Osprey thriving across the East End

Holy Fish Hawk!

It’s no secret to anyone who spends any time close to the water on the East End: Ospreys are seemingly everywhere.

Places like Long Beach in Noyac have several occupied nests within a mile of one another. The same is true on the North Fork, where nests are commonplace along the bayfront and Long Island Sound. Even nesting platforms along back roads in Bridgehampton and Water Mill seem to be at full occupancy.

Aaron Virgin, the vice president of the Group for the East End, says those conclusions are not just anecdotal and that osprey, which were once laid low by the scourge of DDT in the 1960s before starting a slow rebound, are thriving.

This week, the Group announced that a five-year monitoring program of osprey nesting sites on the East End had shown a dramatic 50-percent increase in occupancy, with 420 of the known 519 sites active.

There are two major reasons: a readily available supply of menhaden, fluke, snappers, and the other saltwater fish the birds prefer to feed on, and the availability of suitable nesting sites, thanks in large part to volunteers who have erected large numbers of nesting poles over the past 20 years.

“There’s no question there’s an abundance of bunker and other fish,” Virgin said, adding that regulations limiting the catch of menhaden, commonly known as bunker, and other species have been vital to the fish hawk’s resurgence.

On average, a male osprey can catch 18 fish a day to feed itself, its mate, and any young birds in the nest, Virgin said.

Osprey also have plenty of places to set up housekeeping, thanks, in, part, to a longstanding effort by the Group to erect manmade nesting platforms in suitable sites. PSEG-Long Island, which maintains electrical transmission lines for the Long Island Power Authority, has also proven to be an unlikely ally, Virgin said.

“Nesting in trees we want, which is what some osprey once did, but nesting along electrical lines not so much,” he said. Osprey are not known for keeping their nests clean and when they nest near electrical lines, wet fish can lead to shorts and even fires, which can kill young birds and disrupt power. Virgin said in recent years, when it removes nests from poles, PSEG has provided nesting platforms nearby to encourage the birds to rebuild their nests.

The Group continues to field calls from private homeowners who want to erect nesting platforms on their property. “On average, I receive an inquiry a week seeking information about how to place an osprey pole on private property or to see if someone has the right habitat,” Virgin said. “The Group is very particular on where to place a new pole, as our goal over the past five-year study has been to see if pairs will return to nesting in trees, old boat docks, and on other natural areas or places in disrepair. At some point, it would be nice if osprey could make it on their own, and with the current robust population, we may be near that time.”

Frank Quevedo, the director of the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton, said he too has seen an upswing in the number of ospreys. “Their numbers have been increasing over time, but the last year or two it has really been noticeable,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with the abundance of food sources.”

“The ocean is pretty robust at this moment,” he said, pointing out that the abundance of menhaden has attracted whales to the Long Island coast.

Ospreys mate for life and will return to the same nest for the approximately 15 years they mate, Quevedo said. The birds have apparently found the key to long-term happiness: separate vacations. When they fly south — as far as Venezuela and Colombia for the winter — they separate before returning to the same nest the next spring. Osprey have few predators here, although bald eagles, which are known to harass them and steal their food, are also on the rise, Quevedo added.

“The fact is, they are making a tremendous comeback,” Quevedo said of osprey. “All wildlife will try to expand their range. If this area becomes saturated, they will try to expand into another location.”

Virgin said since 2014, the Group has collected data from East End nesting sites. On average, there have been 196 nests in Southold, 106 in Southampton, 64 on Shelter Island, 28 in East Hampton, and 12 in Riverhead. The densest population of breeding osprey is on the North Fork, specifically Southold, which includes Fishers Island, Plum Island, and Robins Island. Those three islands have approximately 60 nesting sites among them.

Although East Hampton has a relatively small number of nests, they have been the most productive, with each nest producing an average of 1.58 young per year, Virgin said. “Without question, East Hampton appears to be showing the fastest growth, particularly in the Accabonac Harbor area where more than a dozen nests could be observed from a single spot this past summer,” he said.

“The take-away is they are thriving,” he said. “They might plateau, but if you and I are here in 20 years, we’ll still see osprey.”

sjkotz@indyeastend.com