Home, Home on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 34
August 23-29, 2001
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Where Thousands of Osprey Again Play
by Martha Blume

You’ll find osprey nests on channel markers, utility poles, billboards and radio towers. Stand still long enough, and you may become an osprey nest.

Wherever I go, there are osprey. This simple statement is remarkable for two reasons. First, this is my second summer near Chesapeake Bay, but I hardly noticed them before I started actively looking. Second, before the ban of DDT in 1972, osprey had all but disappeared from the shores of the Bay. Now about 3,000 osprey pairs nest along Maryland and Virginia shores, making this region one of the world’s largest in osprey concentration.

Why they nearly disappeared and how they made their comeback make for a nature story with a happy ending. How I came to be aware of them and cannot now shake them from my awareness is a story richly woven with human and animal nature. It’s a story first told by David Gessner in his recently published Return of the Osprey, about the osprey’s re-establishment near his home on Cape Cod. Reading Gessner’s book, I learned a lot about the lives of osprey, and even more about life itself. And in my own osprey research I discovered some beautiful Bay places and remarkable people who make their home and living on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.

Of course, I fell in love with osprey, too.

Osprey Time
My story began in May, when an e-mail appeared on my computer screen, an assignment from my editor to discover osprey on Chesapeake Bay. I come to this assignment as a trained scientist, a birdwatcher, a nature lover, a person comfortable out of doors. This will be like playing, I think.

I pack up sunscreen, binoculars, my baseball cap and a notepad and go in search of an active osprey nest. It doesn’t take long to find one. Before I even hit water, half a mile from my house, there’s an osprey nest on one of the stadium lights at Anne Arundel Community College. Leaping from the car, I take binoculars, pad and pen to record my exciting discoveries. I watch. And watch. I see a pair of osprey sitting on a nest. They sit. And sit. And sit. For half an hour they sit.

Now I am reminded of why I didn’t become a research scientist. My thoughts turn to observing plankton under a laboratory microscope in my office as a graduate student at the University of Maine. Sometimes watching nature is incredibly uneventful. At least when measured according to human standards of activity. In Return of the Osprey, Gessner describes the same struggle, of coming to terms with the discipline of staying still. He calls it living on “osprey time.”

I like this notion and vow to try it, but summer time invades my osprey time, and swimming, camping, entertaining and the like get in my way. So I decide to leave the detailed osprey observations to Gessner and the ranks of ospreyologists before him - Alan Poole, Pete Dunne, John Hay, to name a few - instead using this opportunity to explore the Chesapeake, going searching for active nests up and down the Bay. Activity suits my personality better than waiting and watching. I will remain loyal to my home team of osprey, those at Anne Arundel Community College, and check in on them on a regular basis.

I am rewarded a few days later when I see one, then two, then three heads peek over the edge of the home-team nest. Three is the average clutch size. In mid-June, the young have the disheveled look of newly hatched birds and are smaller than mom and dad.

Calling on Osprey
The osprey adults arrived in March, from wintering grounds in South America. Nests are so sturdily made that osprey couples return to the same one every season. At Anne Arundel Community College, assistant facilities director Louis Miragla tells me the stadium lights were installed in 1982, and osprey have been nesting there ever since.

The birds use anything that makes their nest strong and big enough; osprey have a 54-inch wingspan. Gessner reports that he’s seen everything from green plastic garbage bags and Easter-basket grass to a half-naked Barbie in osprey nesting materials. That’s enough to please any yard sale enthusiast. I’m not so lucky. The nest at the Community College is made mostly of sticks about the width of my finger. But I also see some orange plastic line, some mesh and an old rag.

On a sunny day in late June, I head out across the Bay Bridge to find more nests. I see one on a pier south of the Bridge, but it is on private land so I cannot reach it. I seek and find Matapeake Pier in Stevensville. There, on a cell phone tower, I find a second-floor osprey apartment. A mom and chick sit on a nest behind a receiver, just one story above the picnickers, boaters and fishermen. As osprey real estate goes, this must be an upper-class neighborhood.

I drive farther east to Horsehead Wetlands Center in Grasonville. Overhead, an osprey soars, then lands on a pine tree as I drive down the dirt path to the visitor center. There, a staffer tells me of an osprey nest on Knapp Lake.

The day is growing hotter and hotter and the deer flies are thick as I make my way to the duck blind on the lake. Inside, it feels like a sauna, and I regret that I am not on a weight-loss program. But here I get a good look at a nest at eye level, so I stay and watch awhile. I can see one small head under mom’s wing on the nest. There is no sign of dad. I feel fairly sure in my identification of the sexes because the division of labor is traditional. Osprey mate for life. The lady rules the roost. Pity the less-than-eager male if he isn’t gathering sticks fast enough to satisfy his mate’s nesting frenzy. And he’d better bring home lots of fish once she is sitting on the eggs and when the little ones arrive. If he doesn’t, he’ll get an earful.

Suddenly mom stands and flaps. I see dad fly in, and he takes her place on the nest. She soon returns and does some housekeeping, moving a few twigs around. Now I think I see two small heads, but the mass of feathers and sticks on the nest, and the sweat running down my face and binoculars, make it difficult to know for sure. Mom gives dad a lecture and he is off again. Now I’m sure I see two small heads.

The ospreys’ facial features are distinct among raptors. Their heads and chests are white, save for black eye stripes and sideburns. The back of the mature bird is black. That of immatures is a speckled brown. The young on Knapp Lake try to climb under mom. If they were mammals, I would think they are trying to nurse, but I learn in my reading that they are probably seeking shade under her wings.

Every few minutes, dad flies over and mom gets excited, standing and calling her shrill chewk, chewk, chewk, but he doesn’t land. Is he fishing or just having fun? I hope to see a feeding here, but the heat gets to be too much for me and I must move on.

Next I’m on my way to Wye Island Natural Resource Management Area in Queenstown. Before I get to the refuge, I see one, two, three osprey nests on platforms right next to the road. I park next to one and get out to try to get a picture, but mom clearly doesn’t like my being there. She shifts in the nest and makes lots of noise. Now I am exposed to the “frenzied cheereek!” described in my Peterson Field Guide. I see two large young on the nest with mom; dad is perched on a neighboring power line. It is now the end of June, and the young are almost as large as the adults, but they still have their mottled brown backs.

A small black bird shares the nest with the osprey. I have seen this at several other nests and find it remarkable that these powerful birds of prey would allow the squatter songbirds. But the osprey don’t seem to mind their neighbors in the least. The fact that the osprey’ diet consists entirely of fish makes the blackbirds safe from fear of predation.

When mom gives me the eagle eye, I retreat to my car; I watch her watching me as I drive by the nest. Raptors can see both farther and more clearly than we can; better, in fact, than any other living thing. Their eyes are equipped with more sensory cells and are shaped to magnify images. They can identify prey with great precision.

Gessner writes: “There are moments when the female will turn her yellow irises right on me, with vision nearly as strong as my scope, and stare until I grow uneasy … I wouldn’t want to go eye-to-eye with the bird. They bring us directly into our past, when we weren’t so firmly ensconced on top of the food chain. They present an aesthetic of savagery, leaving little doubt about what they would do to us if we were small enough and swimming.” Watching this female watch me, I know just what he means. And I get an imperfect glimpse at what it might feel like to be prey.

Heading west again on Route 50, I am trying hard to focus on the highway and stop looking for osprey nests, when I spot one on top of the sign for exit 43A. It unnerves me to see something so wild in such an unlikely place, a place that for me stands for human intrusion. But the osprey is nothing if not adaptable.

Take a drive, walk or sail along the Bay and look up and out. You’ll find osprey nests on channel markers, utility poles, billboards, duck blinds, trees, buoys, dead trees and radio towers. Stand still long enough, and you may become an osprey nest yourself. Their ability to live in the midst of boaters, fishermen, football players and cheering fans (there are nests at both our local high school stadiums) and highway commuters contributes to their recent comeback. Good for them. Anyway, I’m relieved that just down the road at mile 41, I see a nest on a platform in the water where, in my mind, an osprey nest should be.

Out of a Dive
We are on the Severn River, and there is an osprey overhead. There seem always to be osprey overhead these days; they are like old friends now to cheer me when the woes of current environmental issues threaten to drag me down. They give us good reason to be hopeful. They can recover from even the omnipotent DDT.

Following World War II, DDT seeped into Chesapeake Bay. The powerful chemical - dicloro-siphenyl-trichloroethane - had been put into widespread use to help Americans fight the war. Then it was deployed around the world in an ambitious, but finally unsuccessful, campaign to stop malaria. Soon, the chemical turned to farm work. Never had a pest killer worked so well.

Far too well, environmental defenders soon found. The chemical’s toxic consequences were popularly and powerfully chronicled by Marylander Rachel Carson in her book, Silent Spring.

DDT is problematic for two reasons: One, it is a stable compound, meaning that it doesn’t break down easily; two, it bioaccumulates. So, filter feeders - like plankton and juvenile forms of fish and shellfish - take it in from the water. Little fish eat lots of filter feeders, bigger fish eat lots of little fish and osprey eat lots of bigger fish. DDT, stored in the fatty tissues of the birds, reduces the female’s ability to produce calcium. She lays eggs with thinner shells, which crack when she tries to incubate them.

By the 1970s, osprey had nearly disappeared from the Bay. The same phenomenon was occurring across North America and Europe as well, with both osprey and peregrine falcons. At that time, other threats included hunting, which was then legal, and egg collecting. In Scotland, egg collecting was so popular a sport it all but wiped out osprey there by the early 20th century.

On the Severn, I pause to watch this osprey fly. Osprey have a characteristic bent-elbow wingspread, all white underneath save for black wrist patches, tail band and wing tips. Their bent elbows make them easy to distinguish from the similar-colored bald eagle, which soars with straight wings. Their flapping is less frequent and more laborious than gulls, which also soar with bent wings.

Osprey weigh only four pounds. Their bones must be light enough to accommodate flight but rigid and strong enough to absorb the impact of hitting the water at high speeds. I’m hoping to see a dive, but this osprey seems less than intent on fishing tonight, and his dives lack follow-through.

Osprey were born to fish. In their own family, Pandionidae, a cousin to the falcons, they are the only hawks with an outer reversible toe, enabling them to grasp their prey with two toes in front and two in back. With the precision of an army sharpshooter, at 70 feet above sea level the male identifies his prey, hovers, then dives at speeds up to 40 miles an hour. Approaching the water feet first, he grasps the fish - perhaps a half-pound menhaden - with his vise-like talons and flies off with his catch. He’ll eat the head and eyes first, before bringing the rest of the fish to mom in the nest, where she’ll use her strong neck and sharp bill to tear it apart to feed herself and her young.

Gessner comically describes his attempts to be like an osprey and tear apart a raw fish, first with his hands, then with a pliers, and finally, successfully, with hedge clippers. It’s no easy job.

Neither was bringing back the osprey. Thanks to Carson, my heroine, DDT and its organochloride cousins are now illegal for use in North America and Europe. And osprey are now protected by federal law.

Osprey still face dangers locally, in reduction of nesting sites, the threat of new pesticides and reduced fish supplies. In Central and South America, where our osprey go in the winter, threats from hunting and pesticides still exist. Still, their recovery here, in unforeseen numbers, gives us reason to believe that we can rectify at least some environmental disasters by paying attention and putting our knowledge and energy to positive use. Farther on down the Bay, I meet some other people who feel the same way.

Discovery Village
In my car again, I’m driving down the Western Shore, headed for Discovery Village in Shady Side. The site once housed Johns Hopkins’ Chesapeake Bay Institute. Inside, Elaine Reagan and Adam Hewison escort me into a conference room where they’re eager to show me their vision for this site on Parish Creek.

Outside, through a huge picture window, I see an osprey nest on channel marker 5. I see the same nest on the giant computer screen in the conference room via the OspreyCam. Outdoors or in, so can you, if you go to visit.

Hewison, a Shady Sider, is partner in West River Properties, which purchased the site from Johns Hopkins in 1999. His plan for the next three years includes a learning center with science and computer labs, a waterman’s co-op with a working marina, a dormitory for visiting scholars and a black waterman’s museum, which will feature African Americans’ contributions to Maryland maritime history.

Students from Shady Side Elementary are already hard at work, growing aquatic vegetation and comparing the success of man-made vs. natural erosion control. They’ll plant their grasses in lieu of currently existing bulkheads. The kids are also raising terrapins, which they’ll release here. Touring the 13 vacated labs and lots of currently empty office space, Reagan, who is director of Special Operations, points out the Jolly Roger, Discovery Village’s bugeye, maintained and used cooperatively with the Sea Scouts. I like what I see, and I especially like Hewison’s vision for a working, learning haven for the community.

Back outside, my daughters run toward me, binoculars flailing about their little necks, “Mommy, we saw the osprey. There’s a whole family of them - a mommy, a daddy and babies!” It doesn’t get much better than this as we watch them together.

We will keep abreast of their progress at home via the OspreyCam. We can also participate in a county-wide Name-the- Osprey-Chicks contest, which will culminate in September with three students receiving savings bonds for winning entries. My girls choose mostly descriptive names, Phoebe going with “Fuzzy,” “Diver” and “Fisher,” and Margaret, with “Fly,” “Sitter” and, going against the grain, “Little Rudy.”

On the Patuxent
Kids are also learning about osprey chicks with Greg Kearns at Patuxent River Park/Jug Bay Natural Area in Prince Georges County. For nearly 20 years, Kearns has been putting platforms on the Patuxent to bolster osprey populations on the river. They, too, have a video camera aimed at an osprey nest and playing in Patuxent River Park’s new visitor center, to show people how osprey live. To learn first hand, kids help Kearns band osprey chicks.

Kearns began banding on the Patuxent several years ago with Steve Cardano, director of Nanjemoy Creek Environmental Education Center. Banding helps scientists study long-term population trends, survival, nest site reuse and migration patterns. The bands come from the United States Geological Survey’s Bird Banding Laboratory in Laurel.

Each metal band clamped around a chick’s right leg has a unique number that is entered in a log, along with the age and location of the bird. From recovery of previously banded chicks, Kearns knows that most of his osprey come back to the same nest year after year after wintering in Columbia and Venezuela.

Cardano, who has volunteered as a bander for nearly three decades, figures that he and Kearns have banded more than 3,000 birds on the Patuxent and Potomac rivers. About 90 of those have been recovered, helping researchers track the birds’ migration along the Atlantic flyway, across Cuba and the Caribbean, to Columbia and Venezuela.

Cardano attributed the success of the osprey on the Patuxent in large part to the increase in nesting platforms during the ’70s and ’80s. If osprey become a nuisance to homeowners on the river, by nesting on piers or homes, he encourages the humans to build a platform nearby, prompting the osprey to move to more favorable real estate.

One way or another, he’s seen a lot of nests and their treasures, including a toy machine gun, deer antlers, beer bottles and fishing line. But some treasures are really booby traps. One bird had its leg so tightly tangled in fishing line that the leg had to be amputated.

For all their familiarity, workers with wildlife have some wild times. Last season, Kearns was showing off some banded chicks at a nest on the river when, he says, “all of a sudden, out of nowhere, this female came in. Wham! Her wings hit me in the head at 30 miles per hour and punctured my skull.” The female nearly knocked Kearns out of his boat before he managed to get the chick back in the nest and get away. “I felt like I’d been in a fight with a professional boxer and lost,” he recounted.

Being an Osprey
The birds will use anything that makes their nest strong and big enough.

It is hard not to love osprey. In so many ways they are like us. They mate for life. They have a sense of home that they come back to again and again. They are resilient.

Gessner promises early on in Return of the Osprey that he’ll try not to anthropomorphize, that is, assign human characteristics to the birds. But he can’t help himself. In describing the mother feeding her young, he translates her actions as tenderness, “If the tearing of the fish is savage, the feeding itself is the most gentle, loving act: She reaches down with a bill more delicate than a debutante’s pinky finger and places the torn morsel into her child’s mouth.” Gessner has even tried to become like the birds, not only tearing into raw fish with his hands but climbing into a deserted nest, catching the wind on outstretched arms.

But for all the osprey’s likeness, they are unlike us in the ways nature forces them to be. This is no more obvious than when Gessner watches as one of four chicks in a nest is forced to starvation by his siblings and ignored by his mother, in favor of those who have a better chance of survival. Osprey, like all wild animals, live by instinct. We have, in addition, compassion and hope. It’s both that allow us to get so close to something that we care enough to invest our time and heart into saving it.

What Next?
This week and next, the osprey chicks will need to fly south to Central and South America. They’ll need to know how to fly well and long, to catch enough fish for the journey, to avoid predators. The parents will head off first, leaving the young to find their way by some internal map that we humans still can’t fully understand. About one-third of the chicks won’t make it. But most will, and that is part of the miracles all around us, if we look for them, if we are aware.

“So much goes on that I don’t see,” writes Gessner. But it is in looking, in stillness, that we do see, and that we come to understand our place in the world and our relationship to those we share it with.

In mid-July, I return from vacation eager to get back to the home-team nest to see how they are doing.

I see the male bird perched on a light post across the stadium from the nest. I see the female take off from the nest and begin soaring and circling the stadium. Then, I see one of her young take off too. His flight is more tentative, his wing beats shorter, his circles narrower in circumference until he lands after just a minute or two in the air. He takes off again and lands again. He is awkward, unsteady and flies with feet flailing, and I want to yell, “Take up your landing gear!” Mom is now soaring off in the distance; dad keeps his distance too. It is up to the young bird to rely on his instinct and learn what he must to survive.

It is now late August. Nests are empty much of the time. Most of this year’s chicks - the likely survivors - are fledged: They are flying where they like and fishing on their own. They’ve grown nearly as big as their parents, but they’ll wear the speckled plumage of young ones until they molt next spring.

One day very soon, I will come and osprey young and old will be gone.

But I know now that they will be back. Spring brings hope and spring brings osprey. They are one and the same.

Return of the Osprey:
A Season of Flight and Wonder

David Gessner’s Return of the Osprey (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2001) is a wonderful telling of the story of the osprey’s return to New England following their disappearance in the 1950s, and coincident with Gessner’s return to his familial home. In his journal of a season on Cape Cod, he follows four pair of osprey, beginning in March, when the birds return from their wintering grounds to build their nests, through the summer of flying, fishing and raising their young, to September, when they leave again bound for South America.

Through his observations, often humorous, always insightful, Gessner immerses himself and his readers in what it is to be an osprey. He struggles, with some success, to get inside the skin of a wild animal, with the limitations of a human being.

The story of the osprey’s return to the Cape is also a story of human redemption and forgiveness, of resiliency and hope. Gessner’s book takes us to a place beyond ourselves. That is exactly where we must go, if we hope to save species - human included - that are struggling for survival.

- M.B.

When migration begins, you can follow osprey by satellite tracking program from summer homes across the United States to - who knows?

The Carolina Raptor Center, which works to preserve and rehabilitate birds of prey, cooperates with the University of Minnesota Raptor Center, to produce Highway to the Tropics, tracking osprey by satellite on Internet. Find out about the program, and follow their latest star, a female, at www.birdsofprey.org.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly