Rare birds in the city inspire nature photographer to document their life

A steady stream of afternoon traffic moves along King Highway. In the distance, a train whistle blows and a police siren sounds. This is very much the busy city. Yet, inside the fence of the abandoned Georgia Pacific property, 40 feet off the ground, a family of osprey has made its home.

Nature photographer Matthew Clysdale is capturing them on video in what he expects will be a story of hope -- the return of birds of prey that require a healthy river for their survival.

He’s been documenting the birds, also known as the “fish hawk,” this year and will continue working on the project into 2012 when the birds most likely will return to nest again on one of the disconnected Consumer’s Energy electric poles.

Osprey have nested on the pole two of the past three years. The birds migrate in late summer as far as South America. The males establish nest territories and the females follow them from their wintering grounds to their new homes. They often return to the same spot they established the previous year.

Osprey nested on the Georgia Pacific in Kalamazoo Township site in 2009, but did not return in 2010. This spring, a police officer showed up on Clysdale’s doorstep, but it was no warning. "I came to tell you they’re back," the officer said. The officer is one of the many who regularly stop at the gate to watch the birds. The curious often ask if they are watching eagles. "People haven’t see birds like this outside of a zoo," Clysdale says.

"It’s amazing they (the osprey) came back. There’s a lot of pressure here from people watching. Since they returned I decided to document them."

Earlier this summer, Clysdale got permission from Georgia Pacific to access the property and went on to document the birds as they raised the chicks and as the young birds learned to fly and hunt on their own. But for Clysdale, his documentary is about the entire phenomena of the Osprey nesting there in that particular lot.

“It’s such a fascinating intersection down there with the birds, the river, the road, the on-lookers, the clean-up of the Willow Creek land-fill just across the way, and eventually the new Kalamazoo Valley River Trail going in literally right below the Osprey's nest. For a lot of people, the Osprey are a symbol of hope.”

On a recent afternoon, a young bird ate a meal atop a pole next to the one with the nest. But Clysdale remembers with a chuckle when they didn’t quite get it.

For the photographer, the time spent watching the birds has fired his imagination. He says on his blog: "Watching the juvey osprey test out their wings, actually flapping against the air, or fanning their wings out against a firm breeze, and feeling a brief lift, is a visceral experience. You can feel it." And the trial of the youngsters makes flight somehow more real than the experienced moves of the adults who perform aerial magic, he writes. He even relates to the anxiety of their leaping into the air when up until that point every moment of their life has been anchored to the nest.

Osprey have feet are uniquely adapted to "air fishing." They hover over the water at an altitude of 50 to 200 feet, then dive feet first into the water to catch prey. Each osprey foot has a reversible front toe, as well as barbs, called spicules, that help it hold onto a slippery fish in flight.

Listed as threatened in Michigan, victims of DDT exposure, the birds have made a comeback through efforts of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. In 1998, and in subsequent years, the birds were reintroduced in a number of locations across southern Michigan, including property in Barry County.  

Since then, their numbers have been on the rise.

The documentary on the osprey is one of a number Clysdale has made, but he never set out to be a nature photographer. An art major, rather than a biologist, he had lived for many years in downtown Kalamazoo and had no idea of the kind of  wildlife living within the city limits. When he moved from his urban apartment to one next to Kleinstuck Preserve a whole new world opened.

He now calls that experience the "birth of a naturalist," and it inspired him to create his first film "Animals Among Us," in 2006. He found an incredible diversity of wildlife in the city.

"We have almost everything you would find in the country except bears, wolves and moose," he says. He believes he documented the very first coyote family to move into Kleinstuck Preserve and is considering a documentary on Kalamazoo's first nesting pair of peregrine falcons, who unsuccessfully attempted to nest on the Fifth Third Building earlier this year.  He has been amazed to find the number of large deer roaming the property on which the Business, Technology and Research Park sits.

His nature photography business, Horsepower Pictures, grew out of the work that seemed to find him.

Today he takes both still and videos of animals in the wild. His work is currently for sale at Nature’s Connection on the Kalamazoo Mall. He’s scheduled for an exhibit at the Nature Center next summer. In between nature shoots, he’s produced videos for organizations like Community Mental Health. He recently has been creating portraits of people in which the subject is paired with an animal that represents them, like a totem animal.

"We evolved with wildlife for millennia. We have such a strong relationship," Clysdale says. "The portraits reinforce those connections. Sometimes, we’re not all that different. They remind us of all the basic needs -- food, shelter, sex. Relationships, parents raising their young, everything else is embellishment of basic needs. Animals keep it pretty simple."

He says as a wildlife photographer and even as a videographer he is in a sense harvesting a natural resource.

"The same way people go out and harvest fish, or lumber, or even dig for gold, I go out and harvest images of wildlife and bring them back to market for people to buy,"  Clysdale says. "It's a resource some people can harvest on their own, but most don't have the time or the resources to get the photo themselves. So I go out and use my skills, time and energy to get the shot for them. What I like especially about my job is that it's a renewable resource."

But it goes a little bit deeper than that.

"I believe that people always long for a connection to the profound wilderness experience," Clysdale says. "For me, I get very spiritual about it. When we get back to the wild we are coming home."

Kathy Jennings is Editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave and a freelance writer and editor.

Photos by Erik Holladay

Matthew Clysdale heads for the Kalamazoo River where osprey catch fish. (Photo by Erik Holladay)

A buck in the field. (Photo by Matthew Clysdale)

Matthew Clysdale behind the video camera he uses to document the return of the osprey. (Photo by Erik Holladay)

An adult osprey takes wing. The birds have a wing span of 4.5 to 6 feet and can be 22 to 25 inches long. (Photo by Erik Holladay)

Matthew Clysdale sets up his camera in the Kalamazoo River. Although the river is known to have long been polluted with PCBs the birds have been feeding from it.

A juvenile osprey practices flight, hovering next to the nest. (Photo by Matthew Clysdale)
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