Osprey Country

I attended a Jimmy Webb concert over the weekend in Harrisburg, PA. If a seasoned guy like me can still have an idol, well, Jimmy Webb is mine. Being in his presence and listening to him play piano and sing, I imagined myself being in the presence of Cole Porter or Irving Berlin—especially while listening to his performance of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”

When he first came onto the stage in that small Best Western Hotel meeting room, he said, “Hi, everyone,” he strode over to the piano, and he continued with something like: “I’m gonna just sit here and start playing.” (He opened with “The Highwayman,” a song for which he won a Best Country Song Grammy Award in 1985.) So I’ll follow in the footsteps of the songwriting master. I’m gonna just sit here and start writing. Not about country music, but about Osprey country.

Condor Country

I wrote earlier about our visit to “condor country” (northern Arizona) to work with the folks at the Peregrine Fund and help with the release of captive-bred and wild-bred California Condors. I described our experiences in “The Thrill of a Lifetime” and “The Thrill of a Lifetime, Part Two.”

Soaring California Condor
Soaring California Condor

If you haven’t read those posts, I encourage you to do so. At the very least, though, please view the short video of condors being released from the Vermilion Cliffs holding pen at the end of “The Thrill of a Lifetime, Part Two.” But be forewarned. You might develop an emotional connection with the birds, and you might be changed by the spectacle. In any event, you, too, will exclaim, “Oh my goodness,” as you watch the birds drift off into the grayness.

Osprey Country

Well, here in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., we aren’t in condor country, we’re in “Osprey country.” Ospreys dominate the landscape here much like condors and other species dominate the landscape out West. The Chesapeake Bay and environs are considered, after all, the “Osprey Garden.” There’s a higher concentration of breeding Ospreys here than there is anywhere else in the world.

Osprey hunting
Osprey on the hunt

And in this wonderful environment, I, like many others, have become a student of these birds. I’ve spent countless hours with binoculars or camera or both in hand, just watching them and making mental notes—and sometimes written notes—about their behavior. I’ve also learned about them while monitoring Osprey nests as an OspreyWatch participant. This season alone, I’ve learned some fascinating things about their nest sites and how they go about the all-important task of nest building.

Osprey Nests

Pictured below (top photo) are 2 birds building a nest atop an inactive, fixed construction crane on a barge in the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River in Chesapeake, VA. I say “2 birds” because for the first time, I observed both sexes delivering nesting material. And I highlight a crane because I’m beginning to learn that Ospreys routinely seek them out and nest on them (both the inactive and active variety) as cranes meet so many of their nest-site requirements (height, easy access, a safe distance from predator staging areas, etc.).

Now, with this new understanding, I couldn’t help but check out nearly every construction crane we came across on the way to Harrisburg for evidence of nesting. And I, of course, checked out nearly every communication tower—and the occasional light tower and utility tower—as well. And by the time I got to Harrisburg …

Male Osprey delivering nesting material
Male Osprey delivering nesting material “surfboard-style”
Female Osprey carrying pine straw to the nest
Female Osprey—note her necklace—carrying pine straw to the nest

Discovery and Detour

I discovered the above crane nest while driving south over Veterans Memorial Bridge in late March. I was headed to see if an Osprey pair had set up house yet on a channel marker just downriver when I happened to spot what looked like an Osprey nest on a crane just north of—and level with—the top of the bridge. I immediately decided to abort, to find a parking spot at the south end of the bridge, and to make the 3/4-mile trek, camera and 500mm lens in hand, back to the bridge top.

After I made the climb, the nest that I’d spotted and all the accompanying nest-building activity were at eye level and only a stone’s throw away. Wow. This was a photographer’s and hawk watcher’s dream come true. It was an Osprey student’s dream come true, as well.

Osprey Nests, Cont’d

I probably stayed on that bridge for 3 hours. And there I witnessed scenes like the one below at more or less regular 20-30 minute intervals. I found the delivery rhythm, the Ospreys’ work ethic, and the relative size of the things they carried fascinating. Who knew? I also thought about my earlier post about being still and learning, and what Ms. Oliver considered to be of supreme importance: “standing still and learning to be astonished.” I stood on that bridge and was astonished.

While there, I watched the Ospreys deliver everything from large sticks and chunks of rotting log to twine, rope, and a white plastic bag. They delivered large and seeming unwieldy foundational materials like this branch end, which to my surprise, this bird tore while in flight(!) from the crown of a dead tree. And they delivered fine, cushioning and insulating material, like the pine straw above.

Osprey carrying a branch end to a nest
One unwieldy haul

Here’s something else I observed. You might not be able to see it from looking at the photo above, but it’s illustrated well in the 2 photos above it: The Ospreys carried absolutely everything to the nest in both talons. (This is how they also carry fish.) No doubt, this method of carrying things has something to do with ease of flight and flight stability. However, when the Ospreys delivered the material to the nest, a transfer took place, and they deposited the material using only one of their talons. The free talon was needed to ensure a safe and steady landing.

Osprey depositing a stick into a nest
Male Osprey depositing a stick “single-footedly”

The Rest of the Story

While I observed all the above—and I actually did so over a period of several days—I was hopeful that I’d be able to continue. During one of my visits to the bridge, an older couple came by. I pointed out the Osprey nest to them. They told me that the crane had been inactive for some time. I was relieved, for that meant that the Ospreys would likely be able to stay the duration and successfully raise their brood.

But the following morning as I drove over the bridge and headed to my usual parking spot, something didn’t look right. I couldn’t quite pinpoint it, but it seemed as if the position and shape of the top of the crane had changed. Well, my suspicions were confirmed when I reached the top of the bridge. Even though the crane wouldn’t be used by a human operator, someone had decided that it wouldn’t be used by the Osprey pair, either.

The top of a crane—secured
The top of the crane—secured

Then, a little later, I took stock and decided to put my thoughts in writing: “What had been a fairly level substrate was raised, the nesting material fell out or was removed, and wires were stretched across the entire area to prevent renesting. Pretty amazing. I’m fairly certain no eggs had been laid. There are a few empty channel markers with platforms just downriver. Perhaps the pair will relocate to one of those. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.”

Channel marker with nesting platform
Channel marker with a nesting platform

The Epilogue

I hope you’ve enjoyed my meanderings here. It’s a lot of fun studying these birds, and it’s a real pleasure sharing what I’ve learned with you—and sharing my photos with you, too. I plan on continuing to write about the “fish hawk” in my next blog post, so stay tuned. And as usual, I hope to include some interesting photos and photo sequences. Sometimes, you can’t capture all the action in one frame!

Thanks, as always, for reading and for your comments, likes, and fist bumps. This last bridge photo is for you.

Osprey carrying branch
One single-minded and focused bird

4 thoughts on “Osprey Country

  1. Cool article. I wish I had read it a day (or even an hour!) earlier, because then I would know if the osprey that flew by my 4th floor hotel balcony — at eye level! — was male or feamale. I would have snapped a picture, but I was in the middle of a phone call. (sigh)

    Like

  2. Great article I too love ospreys. I can’t help but wonder why the nest was destroyed. Would its presence be a distraction to drivers? Just a thought. Will read your other articles soon but it’s now after 2am and I need to go to sleep.

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    1. Thanks so much, Marian. It’s likely that the nest was removed and the birds were prevented from renesting because the crane would be used down the road—or the business owners generally don’t take kindly to birds nesting on their equipment. FYI, the nest wasn’t a distraction to drivers.

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