2017-05-11 / Nature

The Remarkable Resurgence of the Osprey

By Charles Avenengo

A 20-foot tall platform on a peat island attracted this nesting pair of osprey. 
(Photo by Jack Kelly) A 20-foot tall platform on a peat island attracted this nesting pair of osprey. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Rhode Islanders love their ospreys.

We have the Osprey Rowing Club, Osprey Builders, Osprey Seafoods, Osprey Sea Kayak Adventures and Osprey Fishing Charters. We wear Osprey backpacks, sail Osprey yachts, christen yachts named “Osprey” and watch Osprey M-22 military planes at the annual airshow.

Middletown has an Osprey Court. The recently formed Ocean State Bird Club feature an osprey as its logo, and more than 2,000 of us drive around with specially design charity license plates championing “Conservation Through Education” that features an osprey as the design.

And there’s more. A nest in Jamestown has an “Osprey Cam.” Local scientists radio-collar the birds and we follow their progress during the winter as they work their way as far south as the Amazon. Even Salve Regina’s athletic mascot is the Seahawk, which is another name for an osprey.

It’s hard not to admire these magnificent fish-eating hawks. They are found on every continent except Antarctica. With a wingspan up to six feet, they have chilling yellow eyes that glare intensely at you, and to watch them plunge into the water, with talons outstretched to snare a fish is a sight not soon forgotten.

Having returned from their southern winter sojourn, they can be seen throughout the island, frequently with fish dangling from their talons.

They once were an even more familiar sight in Narragansett Bay. According to the "Birds of Rhode Island," published in 1899, ospreys were so common that they were reported to have creatively nested on a flat steeple of a meeting house in Portsmouth, and also on a house chimney in Bristol. Stretching out from state borders in either direction in the 1940s, breeding surveys tallied 1,000 osprey nests between Boston and New York.

But that changed. In the 1950s, osprey populations, along with other apex predator birds of prey like bald eagles and peregrine falcons, began to plummet. It was so bad that by the beginning of the 1970s there were only 150 osprey nests between New York and Boston. By 1977, only eight nests were counted in Rhode Island.

During this time, local birdwatcher Bob Weaver says he never saw an osprey on Aquidneck Island.

The culprit was pesticides, specifically DDT. Applied to farmlands, the poisons leached off the fields and into the waterways. Small fish fed on the toxic detritus, while larger fish fed on the smaller fish. With each trophic level, DDT levels accumulated. By the time the osprey ingested the fish, the toxins affected their calcium metabolism and females produced eggs that were either infertile or had thinner shells that were crushed by the brooding parents. Hence, diminishing numbers of ospreys hatched, nest failure and disappearance.

The tide changed in 1972 when the Federal Government banned DDT. Four years later, the osprey was listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With that, enhanced nest monitoring was mandated.

“The majority of the eight osprey nests in the 1977 census were in the Great Swamp vicinity, because they couldn’t spray there,” said Jon Scoones of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, which oversees the Audubon’s Osprey Monitoring program, a small legion of about 100 citizen and scientist volunteers who observe osprey nests in the state.

With the assistance of nest monitoring, ospreys began to bounce back. The recovery was slow but steady as nesting data revealed a small increase of annual active nests. In addition to the DDT ban and the federal protection, environmentalists began erecting osprey nesting platforms throughout the state in an attempt to attract the growing population. It worked.

By 1998, there were more than 50 successful nests with more than 100 fledglings reared in Rhode Island. That number grew to 300 by 2016.

In Newport, the breakthrough came in 2001 with the building of an estate on Ocean Drive. Appropriately named “Osprey House,” an osprey platform was erected on the sweeping front lawn that faced west onto Gooseberry Beach. Enterprising osprey soon found the platform and successfully nested for the first time in Newport in more than 50 years. Unfortunately, the platform didn’t last. A storm destroyed it after a couple of seasons of nesting.

But the ospreys were soon back to their old creative nesting tricks. This time, they got in a little trouble when they established a nest on a cell tower overlooking Toppa Field. Newporter Mark Anderson, who has been monitoring the nest for the Audubon Society for seven years, said that the cell tower company was forced to evict the osprey two summers ago in order to make improvements to the tower. Undaunted by the expulsion, the osprey has returned, and currently the female is “hunkered down” with nesting duties while watching the softball games below.

As new generations of ospreys expanded their range, even more platforms were erected. In 2010, the Audubon Society erected one in the Gooseneck Cove marshes on Hazard Road. Last year, after many years of anticipation, a pair of osprey magically appeared and occupied the nest. They successfully fledged young, and Anderson reports that they are back this year.

In addition to the two current active nests in Newport, Scoones said Middletown has one nest, Portsmouth has eight, and the ever-resourceful ospreys have creatively nested on Mussel Bed Shoal Lighthouse only 300 yards offshore from Portsmouth and the Mount Hope Bridge.

So, it’s been a roller-coaster ride. But much to the delight of many in the Ocean State, the ospreys are back, hopefully this time to stay.

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife about for more than 40 years.

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