In Print

Saga of a noble bird

By Molly Hitchings - April 27, 2006

"Code Name KC: A True Account of One Osprey" by Linda Zeltzer, photographs by Julian K. Robinson. Tisbury Printer. 2006. $8.95, paperback. 64 pages.

With their five-foot wingspan and disquieting stare, ospreys command our respect. "Code Name KC: A True Account of One Osprey," by Linda Zeltzer, will give readers fresh reasons to admire these majestic birds. A few years ago, Linda Zeltzer didn't know anything about ospreys. But she knew a good story when she heard one. The former Boston College lecturer dates her interest in raptors to January 2003, when she read an article in the Martha's Vineyard Times about a particular bird called KC.

Ms. Zeltzer was no raptor expert, and she had never ventured out of the world of children's fiction. But the elements of KC's story had already taken hold. "There was adventure," she says. "There was suspense. It was not difficult for me to take that foray into nonfiction."

"Code Name KC" presents the real life of an osprey in story form. Clear and never condescending, this slim blue volume is a wonderful tool with which to familiarize young readers with concepts like instinct, pollution and migration. The rhythms of an osprey's life as hunter, traveler, and builder are presented in language that never seems rushed or muddy.

Julian K. Robinson's accompanying images of ospreys give us the closest look we'll ever get without binoculars. "His photographs have brought the book to life," says Ms. Zeltzer.

Mr. Robinson was a college administrator before retiring in 1994. An accomplished photographer whose nature images often appear in The Times, he took his first prize-winning osprey picture near Oak Bluffs harbor in 1997. Soon after that, his large framed photos on view at many Island businesses, Mr. Robinson started covering ospreys for The Times. In the course of his research, he befriended Gus Ben David, then director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown. After that, it was just a matter of being around at the right time.

The best time of all came in 2000, when Felix Neck joined the Highway to the Tropics project, conducted by the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine. The goal was to track the migratory routes of ospreys, from their northeastern breeding grounds to their wintering locations in South America. Birds were banded with tags and harnessed with radio transmitters, at a cost of $10,000 per bird. Then they were set free to go about their business: establishing territory, finding a mate, building a nest, and raising young. When autumn came, the monitor enabled researchers to follow the birds' long journey south. Come springtime, Felix Neck staff and volunteers went around with a crick in their neck from looking skyward, waiting for the return of the ospreys whose routes they'd charted for months. But the journey from Martha's Vineyard to Venezuela is an arduous one. Every year of the project, birds were lost - and their transmitters with them. KC was the bird that kept coming back.

Through Gus Ben David, Julian Robinson had followed KC's final flight north. Cuba. Virginia. Connecticut. The annual Osprey Festival at Felix Neck came and went, but KC didn't arrive in time to greet the crowd. Finally, Mr. Robinson got the phone call. "Julian, KC's in New Haven," Gus Ben David said. "It's just a matter of hours now." The two of them were on hand to document KC's return - and its unexpected conclusion.

For Linda Zeltzer, who wrote her story more or less in real time, the last chapter of KC's story is sad only in human terms. "I didn't know where the story was going to take me," she says. "Before I got to the end, there the end was." It was her job to interpret the natural world for young people without insulting their intelligence - or glossing over nature's truths. "I ended it abruptly because that's what happened," she said. "I cannot as the writer step in and say, 'Isn't that sad?'

"If the children read the story and come to care about KC, the story itself will invoke their emotion. The story has to carry itself."

Molly Hitchings is a freelance writer who lives in West Tisbury.