is it innate, like walking for humans? They flap. They hop. They flop. They hover over the nest all the while bashing and pummeling each other and mom.

It is hilarious to watch them, like the first time a baby finds its toes and shoves them into its mouth. It combines joy and awe. What are these things (wings) and what do they do? Do they belong to me?

One wing coming up

Both wings up

At first the nestlings have little to no control over their wings. And, as funny as that is, it can be deadly serious. It is a precarious time. Any Osprey can get pushed out of the nest and drown, if it is not ready to fly. Leaving the nest the first time is not an intentional act. A puff of wind or a strong breeze lifts them up and out. It’s fly or die.

Watching them power up makes me smile, unlike watching the awkward swan, whose takeoff is ponderous. The swan beats its wings over the water as its belly drags and pounds the water’s surface, making a run until it builds up enough speed to be airborne.

Perhaps ground nesting Osprey can liftoff after a run, although talons make running a nonstarter. The Osprey in nesting platforms, on buoys, and other structures have no space to work up to flight' and no safety net. They depend on wind.

Facing into the wind to get aerodynamic lift, they flap, jump, hop, and hover. Occasionally one of the larger nestlings will hover and rise six to twelve inches off the nest waiting for a breeze to take her. Will this be her first flight? We hold our breaths.

Down she plops, exhausted again. Better luck next time when she catches the wind.

“As their proficiency develops, nestlings face the wind and jump repeatedly, wings pumping, legs dangling, and wild-eyed. Eventually a puff of wind will catch one, drop it over the lip of the nest, forcing its first awkward flight” (Poole p.111).

What do they think or feel when they are airborne for the first time? Freedom? Joy?

Whatever they feel, it stops when they realize they have to land somewhere. They can't soar and glide in the air currents yet.

Who will be the first to fly?

The odds are on flying by birth order. Thelma should be first, then Louise, and finally Resolute.

George and Gracie will naturally spend more time out of the nest now to avoid collisions. Feedings will slow. Another prompt to get the nestlings moving.

Not one of our nestlings has flown yet, but Thelma and Louise are getting higher and higher off the nest as they flap for longer periods of time, then drop exhausted to the nest.

Today Thelma is ignoring the latest fish delivery, as she gazes out over the water. Is she ready to fly? Is that urge more important to her now than food? Thelma and Resolute pay attention when two Osprey fly by overhead. Looks like George is protecting the nest. Do they have any inkling that soon they will be in the air too?

And, then they will have to return to that very small nest and land on it. What will the return to the nest look like?

Poole, Alan, F. Ospreys: A Natural and Unnatural History.

UPDATE Thelma flew for the first time this morning!!!


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