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An osprey nest on the Branford River Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source

An osprey nest on the Branford River (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)

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Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source

(Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)

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An osprey nest in Branford Photo courtesy of Connecticut Audubon

An osprey nest in Branford (Photo courtesy of Connecticut Audubon )

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Volunteers working on an osprey nest in the Haddam area Photo courtesy of Connecticut Audubon

Volunteers working on an osprey nest in the Haddam area (Photo courtesy of Connecticut Audubon )

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An osprey nest in Madison Photo courtesy of Connecticut Audubon

An osprey nest in Madison (Photo courtesy of Connecticut Audubon )

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In the absence of an appropriate tree, osprey can get creative when it comes to building nests, on channel markers, communication towers, powerline towers, and bridges. This osprey built its nest on the nautical marker at the mouth of the Branford River. Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source

In the absence of an appropriate tree, osprey can get creative when it comes to building nests, on channel markers, communication towers, powerline towers, and bridges. This osprey built its nest on the nautical marker at the mouth of the Branford River. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)

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An osprey nest on the Branford River Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source

An osprey nest on the Branford River (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)

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An osprey nest on the Branford River Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source

An osprey nest on the Branford River (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)

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Sam Griswold of Ivoryton, and Kededria Lewis and Sarah Evarts, from the Haddam area, work on an osprey platform. Photo courtesy of Connecticut Audubon

Sam Griswold of Ivoryton, and Kededria Lewis and Sarah Evarts, from the Haddam area, work on an osprey platform. (Photo courtesy of Connecticut Audubon )

‘Being Part of Something Bigger’

Published Mar 07, 2018 • Last Updated 11:13 am, March 05, 2018

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The neighbors who live near the salt marsh off of Beach Park Road in Clinton have been keeping an eye on the osprey population for as long as they can remember. Freyda Rose, who has lived there for almost 40 years, is among those who have taken a particular interest in the engaging and distinctive brownish-black hawk with yellow eyes. She used to have an elderly neighbor who would talk about the osprey nesting in the trees on the Greater Hammock River. “She’d talk about how researchers would shimmy up the trees to see what’s going on with the eggs,” Rose said.

At one point in time, what those researchers found in the nests was discouraging.

The coastal zone between New York City and Boston, including the Connecticut shoreline, used to support more than 1,000 active osprey nests in the 1940s, but, by 1969, eggshell thinning caused by DDT contamination, combined with loss of habitat due to development, reduced the number of nests to 150.

“The osprey disappeared for decades,” says Rose.

DDT, one of the first modern synthetic insecticides, was developed to fight a good fight, against malaria, typhus, and the other insect-borne human disease. But then—due to concern about its toxicity, unanticipated environmental effects, and improper use—it came under fire by environmentalists, most famously by Rachel Carson in her seminal environmental science book, Silent Spring.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, DDT was banned in 1972 because of its persistence in the environment, due to how it accumulated in fatty tissues, and also because it was able to travel long distances in the upper atmosphere. It’s considered a “probable human carcinogen” both by the United States and other countries.

This was good, not only for people, it also proved to be a life-saver for the ospreys.

“Then they started to come back” to the neighborhood near the salt marsh in Clinton, Rose says. “My neighbor always remembered them coming back on March 21, her father’s birthday.”

Connecticut’s government then began a program to monitor the osprey population. The magnificent predator’s resurgence in the state was so large that the government soon sought help from the public. Four years ago, Rose was among those who stepped forward to help.

“They feed in our trees” so it easily became a part of her routine to check to see how they were doing, Rose says. When she retired from teaching about 10 years ago, she became part of Cornell Lab’s Project FeederWatch, which runs from November through April. “So I’m used to citizen scientists projects, which is really sort of cool. I provide a little bit of information, but you have so many people reporting, they can really learn stuff. I can do it right from my window, and you feel like you’re part of something bigger.”

A Tremendous Success Story

Not only are these volunteers part of something bigger, they are part of a tremendous success story, says Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society, which currently is seeking more volunteers for the Osprey Nation project.

“At one point, we thought were totally wiped out from Connecticut, After they banned DDT in 1973, we’ve seen a tremendous comeback,” Comins says. “What our project is designed to do is to give us an early warning, to keep an eye on the osprey to make sure we are able to detect any future DDT-like issues. If we start to have problems or declines, we will be fore-armed, if you will. Our volunteers will alert us to actions we may need to take, or whether there is a problem we need to figure out. They are our early warning system.”

Osprey are an ideal species to monitor in part because they are considered an apex predator in their ecological niche, and because they eat so much fish.

“They are a great indicator of the health of our aquatic system,” Comins says. “They bio-accumulate. They eat large fish that eat smaller fish that eat smaller species. And they eat a lot of them. That was the problem, they ate a lot of DDT and it stayed in their bodies. Predators in general have that issue, if there is a problem in the environment.”

Because they are such an engaging species, vocal, easy to find, and conspicuous in their nesting, that makes it generally easy to find people who love to watch them and keep an eye out for them.

“People like them,” Comins says. “And they are easy to monitor.”

Up until 2014, the state DEEP monitored the osprey, but then they found the increase in the population was so large they needed help. “That’s where Osprey Nation comes in,” Comins says. The Osprey Nation project has about 270 volunteers currently.

Osprey stewards are given training, then asked to go out and monitor specific nests, for about 15 minutes or so every two weeks.

Thanks to the information gathered by the volunteers, researchers have learned that menhaden, small filter feeder fish that gobble up phytoplankton and zoo-plankton as they swim around. There is also anecdotal evidence that river herring is an important part of their diet as well.

That’s an important piece of information because river herring (alewife and blueback herring) are being evaluated for either threatened or endangered status under the federal Endangered Species Act. Information gathered by the volunteers could help with that effort, Comins says.

A Nice Problem to Have

There is one other potential issue being studied with regard to the osprey which is, in a way, a nice problem to have.

“Now the population is so healthy that there are some instances of aggression and we’re studying what, if anything, can be done about that,” Comins says. “The state recommends that you keep nests out of the line of sight of one another. We may be reaching saturation levels along the coast, but we are trying to see how expansion goes inland. There may be suitable habitats inland, where there are not as many platforms.”

Comins says the osprey have been getting innovative, nesting on channel markers in Long Island Sound and, inland, sometimes on communication towers and powerline towers and bridges.

“There’s an osprey nest alongside the Merritt, for example,” on a very tall communication tower, he says.

Researchers are also trying to determine why some nests fail.

“There could be a variety of reasons. It could be weather. It could be poor foraging. Maybe the pair was not able to brood the eggs or feed their young,” he says. “That’s one of the things about this project, it will give us early warning if there are problems. We can look at them in more detail.”

The shoreline along Long Island Sound and the Connecticut River valley remain among the areas of highest abundance of osprey in Connecticut. “There’s plenty of fish and that’s where most of the platforms are set up. There’s plenty of open country,” he says.

There are lots of volunteers already, but more are being sought because there always is some attrition.

“And, if past experience is any guide, there is a growing population and there may be new nests,” he says.

Comins says for all the years he’s been watching birds, it’s still a thrill to see an osprey.

“It’s just so gratifying. It means our overall conservation efforts are working. Seeing one makes me feel hopeful, that for all the problems we might have now, in 20 years we might have a solution,” he says.

Mork and Mindy

Anne McNulty, who has a summer home in Old Saybrook with her husband, Henry McNulty, agrees that participating in Osprey Nation is gratifying.

She became a volunteer about a year ago, following her retirement from being a doctor.

“I was looking for something I was interested in doing. And this was interesting and not that time consuming,” she says. “And this was a wonderful way to learn about the osprey and observe them firsthand.”

McNulty observes a nest that is about a mile away from her house. She has to drive there so sometimes, when she and Henry head out for their weekend errands, he’ll drop her off, run some errands, and then double back to pick her up.

“I looked for something close to where I lived and saw this nest in South Cove. So I signed up. I took a little trip down there and saw it was on private property. So I knocked on the door and the woman who lives there was so welcoming and nice and said, absolutely, anytime, feel free to park in the driveway and sit on the lawn,” she says. “And every time she’d see me, we’d talk. She was so interested in learning all about it.”

McNulty says it is fascinating to see all the different life stages of her birds.

“I saw the male and female who, by the way, I named Mork and Mindy, mating. And, it was amusing, right after mating, it was like she said, ‘go off and find stuff for the nest,’ and he came back with a big twig, and started making the nest,” she says. “By being there on a weekly basis, I could see that she was ... incubating the eggs. I could observe him bringing back the fish. And when they hatched, I could eventually see the little heads of the chicks as they got feathers.”

She said she did not name the chicks because there was no way to tell their gender and, since they would eventually fly away and not come back, “I didn’t want to get quite as attached.”

She says she expects her pair will be back in town sometime in April. By that time, she and Henry will be back in Old Saybrook from their winter home.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” she says.

Want to get involved? Visit www.ctaudubon.org/osprey-nation/#Get-Involved. From there, you can join or renew your Osprey Nation Membership, donate, or find out how to get more news.

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