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Column: Majestic ospreys face challenges after long journey north

A strange wailing noise startled Elizabeth O’Reilly at her East Marion home late Saturday afternoon. She walked back on her deck, with a few neighbors, and looked up toward a tree, where she spotted something that looked at first like a plastic bag. But as she looked closer, she could see it was an osprey. At some point, it appeared, the bird had picked up some rope that caused it to become stuck in the tree. As the osprey attempted to fly away, it became trapped, and hung upside down from the tree, where it died.

“We could hear the final moments, I guess,” Ms. O’Reilly said.

Over the last month, ospreys have completed their long migration, returning from South America to the North Fork and, for many, to previously established nests. It’s an annual tradition many people look forward to, as these majestic birds of prey soar above the shoreline and build their homes in our neighborhoods.

But as we’ve seen, life for the ospreys can be challenging in an area that’s only increased in density in recent decades. Just last week, Riverside residents were upset when an osprey nest was removed from a utility pole by PSEG-Long Island subcontractors. The contractors had alerted the state Department of Environmental Conservation that the nest was inactive and could potentially catch fire from the wires. Unhappy residents threatened to march in protest, but before that could happen, PSEG quickly erected a new osprey-friendly pole.

Ms. O’Reilly, a painter and teacher, said she felt awful to see the osprey behind her home struggle and face an unnecessary end after surviving such a long journey northward.

“Maybe we can educate people and spread the word,” she said, to make residents conscious of the environment and how everyday items that turn into litter can threaten the birds.

Ms. O’Reilly said watching the ospreys return to Marion Lake by her home is a “sign of spring for sure.” The ospreys frequently fish in the lake, always putting on show with their incredible ability to scoop up prey. Ospreys caught fish “on at least one in every four dives, with success rates sometimes as high as 70 percent,” according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Few people know ospreys better than ornithologist Rob Bierregaard, who tracked the osprey known as North Fork Bob. While ospreys face challenges living in areas dominated by man, he said the overall population is growing. The biggest reason for that is the elimination of DDT, a synthetic organic compound long used as an insecticide. Suffolk County was a leader in that effort decades ago.

As humans began building more structures that ospreys could use for nesting, they no longer sought out the trees that they had always used. Up to 95 percent of nests now rest in man-made structures, Mr. Bierregaard said.

“We got them sort of addicted to man-made structures,” said Mr. Bierregaard, a research associate at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. “It’s now getting to the point where finding a place to nest is harder and harder, so [for] some birds, it may take them years before they find a place to nest.”

North Fork Bob made headlines in 2015 when he finally began the nesting process here after having made the trip for five years in a row. North Fork Bob had flown 55,000 miles, according to the tracking data Mr. Bierregaard collected. Another osprey in Canada flew over 82,000 miles and, since it had a tracker attached to it, provided troves of data for researchers, he said.

A Canada Goose took up residence in an osprey nest in Mattituck, showing how ospreys face challenges even in nature. Reader Betsy Frank Strauss said last year ospreys had moved in before the geese chased them out. This year, the geese moved in early and the ospreys couldn’t take the nest back.

It’s part of the mystique of ospreys and what makes them so special to people on the North Fork.

Each season, the females eventually leave this area in the middle of August and the males and young follow in September. Their journey takes them to Florida, Cuba and the Dominican Republic before they spread out in South America. The journey north starts in February and they begin arriving in March.

The trip down is more leisurely, Mr. Bierregaard said. It’s coming back north to claim their nests that brings more urgency.

“There’s a premium for early arrival,” he said.

Mr. Bierregaard currently tracks two ospreys called Borealis and Holly. Holly left eastern Brazil March 12 to begin flying up South America. By March 29, she had reached southern Florida and was in Georgia by April 2. Borealis is currently in south-central Florida on a “gap year.”

“Young ospreys that go down on their first migration south do not come back the next spring, they spend an extra year,” Mr. Bierregaard explained.

Part of what makes ospreys such a draw for people is that they’re so conspicuous and dramatic, he said.

“They nest out in the open, they’re big, they’re smashing into the water catching fish right in front of your nose,” he said.

Photo caption: Ospreys in Riverside last week where a nest was taken down. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

The author is the editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at 631-354-8049 or [email protected].