Monday, November 24, 2008

Simply living: The ebb and flow of life on lake over the years

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 24, 2008)

Every night like clockwork, an osprey roosts on our lake. When I say "on" our lake, I mean that almost literally.

To explain, I have to go back seven years.

In 2001, Central Florida experienced the final year of what turned out to be a three-year drought. Water levels everywhere had dropped dramatically. Throughout the region, shorelines receded and sections of formerly submerged lake bottom were suddenly exposed.

The water shortage was particularly noticeable on our small lake, which was created when peat was mined from boggy areas years before we bought the property. Even in times of abundant rainfall, some areas of the lake are surprisingly shallow, while others are extremely deep.

During the 2001 drought, our family watched as an island of peat began to appear directly in front of our house about 100 feet off the shoreline. By that time water levels had dropped by about eight feet.

We knew the peat island existed because we had discovered it while swimming and boating. However, prior to 2001, the landmass was entirely submerged. During times of normal rainfall, my husband could swim out to the island, hold his breath, go underwater and stand on the peat. When he did, those of us watching would only see his fingertips stretched up above his head.

All that changed with the drought. Suddenly, large portions of the peat island were exposed. We weren't the only ones to notice the change. Otters, turtles and alligators discovered the island and a pair of sandhill cranes ultimately claimed it as their own. The cranes built a nest and proceeded to raise a family on the soggy strip of heavy, black earth.

Shortly after the crane baby grew up, rain began to fall. Water levels started to rise. The turtles and alligators found other places to bask in the sun, and the otters disappeared completely. Dry times were over. However, before everything reverted to how it once was, our oldest son pounded a tall bamboo pole into the peat island.

Seven years later, the bamboo pole remains. It marked the spot during high winds and hurricanes, through other droughts and times of abundant rainfall. These days, about a 5-foot length of the inch-diameter pole rises from the waterline. The cane must have caught the eye of a passing osprey because one day while I was cleaning up after dinner, I noticed the bird sitting upon it.

"There's an osprey on the bamboo pole in the middle of the lake," I yelled to my husband, Ralph, as I ran to get the binoculars.

Apparently, ospreys don't elicit the same degree of passion in all people. My husband reacted to my burst of wildlife-directed enthusiasm with a monosyllabic grunt.

"That's nice, dear," he seemed to say.

Fortunately, I had enough enthusiasm for us both. An osprey had chosen our lake to spend the night! How cool was that?

"Maybe he'll return," I reasoned. "And, if he likes it, maybe he'll stay and build a nest."

I've always hoped someday an osprey would discover our lake and build a nest here. Suddenly it seemed possible --even likely -- that would happen.

It did happen, sort of. Every day since, the osprey arrives at dusk to perch on the tip of the bamboo pole. Each morning at dawn, he flies off to places unknown. I love that an osprey has finally discovered our lake but wonder why he doesn't stay.

"I bet he would build a nest and stay if he had a platform," I mentioned to Ralph one day. "Could you build him a platform?"

Ralph could and he did. A few days later, I rowed my agreeable and capable husband out to the middle of the lake so he could pound a new pole into the peat island. This pole -- the same height and a few feet away from the other -- has a 9-square-foot wooden board mounted on its top. I could hardly wait to see what would happen next.

What happened was nothing. The osprey kept coming back but he has not, as far as I know, shown any interest whatsoever in Ralph's clever construction.

Was the experiment a failure? No. The osprey has yet to discover the platform's merits but another bird has. Each morning, shortly after the osprey leaves, a lesser blue heron flies in and lands on the plywood. Throughout the day, the heron stands there doing whatever lesser blue herons do when they're not out hunting for food.

I wish I could report that the osprey has built a nest and is raising a family in the middle of our lake, but that is not how it turned out -- at least not yet. I'm still hopeful that one day some bird will decide a platform rising five feet above the water is an ideal nesting spot. Until that happens, I'm sharing a lake I love with two large water birds who seem to love it too. That alone is reason to smile.

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