Nature’s calendar brings most ospreys back to Long Island waters just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, but on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday nearly two weeks ago, a group of experienced bird-watchers believe they saw their earliest-ever osprey returnee.
Longtime Audubon Society birding group leaders Rick and Linda Kedenburg of Peconic took a group of 12 teenagers on a excursion to look for birds south of Cutchogue on the morning of Feb. 12. As they drove down New Suffolk Avenue, they saw the distinct form of an osprey resting its talons on a nest on a pole just east of the entrance to Downs Creek.
Linda said that she saw what birders call the distinctive osprey “headlight” of the bird’s white forehead when it turned to them head-on. She and Rick were certain it was an osprey after they watched it through their spotting scope for several minutes.
“He was just sitting there quite upright looking around,” she said. “We thought he was holding his territory, but he hasn’t been seen there again. He probably just found it a handy perch. Usually these birds go very far south for the winter. They’re known to go as far south as Brazil, but he probably wasn’t that far south.”
“He looked pretty bedraggled,” added Rick.
After about ten minutes during which Rick and Linda let the novice birders take a look at their strange sighting through the spotting scope, the bird took off and flew east along the coastline.
“And nobody’s seen it since,” said Linda.
Both birders were fascinated by the sighting of the bird they dubbed “Abe” in honor of Abraham Lincoln, and they began to research other winter osprey sightings on Long Island.
Rick said that the only other winter sighting he found was one reported in western Long Island on a Christmas bird count.
“They figured he was old and didn’t migrate south and was just trying to make it through the winter,” said Rick.
Though Abe’s whereabouts are now a mystery, North Fork Bob, an osprey tagged at another nest on Downs Creek last August, is still enjoying the late summer sun of Venezuela, where he’s spent the past three months fishing along the Ventuari River.
Rob Bierregaard, the ornithologist with the University of North Carolina who tagged Bob last year, said Abe will likely fare all right as long as he has access to open water for fishing.
“Occasionally, there are some real early birds,” he said. “The risk is that they can run into bad weather, but they get good first picks on territory.”
Mr. Bierregaard said that the biggest risk that early ospreys face is the possibility that the water where they fish at their summer grounds is frozen over. The risk is much greater for inland birds than for coastal species. He added that birds seem to time their returns based on an evolutionary instinct that tells them when the waters are frozen.
He guesses that the bird that the Kedenburgs saw was a male, since males usually return to their summer grounds to scope out nesting sites about a week before female birds return.
Mr. Bierregaard expects North Fork Bob to begin his trip home any day now, in time to return to Cutchogue for St. Patrick’s Day.
Bob’s return voyage is being chronicled at Mr. Bierregaard’s website: http://www.bioweb.uncc.edu/Bierregaard/maps11/bob2011.htm