Day Study – Osprey Nation provides a window into bird life and overall ecosystem health
Citizen scientist Kate Webb uses her bird’s-eye view of the osprey nest outside her window to help identify raptor population trends that serve as indicators of the overall health of the state’s coastline and river valleys.
Webb, who lives in Deep River, is part of a project launched by the Connecticut Audubon Society to monitor the state’s osprey population, which is on the rise again after being pushed to the brink of extinction there has half a century by the pesticide DDT.
Kate Scimeca, a researcher at state-owned Audubon and author of this year’s Osprey Nation report, said the population of this distinctive bird of prey was growing “very, very rapidly.”
The volunteer stewards – there were 342 this year – observe the nests every week or so from March to October to record the annual stages of the birds’ life, from mating to rearing the young to leaving the nest.
Webb said she moved with her husband to Connecticut from New York City last year during the height of the COVID pandemic. That’s when they looked to find three ospreys as if they were the stars of an avian soap opera.
âWe couldn’t be ripped from our window,â she said.
It wasn’t until she signed with Osprey Nation after a visit to a local bird shop that she learned the backstory of the drama. It turns out that an arrogant male osprey wasted no time moving in with the resident female when his partner was arrested on his annual flight between South America and the Connecticut coastline.
âIt totally got me involved,â Webb said of the love triangle. Spoiler alert: Order was restored when the intruder let the couple live in peaceful monogamy.
Connecticut Audubon Society director of communications Tom Anderson said the Osprey Nation project began in 2014 in conjunction with the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to track the location and the productivity of osprey nests in the state. He said environmental officials knew the number of nests was increasing “but no one had any idea how big or where they were.”
The osprey population in the state before a DDT ban in 1972 had declined to about a dozen. It slowly increased over time to numbers that Anderson described as “established and healthy.”
He said the adaptable birds have started building their nests on man-made structures, such as parking lot light poles and police station communication towers, instead of being limited to natural sites like dead trees. , snags and cliffs.
Data from the 2021 annual report released on Tuesday shows that the number of fledglings, i.e. young ospreys leaving the nest, has increased from 356 in 2015 to 858 this year. While part of this has to do with the fact that there are more volunteers to keep track of the data, there is also some evidence that there are more ospreys being born year after year.
Scimeca said an increase in the number of young ospreys can be seen by comparing the 2019 data with this year’s numbers. There were the same number of volunteers in both years, but the number of fledglings increased by 208.
Last year was an anomaly as the pandemic led to a drop in the number of volunteers.
A decline in the health of the osprey population could mean something is wrong with the ecosystem.
“If we notice that the number of ospreys is decreasing or the number of young birds per nest is decreasing, that would be an indication that there is something wrong somewhere,” Scimeca said, “and that would give environmentalists and biologists some idea that it’s time to start looking for what the problem is. “
This is what happened over 50 years ago, when DDT was sprayed in salt marshes and other places to kill mosquitoes, according to state organization Audubon. It has found its way into bodies of water and has accumulated in the fat of the fish that make up the entire osprey diet.
Anderson said the chemical prevented the osprey from producing eggs with enough calcium. âSo they would sit on the eggs and they would break,â he said.
Old Lyme Osprey Paradise
The largest concentration of osprey nests in the state is at the mouth of the Connecticut River on Great Island in Old Lyme, Anderson said. Appraiser records show that the island is divided into several parcels owned by the state or the nonprofit Nature Conservancy.
The 500-acre swamp is accessible by boat and can be enjoyed by bird watchers with goggles from the state boat launch on Town Landing Road. An interactive map of the Osprey Nation shows approximately 30 osprey nests located across the wetland.
Anderson attributed the size of the swamp and its relative isolation to the fact that it was suitable for osprey. That, and its location in the Lower Connecticut River Valley which has been recognized in superlative terms by those concerned with environmental protection at the local, state, national and international levels.
âThe entire lower Connecticut River is of globally significant ecological quality,â Anderson said. âItâs vast and although itâs not pristine itâs still in great condition. There is clean, good quality water, good habitats along the banks of the river. is the kind of place where not only the osprey, but all the wildlife could thrive. “
Amanda Baker of Old Lyme is one of the Osprey Stewards who keep an eye on Great Island. This is his third season after at least four nests.
She said the season begins around April when Connecticut ospreys arrive from the Caribbean and South America. Typically it goes like this: the male arrives first, the female reaching the nest shortly after. âThey get their nest back if they are a return pair, which is very much the case,â she said.
The eggs usually hatch in late April or early May, according to the Audubon Company. The male hunts while the female stays in the nest to care for the young until they grow large enough to maintain their own body heat.
Baker said she was watching from the state boat launch with a pair of powerful binoculars to find the pairs in each nest. She may not be able to see all the way, but she has learned that a predominantly crouching position indicates that the female is nesting. Once the female begins to move around and the father begins to deliver more fish, it is her sign that the eggs have hatched.
âSoon little heads start to appear,â she said.
At the exit of the nest
The period between hatching and leaving the nest is 60 days for the young osprey, reports the Audubon Society.
Baker’s most exciting sightings have been when parents bring back a fish so their screaming, rambunctious teens can tear it up.
âIt’s gratifying to see these couples coming back year after year and raising their young successfully, and it’s nice to see the people coming back,â she said.
In Deep River, Webb noted that parents left for South America before their young. She described it as painful to see young people trying to figure out how to live on their own.
âTheir parents are leaving them behind,â she said, before softening her tone in defense of the couple. “Well, they’ve been feeding them all this time, they’ve prepared them, and the chicks have to start feeding themselves.”
She said she saw the young people stuck in the trees making horrible noises and wondered if they would make it.
Webb credited his osprey family for helping them through the isolation of the pandemic this first year and described mixed feelings when the little ones took off in late summer.
The young will spend their first two to three years abroad before returning to northern Connecticut to breed, according to the Audubon Society.
On the one hand, Webb said it was almost a relief when the young proved competent enough to leave the nest for good.
“But, it’s also sad. Like right now, it’s just nothing,” she said, the view out the window turning dark as the shelter made of sticks awaits the couple’s return. “Nothing until next spring, then the whole cycle starts all over again.”