Nature Notes: Fish Hawks Endure

The migrant birds are returning from the south and even earlier
It takes a lot of sitting, and a lot of fish, to successfully raise osprey chicks, but an experienced pair of osprey can carry it off. Victoria Bustamante

   As of Monday, the red flowers of the swamp maples and yellow flowers of the spice bush are out, the wood anemones are about to bloom, and the smooth shads will follow shortly. It was a record cold March and April hasn’t been all that warm, but the native plants are beginning to show their colors.
    Notwithstanding the brrr-y spring, the migrant birds are returning from the south and even earlier. Some of them are beginning to bet on global warming and apparently don’t want to miss out, even in the face of unanticipated chills. On Monday, a walk in the woods of North Sea and Tuckahoe in Southampton Town produced a phoebe, a red-bellied woodpecker, and the songs of some early returns, including the diminutive blue-gray gnatcatcher, rose-breasted grosbeak, and a kinglet, against a backdrop of the continuous rattling of a Carolina wren, a bird that stays here throughout the entire winter like the mocking bird and sings on sunny January and February days no matter the cold.
    Prior to the walk in the woods, a side trip to Scallop Pond, the headwaters of Sebonac Creek, turned up both newcomers from the south and a few lingering winter birds such as the buffleheads yet to leave for the northern breeding grounds. There were double-crested cormorants diving and fishing, greater yellowlegs peet-peet-peeting, great white egrets with crooked necks bending low, stalking little fish, a snowy egret and, of course, ospreys, not one or two mind you, but eight of them.
    One osprey was occupying one of the platform nests, while two other platforms were barren. There are at least four nest poles in the area, so it may be that there will be enough to go around. One osprey was working on a silvery fish, perhaps an alewife, while perched on a low post near the occupied platform. Two pairs were perched on two duck blinds, perhaps making up their minds about what to do next.
    The Scallop Pond marshes, which are mostly taken care of by the Nature Conservancy are the most extensive east of the Shinnecock Inlet and have always been a favorite spot for nesting ospreys. Scallop Pond has fish — the Great Peconic Bay is but a few hundred yards to the north and Big Fresh Pond, with the largest alewife run on Long Island, less than a quarter mile away. To the west is Bullhead Bay, a few flaps farther, Cold Spring Pond. The Scallop Pond ospreys have more than enough water bodies to choose from and in a fish drought will be the last of the South Fork population to succumb.
    Some of these ospreys no doubt flew up here all the way from South America. Funny, most of the ospreys that nest in Florida stay in Florida year round. That’s because there are fish there year round and frosts and freezes are uncommon. Our ones are world travelers and rank right up there with Arctic terns, golden plovers, and albatrosses with respect to miles traveled.
    Long Island’s osprey population has yet to fully recover from the DDT era of the 1960s. Not all the ospreys come back each year. The ones that used to occupy the nest at the edge of Upper Sag Harbor Cove, a stone’s throw from Otter Pond, have gone missing for two years now. The pair that occupied the nest in the marsh next to John Steinbeck’s house on North Haven is absent as is the pair that nested on Long Beach between the road and Sag Harbor Cove east of Payne’s Cove. The Gardiner’s Island population has been suffering a decline in the new millennium and some of East Hampton’s ospreys are still missing.
    Part of the problem may be the continued buildup of the local spring and summer cormorant population, many pairs of which have been nesting in the tops of trees on Gardiner’s Island for the past 20 years or so. There is not a more adept fisher than the cormorant, and while ospreys hunt alone from the sky, cormorants hunt in packs and can round up fish for mass kills the way wolves round up caribou. Cormorants are protected, so it will probably take an act of Congress, as the old saying goes, to permit the thinning of their numbers.
    Late spring northeasters and early summer tropical storms also are hard on ospreys. The young can be blown out of the nest. Indeed, the entire nest can be blown off a pole platform. There is some truth to the notion that ospreys, unlike politicians, form strong and lasting conjugal relationships. It takes a lot of sitting and a lot of fish catching to raise osprey chicks, but a well-matched pair with some experience can carry it off. First-time nesters suffer much greater nest failure than seasoned performers.
    So, there you have it. The fish hawks are back. In fact, they are back on all the world’s continents with the exception of the Antarctic. As a species they’ve been around for a long, long time and as long as there are enough fish to go around and the populations of cormorants and seals don’t continue to rise exponentially, they will make it through at least to the dawn of the next millennium. At the rate human beings are killing each other off, the ospreys just might outlive us all. Now wouldn’t that be a great irony.