Spring Marks The Return Of Birds, Including Ospreys And Piping Plovers - 27 East

Spring Marks The Return Of Birds, Including Ospreys And Piping Plovers

Number of images 1 Photo
An osprey in flight.    TERRY SULLIVAN

An osprey in flight. TERRY SULLIVAN

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Nature Naturally

  • Publication: East Hampton Press
  • Published on: Mar 16, 2022
  • Columnist: Larry Penny

On Sunday, we set the clocks ahead — we will get an hour more of daylight when we need it most. We will certainly notice the change, as we have been light-deprived for so many months now, and our hormone titers reflect the winter’s long, overly dark days.

But what of the rest of nature? They didn’t have a wise old Ben Franklin to look after them — they just have had to tough it out.

At any rate, the rest of nature, particularly those animals that are concerned with increasing their numbers during the spring, are preparing to reproduce.

Southern bird species are already reproducing; those that come north to reproduce are already on their way. Overwintering male red-wings, robins, grackles and the like are heading north, to be replaced by males of the same species from the south, and, after that, by the females.

We look forward to the return of two special species from the south each year: ospreys and piping plovers. The former were almost wiped out on Long Island in the 1950s because of the increasing use of pesticides like DDT in order to increase farm crop production here. DDT and other poisons to eliminate crop pests and mosquitoes brought about a serious downturn in the population of ospreys, and also eagles, bluebirds and a host of other avian species.

Ospreys have made a terrific recovery since, and bald eagles are following in their footsteps. It has only been in the last 15 years that the latter species has returned to Long Island to breed, having left local shores and Gardiners Island as breeders by 1936.

Each year since the 1960s, old and new birders have been looking for the return of breeding ospreys, and each year they have been rewarded. The population on Long Island is steadily increasing. It was this near extinction that got the most dedicated Long Island naturalists into high gear.

There have been some behavioral changes adopted since those lean years. Very few ospreys nest in tree nests anymore — 99 percent nest on poles erected by individual volunteers or the electric company. In the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, it was the Long Island Lighting Company that put up most of the nesting platforms; these days, it is PSEG.

One wonders if, after 20 or 30 more years of population increase, and, then, if left alone, will the ospreys return to nesting in trees? It is doubtful. One or two individuals will return to the same nesting pole each year.

Sometimes, whole breeding pairs bite the dust, as happened in the 1990s at the edge of Upper Sag Harbor Cove just before it turns into Otter Pond. Both members of the pair died; the pole nest remained vacant the following year and every year after that, up to the present day.

On a recent ride to Orient Point over Ferry Road, I was surprised to see only four or five pole nests. As a boy in the 1950s, I remember an osprey nest on every utility pole between Orient Point and the western edge of East Marion. It would appear that while the North Fork was once far ahead in osprey reproduction, the South Fork appears to be the new nesting stronghold.

Maybe so, but aside from a nest for a few short years in the 1990s at the northwest end of Fort Pond, or one off Lake Montauk south of the airport at the edge of Little Reed salt marsh in the 1990s, Montauk has no current osprey nests.

There is one solid reason for the ospreys’ early return to the South Fork, and that is the alewife population. Alewives are in the herrings taxon, but unlike most members of that group, they spawn in fresh water.

The most notable alewives’ spawning ground on the whole of Long Island is Big Fresh Pond in North Sea. Every year, thousands of mature alewives gather in North Sea Harbor in early March, then, when conditions are favorable, they run up to Big Fresh Pond, first crossing under the bridge on Noyac Road, a stone’s throw from its western terminus at North Sea Road, then under a North Sea Road culvert a few hundred yards south of its junction with Noyac Road.

In the past 30 years, the double-crested cormorant has become very common throughout the Peconics. For at least 15 years now, a large population has been breeding in a grove of trees on the south side of Gardiners Island.

Ospreys have to dive feet first for their food fish. Cormorants swim as fast as fish and are such excellent fishers that they have been used by some cultures to actually capture fish to eat. In other words, if the local ospreys had to compete with cormorants for herring and bunkers, they would come out second best.

On the other hand, they only compete with a few black-crowned night herons or egrets, very few of which are around at this time, for the upstreaming alewives. It is this same cormorant species that no doubt has slowed the recovery of the North Fork ospreys.

As the local population of bald eagles continues to build, ospreys will find a new and formidable competitor in their midst. Though the bald eagle is our national bird, it is not averse to stealing fish prey out of the osprey nest or out of the osprey’s talons as the latter tries to lift its prey from the water. Its thieveries help in feeding its own young.

Ospreys can be long-lived, another advantage in maintaining and expanding a population. At one point in the 1950s, ospreys on Gardiners Island were so common that they nested in nests built on the ground. When I went to look in the 1960s, some of these ground nests were 3 or 4 feet tall. In other words, they were rebuilt, just as tree and pole nests are rebuilt each year.

Ospreys show a remarkable ability to return to the same nesting site each year, even though they may fly almost a thousand miles or so to reach it each year.

Our local ears to the ground have told us that at least one osprey has returned already — this one to Jessica Jackson’s area in Montauk — and so early, in the first week of February.

I have written about Ms. Jackson’s environmental activities in the past. She’s almost a one-woman army with respect to raising and releasing bobwhite quail, a species that used to be frequent on eastern Long Island but one that has almost completely disappeared during the last 40 or 50 years.

If an osprey does return to Montauk and is able to find a mate, who knows? What we said previously about the few ospreys that have bred in Montauk in the past may become old hat in 10 years’ time.

Wouldn’t that be grand!

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