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Aug 28, 2018 12:27 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Osprey Populations Are Up 50 Percent On The East End

Osprey populations are up 50 percent on the East End. COURTESY GEORGE MCLANAHAN
Aug 29, 2018 11:06 AM

Dozens of sticks and twigs, covered in moss, protrude at odd angles, perched atop a crooked man-made wooden post along Towd Point Road near Davis Creek in Southampton. Occasionally, a black-and-white speckled osprey pokes its head up and observes its surroundings, its feathers tucked neatly on its back.

The migratory raptor’s home is one of nearly 420 active nests on the East End—a figure that shows just how strongly the once-endangered species has rebounded.

Aaron Virgin, the Southold-based Group for the East End’s vice president, confirmed that ospreys have returned to the East End—the towns of East Hampton, Riverhead, Shelter Island, Southampton and Southold—in large numbers, particularly in East Hampton and Southampton, which have more than 130 active nesting sites.

The Group began tracking the birds’ migratory and breeding habits in 2014. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Wildlife stopped monitoring the osprey population in the mid-1990s, after it stabilized.

The osprey population began to rebound in the early 1980s, after a ban on a common chemical used in insecticides known as dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane, or DDT, went into effect in 1972, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The chemical had resulted in a thinning of the shell of the birds’ eggs in the 1950s and 1960s, causing a sharp decline in population that led to the osprey being listed as endangered.

In 1983, the osprey was downgraded to “threatened,” and by 1995, the State DEC recorded more than 230 breeding pairs on Long Island. Four years later, the species was again downgraded to “species of special concern,” which is its current status.

Though possibly not for much longer—it could be that the osprey population is nearly hearty enough so that special support is no longer needed.

“The population is doing great,” Mr. Virgin said, noting that the Group for the East End’s osprey monitoring program shows a sizable and steady increase in the population on the East End. Five-year averages—from 2014 through 2018—for the total number of nesting sites include 28 in East Hampton, 12 in Riverhead, 64 on Shelter Island, 106 in Southampton, and 196 in Southold, according to a recent press release.

Of the 519 known nesting sites in the group’s database, 420 were active in 2018—a 68 percent increase from 2014, when there were only 250. In 2017, that number had jumped to 370.

“At some point, it would be nice if osprey could make it on their own. And with the current robust population, we may be near that time,” Mr. Virgin said.

According to the same press release, perennial areas in Southampton along Dune Road, Shinnecock Bay, Mecox Bay, Scallop Pond, Long Beach and North Haven, have allowed the osprey population to thrive, particularly in backcountry areas of Water Mill and Bridgehampton.

Additionally, in terms of overall productivity, East Hampton appears to show the fastest growth in population, particularly in the Accabonac Harbor area. “More than a dozen nests could be observed from a single spot this past summer,” Mr. Virgin said.

The local environmentalist attributed the population’s overall increase to three main factors: changes in fishing regulations, which has provided more food for the ospreys; the continued placement of man-made platforms, which ospreys build their nests upon; and the lack of significant competition for food, which allows them to thrive.

Over the past decade, fishing regulations, specifically pertaining to a limit on the number of bunker or menhaden—a smaller fish that is often predated on by larger fish such as bluefish and striped bass—has significantly affected the ospreys’ population.

According to the DEC website, the limit on bunker and menhaden is 40,000 pounds daily, or 120,000 pounds per week.

The regulations were put in place to help increase the local industrial and recreational fishing economy and in turn indirectly resulted in an increase in ospreys, whose diets are roughly 99 percent fish.

“This is working,” Mr. Virgin said of the regulations on Tuesday. “The problem with overfishing a prey fish is that you’re upsetting everything else above it.”

Another contributing factor is the recent surge in the placement of man-made platforms on utility poles, on which the ospreys build their nests, in the past five years. Mr. Virgin noted that in general, the migratory birds tend to nest in trees and on utility poles. And while nesting in trees is ideal, “nesting along electrical lines is not so much,” he said. He added that nesting on electrical lines can often result in the death of osprey chicks.

To combat those dangers, PSEG Long Island has worked closely with the Group for the East End to install fiberglass nesting platform discs on approximately two dozen poles in the area. The platforms allow for the birds to safely build nests without interrupting electrical service.

The discs are typically installed close to where a nesting osprey was previously observed building nests on a utility line or pole, Mr. Virgin said. He added that nine times out of 10, the osprey will return to build a nest on the man-made structure: “They want to go back to where they were born.”

Mr. Virgin pointed to a recent incident in April where PSEG installed a nesting platform atop a utility pole on Flanders Road in Riverside after workers with Elecnor Hawkeye, a Hauppauge-based company contracted by PSEG, removed a nest because it posed a potential fire hazard.

In a prepared statement on Monday, PSEG spokeswoman Elizabeth Flagler pointed to the utility’s recent collaboration with the nonprofit group, noting that PSEG is committed to balancing safe and reliable service with being a good environmental steward.

“When ospreys build nests in close proximity to the power lines, it is dangerous for the birds and the electric system,” she said. “We will continue to work with the community to explore options to encourage the birds to nest safely away from the wires.”

Another reason for the osprey population surge is the lack of significant competition with other top predators in the area. Mr. Virgin noted that from time to time, great horned owls, which nest in January—four months earlier than ospreys—will take over an osprey nest, resulting in the osprey pair looking for a new home. Ospreys typically return to their nests from the year prior and nest around late April or early May.

Mr. Virgin said that on average, the owls are impacting only a dozen osprey nests on the East End.

He added that volunteers with the Group for the East End typically begin monitoring the osprey habitats in January, when they assess the condition of the poles, which have a lifespan of up to 25 years. On average, Mr. Virgin said the group repairs 20 to 25 poles between March and April of each year, prior to the birds returning in May.

For six weeks, starting in July, the volunteers will drive to each of the 420 or so nesting sites and record activity, determining if the site is active or inactive.

He added that he intends to extend the five-year osprey monitoring program another five years and plans to install several live monitoring feeds for the public to view during nesting season.

“There’s just something about osprey—something about birds of prey,” Mr. Virgin said.

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Not the only local migratory population up 50% since 1995. Nice to see they are making a comeback, the Osprey that is.
By SDG1776 (114), Southampton on Sep 1, 18 6:52 PM
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