Just as the swallows return annually to the Mission at Capistrano on St. Joseph’s Day, the osprey that inhabit our Inland Bays will begin returning to their nesting areas around St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th.
By the end of October last year the last stragglers began their 2,500 mile southern migration across Florida (some will overwinter there) to their overwintering areas in South America.
Now they are on their northward trek fishing as they go (they are “Fish Hawks, after all) driven by the urge to renew nests and produce the next generations of Ospreys here on the Inland Bays. Once plentiful in our Bays, prior to the banning of the insecticide DDT in 1972 the populations crashed due to egg production failure. Today osprey numbers have rebounded and we have a strong breeding population.
Look overhead for our ospreys carrying twigs, and other nesting material as they begin to renew their nests on man-made platforms and snags along the edges of our Bays, on channel markers, and yes, even on docks and houses near our waterways. You will also see them carrying fish impaled on their talons back to their nest or to trees where they enjoy their version of sushi.
Throughout the spring, they nest build and feed, and ultimately produce from one to three eggs. The adults, which pair for life, take turns sitting on the eggs while their partner fishes and feeds, or sits in a nearby tree keeping watch over the nesting areas. In approximately 5-6 weeks the eggs will hatch and the young protected under an umbrella of wings, and nourished by their parents. After a few months of parental pampering, the young gain their “teenage attitude” flight plumage and fledge, taking to wing and begin their fishing training.
The osprey are territorial and when there are too many returning ospreys for the existing nesting sites, you may see osprey engage in aerial combat, the young of last year trying to occupy last year’s nursery nests. Such combat may cause the failure of a nest when the mating pairs are too distracted by the juveniles to establish a viable nest. Nests built too near a woods line run the risk of the young being taken by our native owl populations and eggs eaten by ground predators such as raccoons.
The nesting pairs are also affected by human activity. Wanting to see them up close and personal, we enter their comfort zone. They give distinctive warning cries and then fly off the nest leaving the eggs or hatchlings exposed. Prolonged time off the nest by the adults may cause the eggs not to develop or the vulnerable young to die.
The best and safest way for the osprey, to observe our nesting osprey is with binoculars. Enjoy them flying overhead with nesting materials or aerodynamically carrying a large fish head first underneath by their strong talons. They can be seen flying from ocean side to bayside carrying their catch of the day.
You can check them out on nest cams such as the one at Cape Henlopen State Park http://www.destateparks.com/park/cape-henlopen/osprey.asp, or in NJ at http://www.conservewildlifenj.org/ospreycam/.
We will see our osprey around our Bays until late September and early October when they again begin their long flight to their southern wintering grounds.
Read more about Osprey and the Inland Bays with the 2015 Inland Bays Journal article: “Return of the Wild”