Beaufort County, North Carolina has always been a hard place to make a living. People get by doing what they can. Some got by making moonshine.
There’s a story about a bootlegger in the 1950s, long after the end of Prohibition, who sited his still on a saw grass meadow at the head of Chocowinity Bay. It had the advantage of isolation. It could only be reached by boat.
The saw grass grew tall enough to screen his still from fishermen and duck hunters until the grass caught fire one day and burned down to the muck. His still became as obvious as a smokestack.
The saw grass meadows remain even if the bootleggers have all gone.
Most osprey nests are built high in the forks of cypress snags, ideally one rooted in the water to avoid snakes and raccoons from raiding the nest. A moat is an adequate defense from terrestrial enemies but the water itself can become an enemy.
This nest was built less than six feet above Chocowinity Bay’s normal level. From its size, the nest had been occupied for successive years. Then the storm came, driving the water before it.
After Hurricane Florence, nothing remained but the bitter end of some roots.
The osprey that inhabited the nest had already migrated south for the winter. If they return, they’ll have to begin again…or steal another bird’s nest.
Today the osprey are gone from Chocowinity Bay, abruptly, as if compelled. Their nests are empty as are the branches of dead cypress trees standing like stones beside the water. There are no osprey circling overhead or flitting between the wetland foliage and no sound but the indignant crows. The osprey have left, the adults and the newly fledged, driven south for the winter by unrelenting instinct. I’ll miss them.
Chocowinity Bay is full of osprey nests, great piles of sticks and twigs, padded with Spanish moss, bark, and grass, layered with the detritus of successive generations. Fish offal mostly. Bones and scales. The young soon learn to stream their feces over the side of their nests like sailors pissing over the gunwale.
The osprey mate for life and return to the same nest, year after year. And year after year, the nest, usually high in the fork of a dead cypress tree, grows more massive. After years of patient building, the nests can be 10 to 13 feet deep and 3 to 6 feet in diameter. A man could sit comfortably in such a nest if he wasn’t too fastidious about the smell.
There are exceptions, nests built on navigational markers or pilings or the ruin of a cypress tree that looks like a shipwreck, shattered timbers encrusted with barnacles, raised only a few feet above high water. That nest is draped with Spanish moss. It’s on my route to the head of the bay. I gave it a wide berth while the parents were busy bringing fish to feed chicks insistently chirping but now the nest is empty, like the others.
The birds aren’t territorial except for their nests and then there’s no telling what might set them off. Bald Eagles, certainly, but there’s nothing that likes an eagle. The crows relentlessly mob any eagle that strays into the wetlands. Sometimes osprey take offense at fishing birds like cormorants, and sometimes not, but they always defend their nest against another osprey that isn’t their mate. They’ve been seen locking talons with an interloper and falling from the air into the water.
Osprey evolved to prey upon fish. They eat almost nothing else. One of their three forward facing toes can turn backward, becoming opposable. Their nostrils close when diving. And they have sharp spicules on the underside of their feet to help grip slippery fish.
Once in contact, the spicules weld predator to prey. Even a healthy osprey can deadlift only a 1 or 2-pound fish. The fish instinctively dive for the safety of deeper water. There are stories of large fish dragging osprey to the bottom.
Osprey skim the surface and pluck unwary fish from shallow water or plunge after wary fish swimming in deeper water. On Chocowinity Bay I’ve seen them dive from a height of 50 feet, tucking their wings as they plummet, at the last moment extending their talons and striking the water with an explosion of spray. More often than not they’re unsuccessful but often enough to thrive.