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Against the slate-colored Oregon sky, the bird’s white-and-black markings almost shimmer. Its long, sharply pointed wings are cocked in a dihedral as it hovers over the choppy waters of Young’s Bay. It hangs nearly motionless for a moment before plunging into a steep descent. The bird strikes the water, shudders and emerges with a small cutthroat trout in its talons. It wheels skyward and lands on the branch of a dead Sitka spruce and begins to consume its prey.
I don’t need to consult my Sibley guide. There’s no doubt about the species: it’s that masterful fishing raptor, an osprey. But wait a minute. An element of doubt creeps in. Osprey’s aren’t supposed to be here, near the mouth of the Columbia River, up here on Parallel 46, in far northwestern Oregon. Not this time of year. Not during the third week of February. Yet there she is, casually flaying a trout, less than 100 yards away from me.
Osprey are neotropical migrants. Like many Californians, they summer in the Northwest and head south for sunnier terrain in the early fall. On the west coast, Osprey tend to winter in Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, Colombia and return north in the spring. Birders, an obsessive tribe of which I’ve long been a member, keep close watch on the first arrival dates for migratory birds like osprey. There’s a fancy word for the science of monitoring these migratory timetables called “phenology.”
In Oregon ornithologists have been assiduously recording the first arrival dates of osprey for at least the past 80 years. Up here in Astoria, the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies, those records, though spotty, go back even farther—to the Scottish botanist David Douglas, up and down the Columbia region from 1824 to 27, to the men of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company, founded in 1812, and the Corps of Discovery, also known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, of 1805/6.
Lewis and Clark were meticulous note-keepers and relatively gifted naturalists, especially the moody Meriwether Lewis. It’s worth noting that neither Lewis or Clark, nor the expedition’s other diarist Patrick Gass, recorded seeing an osprey during their stay at Fort Clatsop, the remains of which are just a quarter of a mile from where I spotted my winter Osprey. They left the soggy outpost for their return to St. Louis on March 23, 1806.
And it makes sense that they didn’t see an osprey that cruel winter of unrelenting rain, because over the course of the last 80 years the average first arrival date of Osprey at Young’s Bay is around the first day of April. So this bird was at least 55 days premature. Turns out, she wasn’t alone. Fifty miles south, at Tillamook Bay, an Osprey has been sighted all year long for the past three years. Similar year-round sightings have been made across Oregon: on the Columbia River near Bonneville Dam, at Detroit Lake in the Cascade Range and along the Illinois River in the Siskiyou Mountains. Over the past decade, across the Pacific Northwest, osprey have been arriving on average a couple of days early each year.
And the osprey aren’t alone. Turkey vultures, swallows, warblers and all sorts of wading birds are also showing up, across the northern hemisphere, days, even weeks, ahead of schedule. For example, a recent long-term study by the Royal Society of London revealed that Black-Tailed Godwits are arriving to their nesting grounds in south Iceland more than 22 days earlier than they did in 1988. In all these cases, climate seems to be the driving force behind the early migrations northward.
Of course, it’s been a peculiar winter here in Oregon. On that same week of February came news that Santiam Pass in the central Cascade Range was bare of snow. Santiam Pass sits at 3750 feet and since record-keeping began has averaged about 40 inches of snow on the ground in February and often much more. A hundred and fifty miles to the south, Crater Lake National Park saw its thinnest snow pack in more than a century. Even more disturbing, the snow pack at Crater Laker is 50 percent lower than the lowest ever recorded. It’s going to be a dry and crispy summer here in the Pacific Northwest.
Ecological bills are coming home to roost, though few seem to take notice. Down in Florida, a state in eminent peril from rising sea levels, the state’s billionaire governor Rick Scott issued an executive diktat gagging state employees from mentioning the word’s climate change or global warming. The man who blew the whistle on Scott’s gag order was a long-time ecologist at the state’s Department of Environmental Protection named Bart Bibler. After Bibler breached Scott’s ludicrous injunction at a public meeting on coastal management issues, he was slapped with reprimand, suspended from his job and ordered to submit to a mental health evaluation. Apparently, Rick Scott has read his Stalin. But even Comrade Joe couldn’t stop the seas from rising.
When we returned home to Oregon City from the coast a few days after sighting the Osprey, the forsythias were in bloom, daffodils were poking up and a Rufous Hummingbird was flitting around the backyard, already up from the Yucatan, two months ahead of schedule, in search of a nectar fix. The climate is changing in strange and inscrutable ways and the birds, at least, are racing to keep up.
Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.