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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Osprey Files: Growing Up (Part 2)

Before I left Maine to come back home to Colorado, I had the good fortune to witness some of the first flights by "my" Osprey babies at Wolfe's Neck State Park. I was amazed to see how quickly these birds learned to fly - within just a few attempts, they soared like old pros.

Juvenile Osprey on an early flight at Wolfe's Neck Park, Maine

Landing, however, was a skill that took more time to perfect...

The same juvenile trying to land at the nest and about to crash into dad in the process...

Within 5 days of learning to fly, the young Osprey appeared to be teaching themselves to fish. They'd soar for a few minutes, then fly low over Casco Bay and intermittently drop down to practice their fish-grabbing skills. Why do I think they were just practicing? I never saw any of them actually catch anything - it looked to me as if they were testing out how to grab at the water safely, much as a kitten might bat at some dust on the floor to perfect her hunting skills. The young Osprey continued these touch-and-gos with the water's surface for several minutes before winging back to the nest to rest their young muscles.

These short flights over the bay served another purpose besides learning to fish - they helped the young birds build up a set of powerful flight muscles. At first, the birds could fly for no more than 5-10 minutes at a time before needing to rest. But by the end of August, they were strong enough to begin their long journey to the south to spend the winter in warmer climates. 

Osprey that breed in Maine typically over-winter in Central America, although many US birds winter anywhere from Florida through the Gulf Coast of Texas and into Central and South America (as far south as Venezuela). That's a long way for a young bird to travel so they remain in their wintering location throughout their second summer. By the summer of their fourth year they've learned the northward migration routes and have returned to breed in areas near their birth territory. 

In a few years if I visit Casco Bay again I may be lucky enough to see one of these young return as an adult to raise his or her first family...

All photos and content copyright Nancy Rynes, 2012. You may freely link to this site, but please do not copy anything here without my permission. Thanks.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Osprey Files: Growing Up (Part I)

I've had an amazing time this summer following two nests of Osprey chicks from hatching to flight. While several other nests in the area failed, a pair at Robinhood Cove and another at Wolfe Neck Woods State Park successfully raised 6 young between them. Another generation of Osprey takes to the Maine skies.

I began watching several nest sites back in April and visited them about once every 7 - 10 days through the season. I have to admit that every time I returned to check out the latest activities, I was half-afraid I'd find another failed nest or a hatchling had died.

Sometimes that did happen. Maine had several severe storms early this summer that wiped out a number of nests along the coast. A few other nests were abandoned for unknown causes during the incubation and early hatchling period. Causes of nest failure can include storms, nest instability or destruction, loss of one of the adults, inexperienced adults, disease, pesticides, predation, and many more. It's sad for me when that happens because I'm a softie and form a bit of an attachment to the parents after spending hours and hours observing them.

Shading the younger chicks from the sun on a hot day.

I was happy to find that each time I visited the Robinhood Cove and Wolfe Neck Woods nest I saw bigger, healthier chicks and parents busy with fishing and feeding their young.

The nesting adults at Wolfe's Neck State Park welcomed their first hatchling the last week in May. Two days later the second hatched, followed by a third in another 2 days. The chicks in the Robinhood Cove nest began hatching out about a week later.

Osprey eggs are about the size of a chicken egg and when the young hatch out, the chicks are smaller than the size of a human fist. They're covered with downy feathers and are so weak that they can't easily move around the nest. In an amazing feat of growth, over the course of a short 7-9 weeks the chicks grow an enormous amount, reaching almost adult size (about 22 inches from beak to tail and weight of about 3.5 to 4 pounds). The extent of growth I saw in the chicks between my weekly visits truly astounded me - a huge amount of fish must have been needed to fuel the production of all of those muscles and feathers and talons!

Bringing dinner back to the nest.

Unfortunately because both nests that I watched were much higher than my observation points, I had no way of viewing the chicks when they were very young (The photos I've included in this post are of the chicks at about 3-4 weeks old). At the bottom of this post I've added links to some Osprey cams and nest photos to give you a better idea of what the chicks look like at hatching.

Daily life with hatchlings was something like this:

1) Family wakes up (as early as 4:30 AM here in Maine)
2) "Mom" calls to "Dad" until he flies off to catch food
3) Dad brings fish back
4) Mom eats a little fish and gently feeds rest to the hatchlings
5) Hatchlings snooze

Repeat several times throughout the day, interspersed with fending off intruders, more napping, and shading chicks from the sun/wind/rain/cold/heat.

Division of labor with Osprey was pretty clear with these two pair. Mom controlled goings-on within the nest, staying with the chicks nearly 100% of the time. She closely monitored the young and called out to her mate when it was time to catch another fish. He'd fly off and from 5 to 30 minutes later return with a fish and hand it off to her. She'd use her talons to hold the fish down while her beak tore pieces off so that she could gently feed each chick. She also sheltered chicks from the sun and weather, monitored for intruders, and kept the nest in order.

Dad did the bulk of the fishing and running off of intruders. The males seemed to be "on call," responding quickly to Mom's cries for fish or winging off to drive off a potential threat. He also gathered nest material throughout the season - it seemed like these two nests were always under construction!

Fishing appeared to be good for these two families this year so I didn't see chicks in either nest getting shorted their share. The fish seemed plentiful all of the chicks looked healthy and well-fed.

To be continued...

All text and photos copyright Nancy Rynes, 2012. You may share a link to this blog

Osprey Cam Photos of babies:

Osprey Cam in Montana:

Osprey Cam in Scotland:

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Osprey Files: Herring!

May is a bountiful time of year for portions of Maine's Osprey population. A few rivers still host annual runs of herring (aka alewives) that come in from the sea to go to their spawning grounds in freshwater lakes and streams. Hatched in fresh water, alewives spend several years in the ocean before returning to their natal stream to spawn. This is Maine's equivalent to the salmon runs of the Pacific Coast of North America.

And like the salmon runs on the Pacific, the alewife population has suffered greatly. Most of the rivers that hosted runs in the past no longer have alewives returning yearly - some due to dams that the fish cannot scale, others to overfishing and pollution. And for the dams that do have fish ladders, most of the ladders are old, crumbling, and are not very easy for the fish to climb. The last I saw, only 5 rivers and streams (out of several hundred) in Maine had predictable, yearly, alewife runs.

A few streams still have healthy populations though, and it's these streams that, I hope, will provide the foundation for the return of the alewives. In the meantime, Osprey, Herring Gull, Bald Eagles, and other wildlife depend on these remaining runs to help raise their young.

Herring Gulls - waiting for the Alewives

I spent the last couple of days volunteering with an alewife counting project near my home in the Midcoast of Maine. I'll admit that I volunteered not only to help with the fish restoration project but to be in one of the best places in the US to watch Osprey actively fishing.

The stream didn't disappoint!

The alewives come in on a high tide when the stream temperature is warm - above 58 deg F seems to be best. Fish are cold blooded so if the water temperature is too cold, they are sluggish and have a tough time swimming upstream.

Alewives - the start of the run

The area was devoid of Osprey during the low tide but as the tide came in, several birds flew over to check out the stream.

Osprey checking out the river

I'm not exactly sure what they were looking for - could the Osprey sight individual fish from 100 or more feet above the water? Were they looking for fish rises or other activity? I'm not exactly sure, but I do know that as soon as the run started in earnest, the area was inundated with hungry Osprey!

As the tide rose and the alewives came in, the fish were packed so tightly that the surface of the water was turbulent with fins and splashing fish. The submerged entrance to the fish ladder was black with the backs of alewives - a very good sign! Onlookers were anxiously watching the fish ladder from the top of the dam, cheering the fish on as they passed step after step.

On Friday I counted at least 18 individual fish catches by Osprey in the 1 hour I stayed after max tide. On Saturday the count was 16. I left only because the high tide was in the evening and the shadowed lighting was just too dark for photography - but shadowed water seemed to help the Osprey sight fish so they kept fishing after I left.

Some of the raptors perched on branches that overhung favorite fishing holes. They would watch the water, head bobbing back and forth trying to spot a fish. Once a fish was in their sights they leapt off their perch, slamming into the water feet first, then flying out again with a fish in their talons.

Osprey watching the water from a favorite branch

When the favorite perches filled, arriving Osprey had to hunt from on-the-wing. They flew in low and slow, face into the wind (upstream), hovering over the fishing hole. If they didn't see a likely target they circled off and came back around again for another try. As the alewife run progressed, more and more Osprey chose this method to spot a fish.

A few Bald Eagles flew past during the height of the Osprey fishing-frenzy, but the Eagles didn't fish for themselves. Their tactic was to wait on a nearby branch until an Osprey caught a fish. As soon as the Osprey flew away with the fish, the Eagle would launch itself off its branch and chase down the smaller raptor. The Eagle would then harass the Osprey by diving at it until the smaller bird released its fish, at which point the Eagle would grab the fish out of the air and fly off. The poor Osprey would them turn around and go back to the river for another fish.

Watching these beautiful birds in their fishing frenzy was one of the most amazing things I've witnessed here in Maine. Over two days and 34 catches that I witnessed, only once did I see an Osprey dive and miss a fish. Pretty good success rate!

For more information on Alewives, visit:

All photos and text copyright Nancy Rynes, 2012. You may link to this article, but do not copy any content without my permission.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Osprey Files: Weathering the Storm

The latest news from the Osprey family at Wolfe's Neck State Park is happy - they survived the Nor'easter of April 22/23. For those of you not living in New England, a Nor'easter is a strong storm that comes in off the Atlantic with heavy winds from, yes, the northeast. These storms typically bring heavy rains or snows, strong winds (sometimes of hurricane strength), often a storm surge, and very big surfs. While not hurricanes, they often do more damage to New England forests and buildings.

Our spring Nor'easter started with strong winds and light rain on the evening of Sunday, April 23. By Monday morning the rain was extremely heavy and the winds were driving it almost horizontal. Not many humans, inlcuding me, wanted to be outside in these conditions. We'd have been drenched to the skin in minutes! I'm such a softie when it comes to animals that all I could think about was the Osprey couple and their budding family out in the elements on their island nest a few miles away.

The storm was mostly gone by Tuesday morning, with moderate damage to trees and over 5 inches of much-needed rain left behind. We humans weren't impacted much and I continued to hope that the Ospreys came through OK too.

Notenwi (the male) returning with nest-repair material

I soon learned about the resiliancy of these beautiful birds. As soon as the weather had cleared off a bit a couple of days later I swung by the park and checked up on our couple. They were alive and well and still incubating eggs! Imagine - sitting out, exposed, at the top of a 40 foot tree for 36 long hours, being continually tossed back and forth by strong winds and drenched with cold rain. I know I would not have been able to endure it - I bet most humans would feel the same.

But these amazing birds came through this latest storm, apparently none the worse for wear. The female, Wapatewi, still sat on her eggs while her mate flew off from time to time in search of food. The nest took a bit of a beating, though, as it looks like the birds repaired its landward side with new sticks and bits of bark. In fact, they were still in the process of repairs the evening I watched them. Notenwi flew off several times between hunting trips and brought back bits of kelp, seaweed, and bark that the female used to line the nest.

I know Osprey have come through countless storms during their long history on this planet so I suppose I shouldn't have concerned myself about them. That didn't stop me from worrying just a bit though. Even knowing that the species is one of the "comeback kids" of the bird world - Osprey bouncing back to double their numbers after usage of DDT put them in serious jeopardy* - I still want this little family to thrive so I have the opportunity watch their young grow and fly off on their own!

The Wolfe's Neck Nest before the April storm

The Wolfe's Neck Nest after the April storm

A Second Nest

This past weekend I found a second natural Osprey nest near my home. An Osprey pair had just found it but had not set up permanent residence yet. I'll check back on these status of these two birds in a few days. I hope they decide to stay for the summer and raise a brood - I'd enjoy having two Osprey families to watch and photograph!

Female Osprey on nest at Reid State Park

*DDT also greatly affected other birds, particularly birds of prey including Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons.

Text and photos copyright Nancy Rynes, 2012. You may link to this page but you're not allowed to copy any portion of it without my express written permission.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Osprey Files: An Attempted Nest Takeover

The news from the Maine coast: our Osprey couple has survived an apparent nest takeover this week.

A few days ago I spent a few hours watching the nest. The female, Wapatewi, still spent most of her time incubating eggs while the male, Notenwi, hung out on his favorite roosting tree on the far side of the island.  After a long stretch of no activity I decided to call it a day and head home. I started packing up my camera when Wapatewi, still on the nest, began screeching to her mate. I thought that maybe she was simply hungry - she tends to squawk to her mate when she needs food and he obligingly flies off to go catch a fish.

But this time things were different.

Notenwi flew off his roost but instead of heading off to catch a fish, he began circling higher and higher over the nest. At the same time, Wapatewi screeched more loudly and turned to look not at her mate, but westward, over the mainland. She was obviously stressed about something.

Then another female Osprey appeared, flying in from the west and attempting to "dive-bomb" Wapatewi as she guarded her eggs! I looked into the sky for Wapatewi's mate and saw him chasing off a male Osprey.

The interlopers appeared to be trying to take over the nest. The new female repeatedly flew in close to Wapatewi, almost seeming to bully her and likely trying to get her to abandon the nest. For her part, Wapatewi stood her ground without leaving the eggs, scolding the intruding female sternly the whole time.

Wapatewi scolding an intruding female Osprey

Notenwi successfully chased off the new male Osprey, then flew back to the nest to take on the new female. A couple of circuits around the island with Notenwi on her tail convinced the intruder to give up and follow her mate to another location. As soon as the second Osprey was out of sight, Notenwi settled back down on his favorite branch and Wapatewi went back to the business of quietly incubating her eggs.

As all of this was going on in the skies above us, a small crowd of people had gathered to watch the confrontation. I guess because I had a camera and some sense of understanding what was happening, folks started asking me about this behavior and if it was "normal."

What's going on is that nest sites for Ospreys are at a premium. Think of them like custom-built homes - each one takes a pair of Osprey many, many hours of effort to build. With coastal development here in New England, many of the big, old trees that used to support nests have been removed. And natural processes destroy trees and nests too - one big winter storm can badly damage or destroy many Osprey nests within the space of hours.

On the plus side, humans have been building artificial nesting platforms all over New England - and Ospreys have been using them. But still, nests are hard to come by, especially for young Osprey pairs just starting their lives together.

Ospreys tend to mate for life and many of them return to the same nest year after year. It looked to me like Notenwi and Wapatewi had been together for a while - their communication was superb and their "changing of the guard" while incubating eggs was always smooth and efficient. I'd also sensed that they'd used this nest before - perhaps for several years. They seemed really familiar with the area and were already incubating eggs - they were weeks ahead of the other birds passing through.

This last week has seen a peak in Osprey migrations through New England (Osprey that nest in the northern US and into Canada winter either in Florida, Central, or South America). This intruding pair was likely migrating through and looking for a suitable nest site. If they could scare Notenwi and Wapatewi off their nest, the new couple could move in and start their family right away, saving weeks of effort in finding or building a nest.

Instead, the new Osprey will have to look elsewhere. Notenwi and Wapatewi have too much to lose to give up their nest without a fight.

Text and photos copyright Nancy Rynes, 2012. You may link to this page but you're not allowed to copy any portion of it without my express written permission.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Osprey Files: Nesting Starts at Wolfe's Neck State Park

14 April 2012:

This past week one of my friends told me about a long-standing, natural, Osprey nest near my home - I had no idea it was there so I was really excited to find out about it. I've always wanted to spend time photographing these beautiful birds but have never had the opportunity to see them up close, on the nest, and in a location I could visit anytime I wanted.

I stopped by Wolfe's Neck State Park today to check out the nest. It's on a small island off the coastline of the state park. To view it, I had to walk through a narrow strip of woods between the parking area and the park's rocky shore. Before I even was within sight of the water I heard the screeching cries of the Osprey - one calling from above me and the other answering from somewhere ahead.

I unconsciously stepped up my pace and within a couple of minutes I was out on the rocks of the shore, staring across a narrow tidal flat to a small island. There, on top of an Eastern White Pine, was a large nest - a conglomeration of sticks, pine needles, seaweed, and who-know-what else:

One bird, presumably the female, was hunkered down in the nest, her head and back barely visible over the wall of sticks. Was she incubating eggs?

Another bird, the male I guessed, perched at the left side of the nest and was a bit restless. He soon took off to the east, then caught a thermal and flew off out of sight while the female screeched and squawked. I wish I knew what she was saying to him! My kingdom for an Osprey translator...

About 20 minutes later he returned, bringing her a fish. He tore part off for himself and flew off to a favorite branch, leaving her with the bulk of the fish for her lunch.

It looked more and more like she was incubating eggs because this was the pattern the rest of the time I watched them. The only time she was visible above the wall of the nest was when a) she seemed to want food and was calling to him or b) he returned to the nest with a fish c) he returned to the nest to help her make more babies :-)

In case you think she's starting to sound a little "bossy" - well, she is justified at this time in the season. Egg-laying is extremely energy-intensive for female birds and the larger the bird, the more energy is needed. Each egg carries inside it not only the DNA to make a new bird, but all of the food and water the developing Osprey baby needs for its 5 weeks inside of the egg. And all of that energy inside of the egg comes from the female bird, so while she is laying she needs a lot of help from her mate in getting enough food.

After watching the pair for a couple of hours I thought I would unofficially name them. They aren't pets (obviously) but it will be easier, and more fun, to refer to them by name in upcoming posts rather than a generic "male" and "female." So in the language of my Fox/Sauk ancestors, I'll refer to the female as "Wapatewi" which means "Light," and the male will be "Notenwi" which means "The Wind" (since he's been flying so much).*

How can I tell the two apart? The female, Wapatewi, has a darker "necklace" of brown feathers around her upper chest. She's also the bigger of the two, though only by a little. The male, Notenwi, has a very, very light "necklace" of darker feathers around his upper chest.

I also decided that I'd come back at least weekly while they were here and document life for this pair of Osprey this season. I'll be sharing what I see, here on this blog and on Facebook. Stay tuned for more updates...

Notenwi stretching his wings

All text and photos copyright Nancy Rynes, 2012. You may link to or share this article, but you may not copy or reproduce it without my permission.

*My apologies to the local tribes here in Maine for naming these birds in the Fox/Sauk language. This is the language of some of my ancestors so it's the one I'm most comfortable using.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Celebrating Spring in Maine

Record-warm March temperatures on the East Coast this year brought an early flush of bird migrations. Ducks, songbirds, shorebirds, and raptors starting moving through the area earlier than usual this year.

Here are a few highlights from my spring photography so far:

Female Red-Breasted Merganser at Reid State Park

Male Harlequin Duck at Dyer Point

Male Red-Breasted Merganser, Reid State Park

Black-Crowned Night Heron, Mercy Pond, Mercy Hospital (Portland)

Ring-Necked Duck, Mercy Pond, Mercy Hospital (Portland)

Red-Breasted Merganser, Reid State Park

Common Loon, Reid State Park

Song Sparrow, Florida Lake, Freeport ME