As ospreys return to the bay, monitors flock to orientation
About thirty osprey (fish hawk) enthusiasts gathered recently at the Audubon Society in Bristol to an orientation session for this year's osprey monitoring program, an ongoing volunteer effort to track the number of active and successful nests in Rhode Island.
The group included both current and aspiring monitors who came to share recent osprey observations and to hear how to select a site, secure approval and build a nesting platform for the growing number of birds to call home. Last year some 60 volunteers watched 208 sites and observed 168 new fledglings.
Monitors eagerly shared what they had seen firsthand: the nest high atop a light tower at Barrington High School athletic field was knocked down in a storm, but the birds were recently seen rebuilding. Applause from the group.
People want to see ospreys up close
Volunteer Mike Gerhardt of the Warren Land Trust reported success with a nest at Baggy Wrinkle Cove in Warren. The recently built platform yielded an empty nest in its first year, but successfully fledged two birds in year two. "Our monitoring attracted a lot of friends and bird watchers," Mr. Gerhardt said, "People want to see them." One said her friend's son built an osprey platform as an Eagle Scout project.
Other monitors at the event: Eric Shaw of Newport watches a nest at the U.S. Navy Base, and two at Gooseberry Beach; Luis Mendes watches nests in Bristol County (MA) and Portsmouth; David Abell watches eight nests in North Kingston; Paul Sanroma watches nests at Mill Pond in Bristol; and David Winsow watches Allins Cove in Barrington.
Some nests are high up and difficult to see. Eric Walsh, who works with Audubon to track the state population, said the activity in a West Bay nest at Route 4 "is best observed at 65 mph" as he drives by on Route 95. Other monitors reported two birds dead near a cell tower, likely victims of electric wires. Federal and state agencies want to know about findings of dead osprey, Mr. Walsh said.
How to set up a nesting platform
Jonathan Scoones, director of volunteer services at Audubon, invited newcomers to contact him if they were interested to set up a new nest or join monitors. He gave a rundown of the steps in erecting nest platform:
1) Identify a location on open ground, near water and away from taller trees and people and not within 200 ft. of another nest.
2) Secure approvals from the R.I. State Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) if the site is within 200 ft. of the coast or coastal feature (wetland, river, etc.). This can easily be done online, Mr. Scoones said, adding that applications need to show ownership of the land and approval from the local building official. A $50 fee is also required.
3) Select a design: either tripod, planks between two dead trees or a center post set in concrete. Materials can be easily purchased at Home Depot or similar store for under $200, Mr. Scoones said, including a 6"x6" post with a 3 ft. section sheathed in aluminum as predator guards to safeguard against climbing raccoons, and a nest platform with wire mesh base and an elevated perch.
4) Build the platform and wait for the birds. Construction can be a fun community event, Mr. Scoones said. Audubon volunteers enjoy helping newcomers start their own monitoring. "Just put a few sticks on the platform to give birds the idea a nest has been started," he said. "Then you can name your own nest to be included in monitoring data."
Birds return to Rhode Island from Central and South America in mid March, locate former or start new nests with two to four eggs through April, incubate the nest in May, feed their young through June till they fledge in July (young will fledge 50-55 days after hatching) and return south between late August and late November.
Monitors observe and document a variety of data
"The goal of the monitoring program is to document the breeding success of our population," Mr. Walsh said. He said monitors make a total of eight 15-minute visits to each nest during the season, recording data such as "are ospreys present at the nest, are they incubating (sitting on the nest), are young present and if so how many, are adults bringing food to the nest?" Data is submitted online.
"Avoid rainy, windy, hot and cold days when adults may be shielding their young," Mr. Walsh said. "Early to mid morning or evenings when they are active are the best times."
Mr. Walsh spoke highly of the success rate of Rhode Island's monitoring program, which has tracked the dramatic comeback of the osprey to this state since its near demise in the 1960s. Over the last 35 years, the osprey has rebounded with the ban of DDT and concerted volunteer efforts such as the Audubon monitoring program.
"It has been a perfect storm of factors contributing to this success," Mr. Walsh said, "including our small, accessible state with lots of shallow open water surrounding a fish-healthy Narragansett Bay, and a volunteer effort that has grown organically with more and more people taking an interest in this magnificent bird.
Volunteers who are interested in joining the monitoring program should contact Mr. Scoones at Audubon (401/949-5454, x3044 or email@example.com). To learn more about the RI osprey population or its monitoring program, visit riosprey.info.
Bristol resident DeWolf Fulton teaches English at DelSesto Middle School in Providence. He is a former editor of the Bristol Phoenix and an avid bird watcher.