Where the osprey and the oxymoron play


NEW YORK — The United States sets aside an area larger than Japan for wildlife conservation. This is one of the things I found out as we spent two weeks this past summer at an isolated cottage on the Chesapeake Bay.

“Cottage,” I gather, is a vacation term here. The one we rented was a legitimate house by any standards. Because of its old-fashioned wooden floor, I asked its owner, Bob Locastro, and he said it was indeed built in the 1940s. He bought it for his mother and brother not many years ago, and his sons helped renovate it by, among other things, refinishing the original pine floor.

It is on Gary Creek, west of Cambridge, Maryland, and the land along the creek — here one of the innumerable riverlike inlets that wedge into the Chesapeake littoral — is sparsely populated.

On our side the nearest houses up and down the creek, including the Locastro family’s large summer house to the south, are a few hundred yards away, and both appeared unoccupied most of the time while we were there.

Saying this does not mean much, of course. Dorchester, of which Cambridge is the county seat, has a population of 30,000, when the county itself is larger than Tokyo, which is packed with 13 million people.

I started thinking about the U.S. and wildlife when Locastro told us a few things about the owner of the land across the creek: He has maintained the land more or less as it was in the 17th century, protecting Canada geese, for example. Locastro added that the wood markers placed in the creek in earlier times still protect the oyster beds from public use.

I was happy to hear these things. I had just filed my last column with this paper, which concerned plans to “gas” large numbers of Canada geese in New York (“No country for millions of Canada geese”). On the barrier island where we spent the previous 20 summers, oyster beds were off limits because of pollution, no doubt as a result of overdevelopment.

Sure enough, most mornings a flock of a dozen or more Canada geese would fly up from the wooded land across the creek, honking, and most evenings a flock would fly toward it, honking.

Also, Dorchester County has a large national wildlife refuge named Blackwater — at 113 square kilometers twice the size of Manhattan. We drove there one afternoon though we knew the end of summer is out of season for migratory birds. Still, we saw in the vast watery land a pair of bald eagles, for which Blackwater is famous, the description said, and several ospreys.

The following day I saw a bald eagle flying south high above Gary Creek. When I told this to Locastro’s son who came to visit soon afterward, he told us an osprey harasses a bald eagle, just as a mockingbird harasses a crow.

It was with ospreys that I experienced something new. For two days after we arrived at the cottage, I heard constant crying from the osprey-nesting platform set up in the creek.

On the third day the two ospreys, mother and child, left their nest. Thereafter, until we departed, I sometimes would hear fledgling calls and look up: There above the creek, the two of them would be flying. Sometimes the young one would fly to a tree in the forest across the creek to rest as the mother flew away, apparently to get a fish.

Ospreys once almost disappeared from most parts of the United States because of hunting (fishermen’s competitor) and DDT. I have remembered this since I heard the name “osprey” and saw a specimen in the distance — back in the 1970s when a couple invited us to Martha’s Vineyard. The talk on that famous resort island at the time was of the return of a few ospreys, a victory of sorts.

Efforts to recover the fish hawk still continue, as I learned earlier this month. News from Orange County, California, reported the comeback of a nesting osprey and the hatching of a chick. The bald eagle, the thought of which always brings to mind Benjamin Franklin’s alternative suggestion for the menacing U.S. avian symbol, the wild turkey, has gone through similar tribulations. So has, for that matter, the wild turkey.

The osprey, the bald eagle and the wild turkey also remind me of America’s schizophrenic attitude toward wildlife. A recent New York Times news item described a painstaking effort to restore the grizzly bear in Pasayten Wilderness, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, a landmass three times as large as Tokyo.

The grizzly was last seen in the Pasayten in 1996, the article said. Now these animals are regarded as pests, as a danger, where they are fully recovered. Naturally there are grumblings against the effort to bring the animal back.

The word “refuge” in “wildlife refuge” contains the inherent schism. These refuges, now numbering more than 550, accept hunters. They are not, in that sense, places where birds and beasts can run to save their lives. The most famous organization in the U.S. for conserving wildlife so humans may continue to kill it is Ducks Unlimited.

After all, President Theodore Roosevelt, who started the conservation system, was a big game hunter. Jimmy Carter, who touched off the national effort to recover the wild turkey in the 1960s, did so because he wanted to shoot the bird.

Still, it is comforting to learn about such efforts. Among the few facts Locastro ascertained for me was this: The owner of the land across Gary Creek, George Radcliffe, has a “conservation easement” agreement with the Maryland Environmental Trust on his nearly four square kilometers of land and two ponds. It is a new federal program to restrict development forever in exchange for tax benefits.

Radcliffe gave up his oyster rights in the creek two years ago but he is sure he will regret it, he told Locastro.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who is at work on a biography of Yukio Mishima.