Seeing & Looking
"This morning an osprey with its narrow black-and-white face and its cupidinous eyes leaned down from a leafy tree to look into the lake – it looked a long time, then its powerful shoulders punched out a little and it fell, it rippled down into the water – then it rose, carrying, in the clips of its feet, a slim and limber silver fish, a scrim of red rubies on its flashing sides. All of this was wonderful to look at, so I simply stood there, in the blue morning, looking. "
~ Mary Oliver "The Osprey"
Staring is an art form. We look at osprey, but our beliefs can blind us. Osprey look back at us with different intentions. We may see our sushi coming to us on a plate. An osprey's vision and flight must target its own raw fish.
Due to their visual acuity, osprey excel at catching fish since they can see six to eight times better than humans over distances. The birds have evolved a stunning set of survival skills. They are the only North American raptor to diet on live fish as their main food source.
To save these beautiful birds from humans took a lot of time. It also required collaboration, sets of human skills, and a sharply defined vision to save the osprey from humanity. Fortunately, decades of sustained effort to rescue the osprey were successful. Today, we may exult to the sights of osprey chicks, osprey nest building or plummeting down, striking the water and flying up with a wriggling fish as Mary Oliver wrote in her poem.
Osprey are thriving. They live on every continent but Antarctica and migrate over long distances. An osprey nesting in Québec but wintering in southern Brazil may fly 120,000 miles during its 20-year lifetime. Osprey migration is a special wonder of the avian world.
Osprey are devoted parents as well. Female osprey have between one and three eggs. Their eggs hatch in about a month in the order they were laid. The oldest hatchling has a distinct advantage, because it begins to feed and grow before its younger siblings. When there is a shortage of food, younger chicks may not survive. This process helps to preserve the fittest birds, and occurs among many bird species. It's known as brood reduction.
Young osprey can leave their nest after only two months. Sometimes these juveniles return for several weeks to beg food from their parents until they can hunt on their own. In some areas, young osprey stay within their winter home grounds for an entire year, instead of going back to their breeding grounds. It's possible this improves their chances of breeding when they finally return to the family nest area.
The species declined during the 1960's and 1970's. Egg failure due to DDT, which made it more difficult for birds to absorb calcium, was the root cause, as DDT blocked calcium, making osprey egg shells thinner. The eggs broke before the chicks could hatch. While the story of the return of the bald eagle is more widely publicized, ospreys have also made a comeback.
POLITICS & PESTICIDES
As I write, I am sailing across the Chesapeake Bay, which has the largest population of osprey in North America--about one quarter of all the osprey in the United States. The use of pesticides around the Chesapeake had a devastating effect on these birds. Banning of pesticides led to an increase in the number of osprey pairs, as many as 2,000 by the 1980’s.
But the success story is now being overshadowed by a worsening trend. Global wildlife populations have fallen by 58% in the last 50 years. This news is from the 2018 Living Planet assessment released by the Zoological Society of London and the World Wildlife Fund. If this trend continues, the decline will impact two-thirds of all vertebrates by 2020. To make matters worse, we are seeing the disastrous effects of our current administration’s policies, leading to costly environmental damage and species endangerment.
USA WEAKENS WILDLIFE PROTECTION
In the United States, the current administration has a destructive view of wildlife. The Associated Press reviewed the backgrounds and social media posts of 16 board members appointed by prior Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. AP's conclusion was that the board members are likely to agree with Zinke’s position that the best way to protect critically threatened or endangered species is by encouraging Americans to shoot some of them.
Mr. Zinke, who left office in early 2019, was a Montana Congressman who approved using lead bullets in our National Parks. An avid hunter, under his leadership the Fish and Wildlife Service moved to reverse Obama-era restrictions on bringing trophies from African lions and elephants into the United States.
David Bernhardt, the current U.S. Interior Secretary, was the Interior’s top attorney during the last three years of George W. Bush’s administration. During the Obama presidency, he worked for Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber & Schreck, a lobbying firm that represents oil and gas interests. Bernhardt has weakened the rules of law around the Endangered Species Act—the same law that helped save the bald eagle and the osprey.
According to the New York Times in a July 19, 2019 article on the Endangered Species Act, "significant proposed change, which has been rumored since April when a proposal was posted to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, would alter how the Endangered Species Act deals with animals that are categorized as 'threatened,' or one level below ‘endangered.’ " (www.nytimes.com/2018/07/19/climate/endangered-species-act-changes.html).
This is important because government agencies are obligated to extend the laws protecting endangered species so that the protections cover threatened species (think about the osprey population in 1983).
Changing these rules could take away some of these protections.
While weakening protections, the current administration is also waging a scandalous war on wildlife. The policies that have been implemented in 2019 are leading to the destruction of North American wildlife. Protections for endangered animals are being erased.Literally and figuratively, the administration is taking a shotgun approach. Hunters typically target the biggest and strongest animals, weakening already vulnerable populations.
GET INVOLVED CLOSE TO HOME
The message here is that as photographers, we can keep our focus on conservation and work to benefit other endangered species. Let us keep our conservation vision, put down our shotguns, and focus on making our photography benefit living creatures. By doing nature, travel and landscape photography, we are investing in wildlife by helping create an economic nest to protect future wildlife populations.
To help species with your photography, start close to home. Find an endangered location or animal species. Choose one you can easily photograph. If you find out it needs protecting, tell others. Visit your site or animal often and photograph everything that makes it special. Work to conserve the area together with a group and use the spending power of the group to help save wildlife and wildlife habitat.
Photos and Writings by Jim Austin Jimages