We’re seeing more and more ospreys take flight
“The habits of this famed bird differ so materially from those of almost all others of its tribe that an accurate description of them cannot fail to be interesting to the student of nature.” John James Audubon
I’ll never forget the first time I saw an osprey. I was probably 14 years old, and a few of my friends and I had paddled canoes and kayaks to a small island in the middle of the Westport River in Massachusetts. Our plan was to camp for the weekend, fish, catch blue crabs and basically live like Huckleberry Finn for a few days. No sooner had we set up camp when an osprey started hovering over us dropping clam shells. We watched in awe as it flew off, picked up another clam shell and continued its bombing run. Clearly, we were too close to its nearby nest and wisely retreated further down the beach from the irritated territorial bird. Since that unforgettable experience I have marveled at the fishing prowess, flying skill and resiliency of the osprey.
The story of ospreys in New England is similar to that of other large raptors that were brought to the brink of extinction due to the use of insecticides such as DDT that had entered the food chain. DDT causes thin eggshells that break during incubation. According to the Connecticut Audubon Society, in the 1940s it was estimated there were 1,000 osprey nests between New York and Boston. However, by the end of the 1960s there were only 150 active nests with only eight confirmed in Connecticut. Since the banning of DDT in the early ’70s ospreys have made a gradual comeback throughout the region, and here in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor we are seeing more and more of them.
I have seen them while paddling our region’s rivers and it is a sight to behold to watch them fishing. From a perch in tree or typically while hovering in mid-air above the water, they’ll spot a fish and dive feet first straight into the water toward the prey. With a huge splash it almost disappears under the water and then with powerful wing strokes rises up from surface with the wriggling fish in its sharp talons. Flying off it positions the fish head forward and belly down for a more aerodynamic flight to hungry nesting chicks.
Ospreys are large birds with a body length of 22 to 25 inches and wingspan of 58 to 72 inches, Adult osprey are dark brown above and white below with a white head and distinctive dark eye stripe. The females are larger and typically have a dark streak, or “speckled necklace,” on the neck. The juvenile osprey has plumage that is more speckled with white above the body. The wing shape of the osprey is very characteristic of a jet with wings bent backward and slightly arched. There are also distinguishing dark patches at the “wrist” of the wing.
JP Babineau is a TLGV Volunteer Ranger, who has volunteered with Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) monitoring bald eagle nests for several years and also leads one TLGV’s midwinter eagle survey teams. Recently she began to monitor osprey nests in the town of Windham as one of many “citizen scientists” assisting both the CT DEEP and Connecticut Audubon Society.
To better understand her observing process and learn more about the history of ospreys in our region, she provided me with the Connecticut Audubon Society Osprey Monitoring Guide, “Protecting Osprey Populations through Volunteer Efforts.”
During the nesting season she checks on two osprey nests in Windham, which are near both the Willimantic and Shetucket rivers. They prefer open sky and one of her nests is at the top of a tall light pole and the other on a cell tower platform. JP visits each nest every few days and records the activity of the breeding pair, when the eggs are laid, when the eggs hatch, how many chicks are in the nest, their growth and eventual fledging in August.
It is the male who builds and repairs the nest and arrives first in March to the nest territory from wintering grounds in Central and South America. The female arrives later. JP confirms it is the female who mostly incubates the eggs with the male providing food. The female also spends most of the time caring for the chicks with the male continuing to provide food. The chicks fledge when they are about 50 to 55 days old and will depend on their parents for food for another two months. Last year she observed the adults enticing the two chicks to leave the nest by bringing fish to a nearby tree instead of home delivery to the nest.
JP is one of more than 300 volunteers helping to monitor osprey nests. Their reports are very encouraging and document an increasingly healthy osprey population. Each year over the four-year period from 2015 to 2018, nest monitors reported an increase in fledglings of more than 100 with 356 reported in 2015 to 725 in 2018. We have come a long way from only eight nests reported in the 1960s to 416 active nests in 2018. That number has increased during the past two years.
It is also heartening to see osprey moving inland from their typical coastal nesting territories to take advantage of the clean waters of our rivers and lakes with an obvious abundant supply of fish. Fifty years since the banning of DDT we have seen the results and along with other raptors, such as the bald eagle, we can claim success in protecting these important species of birds.
Here is a link to the information from the Connecticut Audubon Society Osprey Monitoring Guide.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I hope you’ll join me, and folks like JP, as we monitor important animal species populations in our region. Together we’ll enjoy them, care for them and pass them on.
Information about Ospreys was gleaned from the National Geographic Field Guide to North American Birds and from the Audubon Society Osprey Nation Stewards Guide.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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