Washashore – Ospreys in Martha’s Vineyard

As part of World Osprey Week we’re pleased to have been sent a guest blog from American children’s author Suzanne Goldsmith. Suzanne was inspired to write a book about ospreys after seeing them at Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. She takes up the story…

When I set out to write WASHASHORE, my first novel for kids, I put the ospreys right at the center of my story. I had seen their tall nesting platforms all over the island of Martha’s Vineyard, a beautiful spot off the coast of Massachusetts where I go in the summers to be near the ocean, and I knew that the ospreys had once been endangered in North America. Their survival story is why I chose to build a book around them.

The beach at Marth's Vineyard

The beach at Marth’s Vineyard

But as I researched and wrote, I discovered so many other reasons to be drawn to these majestic birds. Their epic annual migration journey; their incredible skill at fishing; their loyalty to mate and nest. As my story developed, I watched my characters discover their own concerns reflected in the lives and habits of the ospreys; my fictional people, I found, were taking comfort, gaining perspective and learning lessons about their own lives through watching and trying to protect these incredible birds.

I imagine that many of you participating in World Osprey Week are having similar experiences; it’s hard not to, when you are watching ospreys.

I set my story in 1976, just a few years after the U.S. banned DDT, the toxic pesticide that was threatening our ospreys along with many other raptors. Used for mosquito control, DDT grew quite concentrated in the flesh of insect-eating fish—and since fish are all the ospreys eat, the birds were extremely vulnerable to this poison. It destroyed their ability to reproduce. By the time we humans got our act together and banned the pesticide in the U.S., the ospreys of North America were an endangered species.

On Martha’s Vineyard, where they had once been abundant, there were only two nesting pairs left at that time. What’s more, development in this popular vacation spot had caused the removal of many natural nesting spots, such as tall, dead pines. Instead, the birds sometimes built nests in dangerous spots, such as the tops of electrical poles.

WASHASHORE, my fictional story, begins when 14-year-old Clem Harper, who has come to the island with her mother for a year while her father works a temporary job in another state, finds a dead osprey on the beach. The bird has ID tags on its legs. Perhaps it drowned while trying to bring in a too-big fish.

Clem is drawn to the beautiful bird and the tragedy of its loss. She takes the bands (or rings, as many of you call them).

The bands lead Clem to Bo, a naturalist who is helping the birds repopulate by building safe nesting platforms, and to Daniel, the boy who tagged the bird she found and named him Quitsa. Clem joins Daniel and Bo as they check and repair nest poles and raise a new one, and she learns learns about the birds.

The character of Bo is based on a real-life naturalist, Gus Ben David. The Martha’s Vineyard newspaper once called him “osprey daddy” because of the more than 130 nesting poles he has raised on the Vineyard and his dedication to rescuing, rehabilitating and nurturing ospreys for over four decades. You can read a newspaper article about how he rescued a family of osprey chicks in 2011 here.

In my fictional story, Clem and Daniel wait through the winter for the return of the migrant ospreys. They are desperately hoping that Noepe, the mate of the fallen osprey, Quitsa, will return, take a new mate, and begin a new family. When a builder announces plans to put a house right beneath Noepe’s nest, with loud, disruptive construction planned for the summer breeding months, Clem and Daniel try to thwart the developer’s plans.

But each also has a personal reason to care deeply about the survival and rebirth of this family of ospreys. Daniel is an orphan whose parents were lost in a long-ago fishing accident. Clem suspects that her father’s absence, supposedly for a year, might be the beginning of a longer separation—and a change in her family. She is waiting for her father to return, just as she is waiting for the ospreys to come back.

When you get on the ferry from Woods Hole to Martha's Vineyard, one of the first things you see is an osprey nest on top of a navigational tower.

When you get on the ferry from Woods Hole to Martha’s Vineyard, one of the first things you see is an osprey nest on top of a navigational tower.

Rob Bierregaard holding Tucker, a Martha's Vineyard osprey

Rob Bierregaard holding Tucker, a Martha’s Vineyard osprey

What’s more, Clem is a “washashore.” At least, that’s what the kids at her new school are calling her. On Martha’s Vineyard, that means she comes from somewhere else. She’s an outsider. And she feels that status keenly. Which could be part of why she relates so strongly to the ospreys, birds with two homes, who are always either departing or returning.

Do you feel a kinship with the ospreys? Maybe you have a yen to travel and see the world as they do. Or perhaps you admire their ability to zero in on  a fish beneath the waves and dive straight for it, with brilliant success. Or maybe you’ve watched a nestcam and are amazed at their faithful devotion to incubating their eggs. Or maybe, like Clem, you feel like a newcomer, looking for a way to belong.

To find out what happens to Clem, Daniel, Bo and Noepe, you’ll have to read the book. But I will tell you that there has been a happy ending for the Martha’s Vineyard ospreys. Rob Bierregaard, a Research Associate of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, has been working with Gus and studying the Martha’s Vineyard ospreys since 1969. There are now over 60 successful osprey nests on Martha’s Vineyard, with over 100 chicks fledged each year. Rob tracks a few of them with satellite transmitters. In fact, one of his Martha’s Vineyard birds, Belle, is a WOW osprey!

At the time I am writing, just before WOW, Belle and the other tagged ospreys are on their way back to the island from their winter homes in Venezuela and Brazil. You can check out Belle’s current location on the interactive WOW map. Thanks for letting me contribute to the WOW blog. I’ll be watching the website all week for news of your activities! And if any WOW students choose to read WASHASHORE as part of their studies, please get in touch through my website and let me know how it goes.

Suzanne Goldsmith is a writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio, where ospreys also nest. Her novel, WASHASHORE, for readers aged 10-14, is the winner of the 2014 Green Earth Book Award for a young adult novel that promotes environmental stewardship. You can see the book trailer here. It is available through online retailers in both print and e-book editions, and free classroom discussion guides are available at the publisher’s website.  You can watch the book trailer here, and learn more at suzanne-goldsmith.com.

Washashore book jacket