images & text by Melanie Lynch
Hello. My name is Melanie, and I have an osprey problem. An addiction, that is. A jones. A bird on my back, you might say. I am, to use the parlance of my fellow osprey addicts, a featherhead.
I have not always been a featherhead, of course. In fact, until recently I knew very little about ospreys. But then, while surfing the web one evening about three years ago, I stumbled upon an "osprey cam"--a website, that is, that featured a live video feed from a camera trained on the interior of a nest on Long Island. I was mesmerized. Right there, live, up close and personal, was a mother osprey ripping off pieces of a freshly caught fish and feeding them to her two chicks. Without even leaving my den, anytime I wanted, I could tune in to everyday life-and-death drama of an osprey nest. I could see the chicks' first pinfeathers sprouting. I could watch competition for food that was as aggressive and violent as anything you'd see in a World Wrestling Federation smackdown. I could be there for the dramatic moment when a chick "fledges"--takes flight for the first time, often unexpectedly, after weeks of flapping its wings to no avail. I learned the literal meaning of "empty-nest syndrome."
And I've been hooked on the darn birds ever since. Can't kick 'em. Although there are many, many osprey cams out there, practicality has forced me to limit my viewing to cameras at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland's Eastern Shore and in Brookhaven, N.Y. In the off-season, when the nests are empty, I've kept tabs on the birds through web-based satellite tracking programs in Ohio and North Carolina.
These are the hallmarks of a classic Stage I osprey addiction. I've since progressed to Stage II, which is characterized by the need to visit ospreys in person, to see them face to face, and, if possible, weigh them and put metal bands on their ankles.
On a fine mid-June morning last year, I joined a dozen other Stage II featherheads (some of whom might have still been in denial) on a day-long osprey banding expedition at the Jug Bay Natural Area, about five miles west of Herring Bay on the winding, marshy middle reaches of the Patuxent River. Our enabler, the leader of this annual expedition, was Patuxent River Park naturalist Greg Kearns, who met us at the Jug Bay visitors center and quickly briefed us on the day's mission. We would visit four or five nests, time and tide permitting, and weigh and band as many chicks as we found in said nests.
Soon we were puttering away from the dock in Kearns's aluminum skiff, outfitted with a plywood bow platform, a short ladder and a self-clearing prop that Kearns referred to as "the Veg-O-Matic." The latter, he said, is a necessary item in Jug Bay--which was once a deep-water port, full of ships waiting to take on barrels of tobacco, but is now a labyrinth of shallow water trails through endless hyacinths, cattails and wild rice, and other potentially prop-fouling vegetation.
After winding through the labyrinth for some 10 minutes we approached the first nest--our main clue being the ear-splitting screeches of the adult ospreys, who took flight as we neared, all the while loudly expressing their low opinion of us. Kearns cut the engine and let the boat ground itself on the thick bed of water hyacinths beneath the nest--a platform mounted on poles about four feet over the water. Opening the ladder on the plywood platform, Kearns stepped up, reached into the nest and grabbed a "chick." I put that word in quotes because it implies a peeping little ball of fuzz; and what Kearns pulled out of the nest was no peeping little ball of fuzz; it may have been a chick in the strictest sense (these three had not yet fledged, Kearns told us), but it was bigger than an adult seagull and it had a sharp downturned beak and four needle-sharp, curved, two-inch talons on each foot.
"Who wants the first bird?" Kearns asked after explaining how to keep the talons in check. Tempted as I was to lunge forward and elbow the others out of my way, I was also determined to document as much of this fantasy as I could, so I stayed put, camera glued to my face, and let my friend Pam Bottoms have the honor of the first chick. Once she had it firmly in her hand--grasping its legs just above the "knees," as Kearns had demonstrated, the bird seemed somewhat resigned to the predicament, shoulders hunched and wings draped--though the puffed-up feathers on the back of its head betrayed a general state of alarm.
Our task was simple: Each chick (there were three in this nest) got a uniquely numbered metal band, gently crimped onto its ankle with pliers, and each was weighed in a very high-tech apparatus: a plastic grocery bag suspended from a spring scale. We recorded the weight and sex of each bird (the former reveals the latter; as with most raptors, females are roughly 20 percent larger than males; at this age, the girls are about 1,700 grams, or 3.8 pounds, and the boys are closer to 1,400 grams). I was surprised how calm the chicks were in the grocery sack; apparently it has the same effect as a hood on a falcon. Coming out of the bag was a different story, though. Their body language and fierce orange eyes made it quite clear that they were not amused.
The same could be said for their furious parents, who continued to circle and screech overhead. I was sure that the sight of the chicks being put into sacks like so many shanghaied sailors would drive one of the adults over the edge and we would be attacked from above at any moment. Kearns assured us that only once in his 20-plus years of working with ospreys has one ever dive-bombed him. Perhaps he should have left out the part about the bird finding its mark and laying open his scalp. To our relief, mom and dad eventually vented their frustration by attacking a great blue heron that was standing on a log, minding its own business. One swoop from above and the heron found himself in the water. We put the chicks back in the nest, Kearns fired up the Veg-O-Matic and we were churning off the water hyacinths back to open water while the adults returned to the nest to assess any damage.
Our second nest also held three nearly fledged chicks, but this nest was at eye level, giving us a clear view of the interior. As we approached, all three chicks stayed perfectly motionless, flattened down into the floor of the nest doing their best not to be seen, as they had been taught. And now, at last, it was my turn to get up close and personal. Taking a deep breath and handing the camera to Pam for safekeeping, I reached out my hand and . . . it was one of those surreal slow-motion moments, like catching a foul ball at Fenway Park. Never having held a bird before, I was amazed at how cool its legs were, how light it felt, how crisp the feathers were and how much bulk they added to the bird's body. The chick was not entirely accepting of the situation; it pecked half-heartedly at my hand--with a beak, I couldn't helpnoting, that was capable of ripping a fish to shreds--but I managed to distract and calm it somewhat by stroking the top of its head with my free hand. The chick watched intently as my cohorts crimped the band to its leg. By the time I handed him off to be weighed, I was surprised at how heavy three pounds begins to feel at the end of an outstretched arm.
The three chicks adopted a different defensive strategy when we returned them to the nest. Now, instead of lying low and trying to be invisible, they formed a fierce back-to-back circle--all ruffled feathers, hooked beaks and glowering eyes, daring us to try it again.
The trio of chicks we found in the third nest were much younger--too young to band, in fact--and seemed to be completely different creatures. They were limp little prehistoric-looking things, like tiny dragons. Still covered in pale brown fuzz, they were just beginning to sprout their first pinfeathers. Moving on to the final nests, we found two more sets of three nearly grown chicks, and we banded and weighed each of them.
It would have been easy to conclude from our experience that day that three-chick nests are the norm, but in fact they are not. While ospreys can lay up to four eggs in a season, more often than not only two will survive to fledging age, according to Kearns. Finding so many successful three-chick nests, he says, is a testament to the plentiful food supply (fish) in Jug Bay--which, he believes, can be attributed at least partly to the wild rice crop he has been cultivating over the years. The more wild rice he plants, the clearer the water and the easier the hunting for the ospreys.
When Kearns started working with ospreys on Jug Bay, nearly 30 years ago, there were only two nests; now there are at least 34 within the park's boundaries, and last year 27 of those nests had successful broods for a total of 61 fledglings. Kearns keeps careful tabs on the yearly progress: how many eggs are laid; how many hatch; who is getting fed enough, and how many chicks are lost to predation by great horned owls. He also does what he can to improve the survival odds--moving a chick from a crowded nest, for instance, to one that can more easily accommodate the extra mouth. The adoptive parents don't miss a beat; they accept the transplanted chicks without the slightest hesitation.
The same strategy has also been used to help restore osprey populations elsewhere. Jug Bay chicks have been "hacked" to nests in Ohio and Pennsylvania. There was initially some concern that even unfledged chicks might already be hardwired to return to their birthplace, not to their adoptive homes. But that doesn't appear to be a problem; using hacked chicks, Ohio's osprey program has gone from just two documented nesting pairs to about 80.
All banding records for North America are kept at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., which manages the North American Bird Banding Program. Since the center started putting its phone number on the bands in 2002, it gets some 90,000 calls a year from people who find bands on dead or injured birds--which of course translates into lots of geographic and life-expectancy data for the center. Ospreys are generally thought to have a life span of 13 to 15 years, though one of Kearns's birds lived to at least 20. And while chicks generally return to their home nests, one of Kearns's ospreys turned up in Ohio. The Ohio DNR caught the young adult for banding and found Kearns's band; instead of adding their own band, they fitted the bird with a satellite collar to track its migration to and from South America.
For the happy featherheads at Jug Bay, the day was coming to an end. With the tide heading out, and our five-nest mission accomplished, Kearns fired up the Veg-O-Matic one last time and headed us home--though only he knew the way through the marshy maze. There were puffy bits of osprey down everywhere--on the floor of the boat, stuck in our hair and in our clothes. And some of the adult ospreys were still circling overhead, still screaming fiercely--perhaps directly at me, because I had had the audacity to manhandle one of their precious chicks. Yes, I had held an osprey chick in my own hands!
After saying good-bye to my fellow featherheads and thanking Kearns for the unforgettable experience, I got in the car in what could only be described as a happy stupor--osprey screams still ringing in my ears, the chick's steady glare still in my mind's eye. And by the time I got home, I needed another fix--so I fired up the osprey cam and began writing to my featherhead support group.
Did I mention that I have an osprey problem?
Melanie Lynch, Circulation Manager and IT Coordinator for Chesapeake Bay and Northeast Boating magazines, is the self-proclaimed president of the Annapolis chapter of Featherheads Anonymous.
GETTING YOUR OWN FIX
The Annual Featherhead's Jug Bay Banding trip are coordinated though the Annapolis Maritime Museum and myself, all dependent on a morning high tide in late June to early July. For information, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. To visit osprey nests in our neck of the woods, try the following web cams at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near Cambridge, Md. (www.friendsofblackwater.org/camhtm.html), and Discovery Village in Shady Side, Md. (www.discoveryvillage.net/osprey/).
If you want to venture out of the region, by far the best osprey cam we've discovered is on the website of the Dennis Puleston Osprey Fund (http://puleston.osprey.bnl.org/). To get the most out of this site you'll need a current version of RealPlayer on your computer. Another good camera can be found at the Conanicut (R.I.) Raptor Project (www.conanicutraptors.com/webcam.htm). Also take a look at the osprey cam run by the city of Cape Coral, Fla. (www.capecoral.net/osprey cam/). Finally, be sure to check out the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute's web cam on Cape Cod (www.whoi.edu/science/osprey/).
To keep track of the birds during their spring and fall migrations and to see where they spend their winter, visit rob Bierregaard's website at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (http://www.bioweb.uncc.edu/bierregaard/).
To learn more about the North American Bird Banding Program, go to the Bird Banding Laboratory page of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center's website (www.pwrc.usgs. gov/bbl/).