The ospreys may be kicking back in their balmy South American winter homes right now, but here in the East Bay it’s work as usual for the volunteers who watch over them.
To make certain these raptors have a nice play to stay when they return in March, volunteers work through the winter inspecting and cleaning out nests and shoring up any manmade platforms that have tilted over time.
One of the most dedicated volunteers is Butch Lombardi of the Warren Conservation Commission. Last week he was slogging around a marsh between a beach and Little Mussachuck Creek in west Barrington along with his wife, Cyndy, as they inspected an osprey nest high atop a manmade platform on private land.
“It’s leaning, and (the property owner) is worried about it,” said Mr. Lombardi, one of about 70 volunteers statewide who monitors the osprey population for the Audubon Society of R.I. According to the Audubon’s recently released osprey report, 178 new fledglings were reported in 2012 — the highest number in the project’s history. South Kingstown had the most active nests (18), with Barrington a close second at 17.
Michele Cyr, who owns the land with her husband, Greg Towne, said the platform went up about 10 years ago or more. “A friend put it up as a birthday present for my husband,” she said, adding that the ospreys didn’t take to the platform until much later on. “They didn’t nest for five years. We were just about to take it down, and then they started nesting. We have three chicks generally a year. It’s so exciting to see them come back in March. We’ve threatened to have a web cam out here.”
But during a recent walk on the beach with her husband, they noticed the platform was tilted to one side. Not wanting it to land in the creek, they asked Mr. Lombardi to take a look. When he and Ms. Lombardi came out last Thursday, the problem was self-evident.
“It’s like a condo,” marveled Ms. Lombardi while looking at a nest over three feet in diameter and as dense as they come.
“The wood is fine, it’s just the weight of the nest,” said her husband, who decided to rake out all the material before shoring up one side of the post with an extra brace.
Ospreys aren’t exactly finicky when it comes to choosing materials for their nests. Although twigs and branches make up the majority of the foundation, volunteers have also found plastic trash bags, gloves, beach toys, rope, quahog shells and more. One nest was found with an inflated mylar balloon inside.
“It was if they were having an open house,” said Mr. Lombardi, who found a cigar while cleaning out the Barrington nest last week. “Probably celebrating the birth of one of their kids.”
One Mother’s Day, Ms. Cyr watched an osprey bringing ribbons to the nest. “I don’t know if that was for me,” she said.
Within 15 minutes, Mr. Lombardi had raked out nearly all of the nest, leaving just a bottom layer of twigs covering the platform’s wire netting. When the ospreys return here in March, they’ll have some work to do.
“They’ll be surprised. They’ll think it was a really bad winter,” said Ms. Cyr.
Good news for ospreys
The Audubon Society of R.I. manages the Rhode Island Osprey Monitoring Program, a volunteer network of observers who report on the breeding success of these fish-eating birds. Originally initiated in 1977 by the R.I. Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the program was established to track the state’s osprey population as it recovered from the eggshell-thinning effects of the insecticide DDT, banned in 1972 after pressure from the Audubon and other like-minded environmental groups.
According to the Audubon’s 2012 osprey report released last week, the birds are once again abundant in the Ocean State, with last year’s results showing a record number of young.
“We saw a rebound from last year’s numbers, which had dipped a little bit from previous years,” said Eric Walsh, an ecologist who co-manages the program along with July Lewis, volunteer coordinator for the Audubon. “The overall trend is that we’re seeing an increase over time.”
The banning of DDT is cited as the predominant factor for the ospreys’ reemergence.
“I’ve lived in Warren my entire life and my early years were on the Palmer River,” said Mr. Lombardi. “My earliest recollection was being 3 years old in a skiff with my father looking for blue shell crabs. I have no recollection of ospreys being on the river when I was growing up. DDT by that point had begun to decimate the population.”
However, there’s an additional factor at work as well. According to those monitoring the ospreys, the communications industry has actually benefited these birds.
“There are so many cell phone towers and power poles now, and ospreys tend to nest in those as opposed to a tree,” said Ms. Lewis. “They’re programmed to nest in the tallest thing around because they’re at less of a risk from a predator (such as a raccoon).”
Mr. Walsh agreed. “I think one of the big things is platform structure. They may be losing their natural habitat, but they’re gaining habitat, too,” he said. “In the 1970s there were no cell phone towers. Now they’re nesting in very tall structures that are stable and don’t sway in the wind.”
Manmade osprey platforms aren’t as tall, but they usually feature predator shields so they’re popular with the raptors as well. “People are spending more time putting out platforms, which are much more stable than a swaying tree would be,” said Mr. Walsh. “They’re taking advantage of what we’re offering them, whether directly or indirectly.”
In fact, Mr. Lombardi said, the Palmer River has only three tree nests used by ospreys, compared with six manmade platforms.
Photographs from kayak
Mr. Lombardi said being an osprey monitor for Audubon was a natural fit for him. “I’m always out in my kayak shooting ospreys with my camera. It’s my favorite raptor,” he said.
One of the first things he did for the project was to straighten out its osprey maps in the East Bay. DEM had published a Google map with pins marking the locations of various nests.
“I knew about every nest in Bristol County and they were wrong. There were a lot of nests missing and some weren’t where they were supposed to be,” said Mr. Lombardi, adding that Audubon has since made further improvements to the mapping process. “They hired two interns this summer to go out and validate every position of every nest we had.”
He’s proud to see the ospreys in such abundance in this area, particularly in Warren and Barrington. “If you combine Warren and Barrington, they consistently produce more fledglings than any other part of the state,” he said. “There’s a crew in the Palmer River that produced seven in two years. It’s really to do with the waterways. If you look at Newport, there’s hardly any. They like to fish in relatively shallow water because that’s where the fish are swimming to the surface. That’s another reason why we need to protect the Palmer River, 100 Acre Cove and the rest — to protect the ecosystem.”
Mr. Lewis said currently, the ospreys are doing great. “But if something else happens with the ecology or the bay, we’ll know by looking at what happens with the ospreys,” she said.
While they have little control over environmental factors, volunteers work year round to make sure their feathered friends have a nice home when they fly back north in March.
“They come back to the same nest every year,” said Mr. Lombardi, whose fascination with the osprey has never dimmed. “Whenever I look at my photos of newly hatched babies, you can really see their relationship with the dinosaurs.”
Breakdown of osprey report
Here’s a breakdown of the number of fledged young (babies) reported in 2012 by area, according to the Audubon’s 2012 osprey report:
• Barrington: 25 fledged young
• Bristol: 8
• East Providence: 10
• Little Compton: 0
• Portsmouth: 5
• Prudence Island: 3
• Tiverton: 2
• Warren: 14
The high number of fledglings in Warren and Barrington can be attributed partly to the topography of the area, according to Mr. Walsh.
“It probably has to do with all the shallow, open areas of water where they can actually forage and fish,” he said, noting that the male osprey does all the foraging while the females nest.
The report is encouraging, he said, because it indicates that not only are ospreys doing well here — thanks mainly to the banning of the insecticide DDT in the 1970s — the population growth is likely to continue.
“When you look at the numbers and look at the trends, you don’t get any sense of them reaching their plateau,” he said, before adding that environmental factors such as “loss of habitat, human-imposed pressure on fisheries” could change all that in the future.
If you’re interested in volunteering to become an osprey monitor this year, Ms. Lewis at [email protected] or 401/949-5454, ext. 3044. You can commit to observe one or more nests every two weeks from April through July. Ms. Lewis said the Audubon “is pretty well covered in the East Bay,” but local people shouldn’t hesitate to contact her anyway.