Focus on Nature: North Fork ospreys coming back to work

BARBARA STOUTENBURGH PHOTO | We watched this North Fork osprey pick up the nesting material he is carrying from along the edge of the beach.

Slowly our ospreys are arriving back on the North Fork after their winter vacation, which could have taken them as far away as Brazil. Many people on the North Fork look forward to seeing “their” ospreys return to last year’s nest, which could be down by the causeway, behind the golf course, on a high-tension tower or out on the marsh — where one true follower put up a man-made platform for “his” returning ospreys — etc., etc.

Barbara and I are still down in Florida, where we have watched the local ospreys refurbish their nests and incubate their camouflaged eggs of mottled brown, olive and black. Where we are there are few trees ospreys can nest in, so, while some ospreys nest on the top of telephone poles, most nests we see are on the cell phone towers scattered throughout the area. As we watched them begin their new season we saw them carrying material to rebuild their nests and now we can see they are incubating.

I’ve looked into many nests throughout the years and it’s surprising to see what birds use for building materials. The great majority of the nest is made up of dead limbs and twigs picked off in flight. As the bird cruises along the shoreline it might also pick up clumps of seaweed that could contain monofilament fish line, an old sneaker, clothing of some sort and/or plastic bags. These plastic bags, particularly the large black ones, become a problem when matted down in the nest as they hold water when it rains, which can cool the eggs and kill the embryos.

Probably the biggest problem that comes from any of these items is the discarded monofilament fishing line. This needs special mentioning because the monofilament gets tangled in the feet of the ospreys as they move around in the nest and causes problems. My attention has been brought to this situation a number of times.

I once received a call from someone nearby the nest on Goldsmith Inlet in Peconic who said that an osprey was hanging from the nest. My son and I went up immediately with a ladder and were able to cut it free and get it to Dr. Zitek, well known for his interest and care of wildlife on the North Fork. Dr. Zitek took care of the bird and we were able to return it to the nest.

Another near disaster with monofilament fishing line happened in Mattituck’s Husing Pond, where we had put a telephone pole down with a platform on the top for a nest when the pond was frozen over. The reason for this was that an osprey family had built its nest on top of the lights in the nearby ball park. The people at the park were concerned that the heat from the lights would set the nest on fire; therefore the nest site needed to be moved. With a lot of help, the new osprey nest in the pond worked out well.

However, one of the ospreys from that nest got tangled in some monofilament fishing line and, being unable to fly, fell into the pond. A gentleman called me to say he had seen the osprey thrashing around in the water and took his boat out to retrieve it.

After getting it out of the water, he untangled it and took it ashore, where he dried it off and put it on his roof. When we arrived the bird was still sitting there, looking a little damp and unhappy, but the gentleman called us later to let us know that the osprey took off once it was dry enough. Another good ending to what could have been a disaster.

While on a vacation in Cancun, we were watching what was happening outside our window when I saw an osprey fly over. I kept my eye on it as it hovered above one of the hotel’s decorative ponds. Then to my surprise it dove straight into one of them. I kept watching. Sure enough, in minutes it flew off with a nice-sized coy (a big goldfish) for dinner. I chuckled as I thought perhaps that could have been one of our North Fork ospreys enjoying his winter vacation and having no trouble finding food to keep him through the winter.