A Shaggy Dog Tale Of The Osprey And The Wolf

Travels With Lobo

The osprey has a 12-minute catch rate which any angler would envy.

The osprey has a 12-minute catch rate which any angler would envy.

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The shrill whistle cut through soft lapping of Woods Canyon Lake on the forested shore. I looked up, as I stepped over a gnarly ponderosa pine root.

This was a mistake.

Lobo came barreling down the trail from behind me, eyes fixed on the osprey that swept into view over my shoulder, following the shoreline.

Now, on his most considerate day — Lobo likes to cut it close when he’s passing in the fast lane. But when that boy’s chasing birds, he’s got the trail etiquette of a grizzly bear in heat.

So he took to the air to pass, sideswiped my leg in mid-stretched-step and bounded on down the thread of a shoreline trail after the osprey.

I spun, hopped, caught the root with my toe and pitched forward into a mercifully soft patch of mud at the shore’s edge. My fishing pole went flying into the lake.

Lobo would have normally been amused by my performance as well as by the satisfying, squishy, splishy sound I made when I landed in the itty bitty bog.

But he was already way on down the shore chasing that osprey like his furry life depended on it.

Of course, the osprey paid him no mind at all — since he’s like 30 yards offshore, scanning the shallows for trout.

“Dumb dog,” I hollered. “As if you’re ever gonna catch him.”

Lobo’s got a thing about chasing birds. I figure it’s the wolf in him, not buried very deep behind his friendly, quizzical gold-brown eyes. Wolves have a complicated relationship with birds of prey and scavengers — especially ravens, which will lead a wolf back to a deer herd in hopes of dining on the scraps. When the federal government returned wolves to Yellowstone, it proved a boon for ravens, hawks, bald eagles and a host of other species — who got fat on the wolves’ leftovers.

The osprey suddenly went into a stoop, then plunged into the lake. Master fishermen with no need for the supplemental carrion that sustains the lordly bald eagle, it takes an osprey an average of 12 minutes to snag a fish in the right lake or stream, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. But they can only go about three feet deep, so must hunt in shallow waters. Astonishing fliers, one radio-tagged osprey once flew 2,700 miles from Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts to French Guiana in South America in 13 days — which gives you some idea of how much chance Lobo had of running that bird down.

But Lobo’s thudding heart rose in his shaggy throat. He plunged without hesitation into the lake.

I groaned. Gonna sleep with that wet dog smell tonight.

The osprey rose without difficulty, clutching a squirming fish in his talons. The osprey’s one of the few hawks with a reversible outer toe, so they can grip a fish with two toes in front and two in back. They’ve also got barbs on the inside of their feet to keep a good grip on the slippery fish. Studies show that they make their catch 25 to 70 percent of the time, which accounts for their irritating 12-minute catch rate. I’ve got $500 worth of fishing gear and have me a catch rate closer to one every two hours.

We homo sapiens darn nearly did in the osprey with the pesticide DDT, which caused the same eggshell thinning in osprey as in bald eagles, the also fish-crazy national bird.

I’d no sooner had that thought than the resident Woods Canyon Lake bald eagle appeared, screeching at the osprey in irritation. I counted this as downright ungracious considering the nesting pair of bald eagles flat out stole an osprey nest to set up housekeeping a few years back.

Osprey build giants nests of sticks in treetops mostly, favoring big, dead snags with branches that can support the hawk’s ambitious nests.

Women ought to love ospreys. Turns out that the osprey husbands labor ceaselessly to bring to their one true love an endless supply of sticks to build a nest. Sometimes, these devoted paragons of house husbandry will snap off dead branches, looking for something that will please the wifey — with whom they generally mate for life. The wife waits for the next nest tidbit. Our feathered paragon of male virtue just keeps bringing sticks, hoping to buy her off. She fusses and nudges the offering into place. Osprey will occupy a good nest for generations, building a structure that weighs tons and can grow large enough for a human to sit in comfortably.

Assuming, of course, some showboat bald eagle don’t come and swipe it.

Now, to add insult to injury, the bald eagle starts chasing the fish-laden osprey across the lake, hoping the harried bird will drop the fish and the eagle can pick up a free lunch.

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The osprey has a reversible outer toe and can grip a fish with two toes in front and two toes in back.

Of course, now Lobo’s in hawk heaven. He’s got an osprey and a bald eagle in sight and it’s blowing his little wolfish mind. He dog-paddles back to shore, glances at me sitting like a mud turtle on a log. He shrugs and treats himself a good shake. Must have been hard for him to waste a perfectly good shake when I didn’t have my camera out.

Then he goes bounding on down the shoreline, watching those birds like a Yankees fan — without the faintest hope of catching them. This is one of the many things I admire in the lad: Darn near impossible to discourage that boy.

I supposed I shouldn’t be so hard on him — what with the whole thing about the mammoths and all.

Read it on the Science Daily website, summarizing findings by researchers from Penn State published in Quarternary International.

The archeologists were trying to come up with a way to explain a longstanding mystery — sites in Central Asia and Europe with great piles of mammoth bones. The sites range in age from 45,000 to 15,000 years ago, after which the poor mammoths more or less went extinct. Apparently after a million years of modest success, humans suddenly got very good at killing mammoths.

Then the researchers noticed that at about the same time, dog bones showed up in human settlements. Humans probably semi-domesticated wolves first, but along about 35,000 years ago, dogs emerged on their own line from an ancestor they share with modern wolves, according to genetic studies.

A study of these sites showed that these ancient mammoth hunters probably worked closely with dogs — and the dogs became increasingly dependent on the food they got from humans. In return, the dogs likely tracked the mammoths then held them at bay until the human hunters could catch up. This probably contributed dramatically to human hunting success — and very likely the extinction of the mammoths.

So I guess I shouldn’t give Lobo too much trouble about knocking me head first into a puddle now and then. So I just waded into the lake, retrieved my fishing pole and spent an hour entertaining the trout — and watching the show-off osprey catch his limit.

Lobo came over and plopped himself down, grinning wolfishly. I know that’s just the shape of his mouth, with his big, old, throw-rug tongue. But I couldn’t help but feel like he was amused by my damp muddiness — that wet fisherman smell.

It all worked out, though, as I sat down to write this column.

I went to the Cornell Ornithology Lab website and played the little recording of the osprey calls. Lobo appeared immediately in the doorway — staring at me and my laptop with the most befuddled expression I have ever seen on his whiskered visage. His deep brown eyes got enormous. He cocked his head, this way, then that way.

“Oh,” I smirked. “So where’s that osprey now?” I felt all homo sapiens smug. Dogs. Poor saps.

I hit the replay button,

Lobo’s eyebrows just about shot off his hairy head.

Then he figured it out. He whirled, ran full tilt down the hallway for the dog door — determined to chase that osprey in the back yard.

I heard something crash in the kitchen as he hurled himself at the dog door. I sighed. I looked out the window. He was barking, running back and forth in the back yard — perfectly happy — chasing ravens. Key to happiness, I guess: Doing what you love without holding back.

I sighed, sat back down and played the call of the osprey a couple more times.

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