February 23, 2012
Osprey strike
Osprey strike

The first Osprey arrives at 7:30am from the north.  The sun is just glinting over a shallow cloudbank presaging the Pacific front that is due later today.  There is a cold east wind blowing, and not a soul around.  Unless you count all the cars whipping by on the 202 overpass a couple hundred yards off my right shoulder or the thousands of students sleeping it off on the ASU campus a mile away at the far end of Tempe Town Lake.

The beauty of this overlook, which I’ve found optimal for viewing and photographing at the lake, is that it makes me feel all alone even in the bustle of the sixth largest metro area in the country.  A skein of Double-crested Cormorants flies up out of the marsh, passes under the Hayden Road overpass, skims the east dam, then settles down on the water just below me.  Two more Ospreys have joined the first, their lazy, reconnoitering wingbeats an easily recognizable flight jizz even though the thin sunlight renders them but silhouettes against the bright water.

My hope for this morning is eagles.  I catch the outline of a large bird flying toward me just above the water’s surface.  Thinking eagle and disbelieving that I failed to see something this big drop in, I find it in the binoculars and realize it is a Brown Pelican.  It isn’t just dropping in, but apparently was fishing along the far shoreline when I arrived and has just lifted off to seek a more productive spot.  One of the Ospreys dives behind it, misses, shakes off, and flies nearer to my vantage point to check out the cormorants which are now doing a loose herding line out toward the center of the lake.

I turn and glance behind me to check out the status of the sunrise.  If there is one, anything in front of my lens will be in perfect light for a telephoto flight shot.  As I turn back to the camera, a dark form flies left to right, low over the water, up into the north arm of the lake, passing right in front of me.  Thinking cormorant, my brain is too late to process a completely out of context Harris’s Hawk for me to click the shutter.  What is it doing here?  A Harris’s wouldn’t take fish out of this lake, would it?

A Coyote, headed for a breakfast appointment with a rabbit somewhere along the edge of the marsh, jogs up the trail on the other side of the water, scattering Snowy Egrets loitering along the lakeshore.  I, and all of this incredible wildlife action, am in plain sight of thousands of people, yet no one is looking.  Isolated in the midst of throngs, granted some of them still awakening, none of them seeing or even caring about the natural splendor that is right outside their car or dormitory window.

The pelican has landed on the east dam, right in the middle of about fifty loafing cormorants.  Two coots are standing a ways apart from this lineup, at dam’s edge, hunched over, feet in the falling water, picking assiduously at something, plant or insect life.  A Black Phoebe lands momentarily on the concrete dam support, not ten yards away.  Northern Shovelers drop into the water below me.  Still no eagle and the sun has lost its ascendancy to the persistent cloudbank.

I turn to leave, but not in disappointment.  There is nothing quite so viscerally charged, so emotionally compelling, as solitude at sunrise over water, wildlife on the move.  Even in an urban setting.