My association with began in 1988, and my perceptions about the month of March were altered soon thereafter.
Prior to joining the Group, March evoked mental images of blustery days, spring-training baseball, St. Patrick’s Day, and the “madness” of college basketball’s national championship tournament. The month still calls up those images for me, but another representative has soared to the front of the list.
Now, when I think of March, I think of the osprey. I suspect that I’m not alone in making such mental connections. Inevitably, reports will stream in over the next two weeks that ospreys are back on eastern Long Island. These large dark-and-light hawks will be seen at all of their usual spots: on the island at the mouth of the Peconic River, hovering over Accabonac Harbor, near the Westhampton Bridge to Dune Road, at Orient Beach and Morton National Wildlife Refuge and Mashomack Preserve. They’ll be seen in many other places, too. By the end of March, ospreys will have returned from their sunny winter destinations and begun settling in all over the East End.
Their return to eastern Long Island each March is a large part of the story for me. But the connection between hawk and month goes deeper than this. Since 1987, Group staffers and their project partners have ventured out in early March each year to erect or repair artificial nesting platforms for the birds. You recognize these structures as “osprey poles,” 12- to 20-foot poles with four-foot square mesh platforms mounted on top.
My first personal experiences erecting osprey poles were in March 1989. That year we put up poles at Hubbard Creek (Flanders), Clam Island (Noyac), Hay Beach Point (Shelter Island), Barcelona Neck (Sag Harbor) and Gerard Point (Springs). Since then, there have been platform-construction episodes in dimly lit basements, quarter-mile marches through ankle-deep marsh mud, a few nasty bouts with poison ivy, several spine-wrenching incidents and a memorable dunking into chilling Noyack Creek. I suppose it’s not entirely surprising that in the past few years I’ve transitioned my “osprey pole muscles” towards semi-retirement and passed the baton to the next generation of Group staffers. But those two decades of activities have cemented forever in my mind the link between March and the osprey.
Moreover, those efforts were totally worth it. I am still thrilled to watch an osprey in hunting mode. High above the water’s surface, the “fish hawk” flaps its wings slowly while scanning for prey. Its eyesight must be virtually telescopic, for ospreys need to consistently locate — from 50 feet up or more — 6 inches of counter-shaded menhaden or camouflaged flounder. When a potential target is spotted, the osprey hovers for a moment, pondering what to do next. If the decision is to “go for it,” then wings are tucked and talons are extended as the 2-foot-long torpedo drops from the sky. With a loud splash, the hunter may even submerge completely for a few seconds in an attempt to snag a meal. A couple of years ago Group educators were blessed with such an encounter at Northwest Creek, just as our field-trip students were getting off the bus!
If you’ve ever tried to hold a live fish in your hands, you can appreciate the degree of difficulty presented by an osprey’s fishing methods. The osprey, however, is blessed with a secret weapon — its feet. Aside from the obvious presence of long and razor-sharp talons, the bird’s footpads and toes are covered by short, spiky spines. The result is a Velcro-like fish-catching device. Any fish that comes in contact with an osprey’s foot is likely to remain in such contact for the short duration of the rest of its life.
There was a time not long ago when Long Islanders feared that their days of watching ospreys on the hunt were numbered. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the local population declined precipitously. At first, a cause could not be found. But eventually a culprit was fingered. The pesticide, DDT, which was broadly applied during that time period, had made its way up the food chain to accumulate and concentrate within the bodies of predators like the osprey. Though DDT did not kill adult Ospreys, it drastically affected their productivity. In particular, DDT caused the Osprey’s eggshells to be so thin that they could not withstand ordinary incubation. By the 1960s, hardly any chicks were hatching — most eggs broke prematurely.
Thankfully, DDT was banned from use and the local osprey population has rebounded nicely. They have been lent a hand along the way, in the form of those artificial nesting platforms. Ospreys have adapted so well to the platforms that they are now — once again — common sights on eastern Long Island from March through October.
Steve Biasetti, is the director of environmental education for the Group for the East End. The Group protects and restores the environment of eastern Long Island through education, citizen action and professional advocacy.