The Osprey

Thu, 10/04/2018 - 8:00pm

“How come that windmill next to George’s fell down and those Osprey nests, don’t,” asked local fishing Captain Ralph Pearson one winter morning in a local coffee shop. Ospreys, also known as fish hawks, are clever hunters and great engineers — they’re persistent and forthright, too. Captain Ralph’s question led me to start paying close attention to these clever hunters and their nests, which can be seen around the Port of Galilee. We can also see their nests all along the coast and on the islands of Narragansett Bay and on Block Island.

I’m not what you would call a real bird watching guy — I don’t carry Peterson’s bird book and binoculars — however, I’ve become a very easily entertained geezer of late and have been observing and gathering boots-on-the-ground Osprey data for my own personal mental files. This is a very interesting bird to learn about and observe as they build their nests, and teach their offspring to fly and hunt. Moreover, their nests are built to withstand serious weather, and to protect the fledglings from predators like raccoons and fisher cats. Here’s the basic drill for an osprey. The adults need to provide a place for their fledglings to hang out and learn their survival skills before they head south — the female has two or three eggs, which hatch around April and May. The adults return the following year — ospreys don’t mess with success — to the same nest where they will add materials for strength and stability. The fledglings do not return north until two years later and begin to stake out their own nesting site. (I’m fascinated how this stuff is baked into their DNA—it’s such a nature thing.)

Ospreys will hover over a target before they dive down and grab a fish — with their sharp and effective talons — and they are also able to be two-fisted hunters. Additionally, they are able to completely submerge their entire body in order to catch a fish — their primary diet. These birds are very efficient hunters and are very adaptable. Recently, I was watching an osprey hunt while hanging out in the cockpit of my sailboat off Prudence Island. The bird appeared to almost stall and lose lift while in a hover over the thin water where it was hunting. It swept down with its four-foot wingspan and snatched a fish, and then it banked a turn toward its nest — built on an old foundation about ten feet high — which looked big enough to accommodate a full-grown person. Later at dusk I hopped in my dinghy to get a closer look at the huge nest and heard the mother cackling a warning. I rowed back to my boat — the message was clear — and observed the nest with binoculars.

There are a few notable osprey nests that I’ve discovered this season and I noticed that they have one particular thing in common. The nests are positioned for easy takeoffs and landings. There is a solidly built one on the north end of Gould Island in Narragansett Bay. It sits on an abandoned tower at an old Navy installation. The tower is about one hundred feet high — it’s a perfect hunting location. There is also a solid one on an old chimney from the ruins of a Prudence Island building. But, the most interesting one I’ve seen this summer is the one in the middle of the state parking lot in Galilee. While working in the Standby Lot for the ferry company I get to see all kinds of interesting things regarding that nest. As stated earlier, ospreys are persistent birds — working stiffs by their very nature. Although ospreys are protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a nest can be removed without a permit. This past winter the nest in the state parking lot was removed, and a traffic cone was placed where the nest previously stood. Undaunted, the returning tenacious ospreys built around the cone and it’s still standing — for the time being.

During the spring and throughout the summer the male osprey has been constantly retooling this particular nest, with heavy twigs and pieces of bark. As stated earlier, returning to this place is baked into the DNA of these birds, and it makes perfect sense; there is a substantial food source and few predators. This fall when the adults separately head south, which they recently did and the fledglings will leave shortly after them — they’re on their own. Ospreys, who mate for life, will return to this mating ground; however, they are loners when they head south. The fledglings that survive this solo trip will be a result of their flying and hunting skills, which they will learn by the time they are eight weeks old. I watch them taking off and landing — while learning to hunt — from the rim of the nest in the state parking lot. Just before the adults headed south, I noticed a male come in and hover, and drop a good sized fish into the nest; probably to give the fledglings a boost of protein before they had to head south.

Captain Ralph’s question led me to track down more information, which led to more questions about this wily bird of prey. Furthermore, I’m curious regarding the nest I saw from my sailboat up on Prudence Island — will it still be there next mating season — time will tell. Although it is not very high compared to most of the nests I’ve seen, this nest is not protected from the powerful winter winds from the east and northeast. However, it looks very well-constructed. Finally, I’ll be sure to sail up there as early as possible next season to see how this nest fares over the winter, and I’ll keep you posted regarding the nest in the state parking lot in Galilee.