Nature Matters: Ospreys and Eagles
By John L. Turner
I vividly remember the first time I saw an Osprey (also called a Fish Hawk due to the fact that its diet is, with very few exceptions, entirely fish). When I was ten years old, a friend and I were birdwatching at the back of Miller’s Pond in Smithtown, now a county park off Maple Avenue, but at the time a private estate. We walk along the edge of a small stream that feeds the pond, still somewhat hidden by a grove of pepper bushes. Looking across the creek, we noticed a HUGE bird (isn’t everything bigger when you’re little?) perched on top of a dead tree with a wriggling orange object in its legs. Well, the object was a nice sized carp, the legs were actually very sharp talons, and the big bird holding the carp was an osprey.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but this Osprey sighting was becoming an increasingly rare occurrence. Due to the widespread use of DDT, a persistent pesticide that can persist in the environment for decades, ospreys and many other birds higher up the food chain (e.g. bald eagles, two species of pelicans, the peregrine falcon) fell. Scientists quickly learned that the pesticide was interfering with the birds’ ability to lay viable eggs, causing some bird populations to decline by up to 90% and causing the extinction of the Eastern Peregrine Falcon breed. United States.
Fortunately, in one of the first major environmental victories of the environmentally-enlightened era of the early 1970s (you may be old enough to remember the first Earth Day and the passing of the water quality, air quality and endangered species), DDT was banned in 1972 for use in the United States. The center of this intense national struggle? Right here in the Three Villages where the Environmental Defense Fund (FED) was created!
Now an international environmental organization focusing on global environmental issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss, EDF began in a modest office, first in Stony Brook (in a cramped office on the second floor above from the post office, ironically, behind the flying bald eagle) and then to a house in Setauket on Old Town Road, where he successfully led the fight to stop the use of this bird-killing pesticide. This struggle of several years is chronicled in the very informative and readable book DDT wars, written by Charlie Wurster, a retired Stony Brook University professor, EDF board member and longtime Old Field resident.
Over the past two decades, ospreys have rebounded across North America with an estimated 30,000 pairs (making the continent the species’ global stronghold), an increase mirrored on Long Island with several hundred osprey pairs and growing (as a result the osprey was removed from the New York State Endangered and Threatened Species List).
The presence of several species of coastal fish, including the gaspereau, the American eel, but especially the menhaden (or bunker) which has experienced a resurgence in the last half-decade due to the ban on their harvesting trade in New York State waters, is helping to fuel this growth. .
As with an animal that regularly dives into the water to catch very slippery prey, ospreys have developed a number of adaptations that provide the tools for a successful hunt. Their sharp talons help hold fish, but their feet have two other adaptations. The skin on the bottom of their feet is riddled with small bumps called spicules that give the skin a sandpaper-like quality, helping the bird grasp fish. And the osprey can rotate one of its three front talons to swing backwards so the bird can better cling to the fish with a two-front, two-back talon arrangement . Oh, and did I mention that they close their nostrils to keep water out when they dive in search of prey?
Their plumage, too, is adapted to immersion in water. Ospreys have the oiliest feathers of any bird of prey, the oil helping to repel water. This oil imparts a musty smell to museum hides, a trait that museum curators have sometimes noted. After taking off from a dive, ospreys almost always shake their bodies like a golden retriever, as water drops easily fall off their highly waterproof feathers.
Their bulky stick nests are a common and iconic site in many coastal areas of Long Island, sometimes built in sturdy trees, others on buoys, lighthouses, or channel markers. Most often, however, nests are on raised platforms that a benevolent person or organization has erected (if you are installing a nesting platform, be sure to install a predator guard and one or several perches angled from the side of the platform).
From the ground it is difficult to see the outline of the nest, but from above you can discern its shallow bowl-like shape, containing softer materials such as phragmites, finer sticks and even algae, lining the bowl. Ospreys are known to add man-made objects to their nest with dozens of items documented; we don’t understand why they do this; maybe they just like collecting things like ropes, bits of netting, rubber boots, clothes, even children’s dolls!
Osprey chicks in various stages of development are now found in nests all around Long Island. Both parents incubate the eggs (two to three in a typical clutch, although sometimes a nest of four eggs is reported). If hatchlings survive wind and rain at their exposed nest sites, they grow rapidly and fledge in about two months. If you want to watch ospreys go through nest building, incubation and rearing the young, there are a number of webcams online to view ospreys.
PSEG has two productive webcams, one at Oyster Bay and the other on the south side of Main Street in Patchogue Village. As I write this, I listen to the piercing call of an adult osprey vocalizing from the webcam nest at Oyster Bay; two little young have hatched and there is an unhatched egg which will hopefully hatch very soon. The two youngsters in Patchogue’s nest are several days older.
A larger cousin of the Osprey – the Bald Eagle – is another beneficiary of the DDT ban, and as the eagle has resurfaced across the country, so has Long Island. Due to this population growth, the species was removed from the federal endangered species list in 2007, although it is still listed as a threatened species on the New York DEC list. Although largely free of pesticide contamination problems, many bald and golden eagles today face poisoning from a different source – lead. Lead is ingested from spent shot, bullet fragments, and possibly even long-lost fishing sinkers first ingested by the waterfowl they were feeding on.
Sightings of adult and immature eagles have become almost commonplace, especially near areas where they nest. The first eagle’s nest, evidence of this return, was discovered on Gardiner’s Island in 2006 and was for several years the only nest on Long Island. (In fact, before the current resurgence, the last bald eagle nest was on Gardiner Island in 1932.) But by 2015 the number of nests had increased to five, and by 2018 it had reached eight. There are now more than a dozen nests. The Centerport nest, just north of State Route 25A and west of the harbor, is perhaps the most visible. Good views of the William Floyd Estate Eagle’s Nest can be had, looking south across Home Creek, from Osprey Park in the town of Brookhaven.
As with the scientific name of many species, the bald eagle’s scientific name gives information about the species; Haliaeetus leucocephalus means the bald sea eagle.
The resurgence of these two awe-inspiring birds of prey in recent decades has been inspiring, not only for the grace, power and beauty they add to our daily experience, but also because they are living proof that if we do the right things – banning poisons (let’s take the next step in restoring them by working with hunters to eliminate lead!), cleaning up our country’s waters, protecting their food supply and provide nesting sites – these birds and nature can begin the healing process and meet us halfway. These birds present, indeed, teach us an important and valuable lesson in this time of planetary peril. It’s up to each of us to learn from them – what do you say, are you ready to accept the lesson?
A resident of Setauket, John Turner is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours.