Tuesday, May 17, 2011

watching and caring

I am a bit surprised at the relative absence of observers and of discussion of the three chicks in the nest at 185. The past two weeks have been fascinating as I’ve watched three fluff balls develop into incredibly large birds with feathers and wings and personalities. It’s been a marvel to see them change literally overnight, every night. This is a rare opportunity to see three young birds develop into “young adults,” who should be ready to fly in about two+ weeks. This opportunity may then be gone, period. At times it seems as though no one else is watching, or cares.

Watching the nest the past week or so, I was reminded of views of humpback whales, playfully slapping their flippers against the ocean in exhilaration, or just to hear the noise, or to tease or impress their companions, or to communicate over long distances. The nest would look empty, only to be suddenly alive with a long, white humpback’s flipper slicing through air rather than water. A kid trying out, stretching and flapping, one of her or his wings before it developed its upper- and underwing coverts. You can still see these whales slicing air at 185.

This morning Buzz brought in some food, which I could not identify. It was small, and all three chicks were up and pecking at it. All I could see was a gang of brown-shirted rugby players in a scrum, showing me their nether portions as they faced away from me and picked at the morsel. Just a few minutes earlier, there had been chicks in the nest. From my “butt-on” view, they could easily be mistaken for adults. They were virtually as large as adults.

When they took a break, three Bald Eagles appeared. Three white heads on three brown-backed bodies, prompting passers-by more than ever to ask if those were eagles up there. They looked more like miniature eagles than Redtails!

Today, in the light drizzle, I thought I saw the oldest chick, sitting regally like an adult Bald Eagle, with its proud, white head, facing south. I refer to the largest, presumably oldest, and most aggressive chick as “Alpha” for operating purposes. The slightly smaller bird, slightly behind Alpha’s development curve, is Beta. The third bird I’ve been calling “Whitey,” because it has always been noticeably whiter than its older siblings. It might just as well be called “Bashful,” because you see it far less frequently than his/her older, more aggressive siblings. Whitey typically eats last, and is the last to helicopter to exercise its young, rapidly growing wings. Alpha does whatever she wants. Whitey does whatever Alpha allows him/her to do.

Whitey is not as young, vis-à-vis, its siblings, as Lucky was vis-à-vis Lucy and Larry, but it is still the smallest and more adorable chick, the baby of the clutch. It shamelessly imitates its older siblings, and “respects” their right to have first choice. Today, while Whitey was playing Bald Eagle, Ruby suddenly appeared, landing in the southeast quadrant of the nest, the only portion not occupied by three hulking juvenile hawks. However, as she landed and she attempted to get her right wing properly adjusted, she nudged Whitey, who was standing relatively close to the edge of the nest. Whitey sat down as though sucked back to the nest by a vacuum cleaner. Whitey was not ready for any unplanned adventures.

When Whitey first stood up, I had thought it was probably Alpha, based on its size and development. Until Alpha and Beta stood up and revealed how much they had developed in the past 23 hours. The changes are that dramatic on a day-to-day basis. Whitey has streaks of brown buttons down his/her breast, somewhat like a double-breasted suit, only there are at least five vertical rows of “buttons,” the sheaths of his ventral body feathers coming in, brown but yet unfurled as they emerge from their keratinous tubes. When those plumes start to burst out, Whitey will look like a different bird. Alpha and Beta look much grayer-brown on their still-downy heads, so Whitey still lives up to his/her name, but that might not be the case for long. Whitey now has a rusty breast, emulating his older siblings. He also has a necklace of feathers that are already emerging around the base of his/her rusty breastplate. The feathers are also sprouting down his flanks. You can still see his ears, about 7 o’clock behind his eyes, and the white occipital spot on the back of the heads of all the chicks.

As the rugby scrum broke up, Alpha looked virtually as big as Buzz, perhaps rivaling Ruby. Others have seen her backside and assumed they were seeing Ruby in the nest! These chicks also have their own personalities, but you have to observe them for a while to discern the differences. They way things look, the two older chicks, and possibly all three, could be females. We should have a better idea by the end of this week.

Today one of the chicks was in the back of the nest, against the wall. I saw its butt rise high in the air, above the rest of the body. The not-so-little wings started flapping furiously, and suddenly a large stream of ”whitewash” exploded into the air, coursing over the other chicks in the nest, clearing the nest wall, and cascading like limestone raindrops to the concrete five stories below. I was glad no one was walking into the building at that time because it was heavy white rain. I wondered if the culprit had just found it too bothersome to trod across a nest of large siblings to void from the edge, or if it was some juvenile sense of power (or humor) that caused this blast from the back of the pack. The flurry of wing activity in the process made it look as though the bird had been pumping up the pressure to achieve such distance. (Boys, at least, remembering their childhood, might better appreciate this achievement.)

It started to rain heavily. I retreated to the car trying to keep my camera and binoculars dry. The kids hunkered down. How could three creatures that big disappear into something that looked that small and confining? The nest looked empty. Anyone walking by could easily believe the chicks were gone. In less than three weeks they will be.



Paul M. Roberts
Medford, MA

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