First Wings of Spring
By Mary Helen Gillen // Photo by Ron Ketter
Ospreys are one of the quintessential animals of the Chesapeake Bay, as intrinsically tied to the region’s ecosystem as the blue crab or the Diamondback Terrapin. Each March, around St. Patrick’s Day, they return to the bay from their winter migratory grounds in Central and South America. Listen for their familiar chirps and whistles, signifying the coming of spring. At local nature preserves such as Easton’s Pickering Creek Audubon Center, they can be frequently seen hunting for fish in the waterways that border the property.
Colloquially known as the “fish hawk,” this raptor is unique among North American birds of prey for feeding almost exclusively on fish; they routinely average over 50 percent success on dives, a success rate that would make any angler jealous.
In late March through May, keep an eye out for individual osprey carrying bundles of sticks to nesting sites, which can include man-made structures such as telephone poles and nesting platforms. These large stick nests are hard to miss. Osprey return to the same nesting site year after year; after multiple generations, the nest can approach six feet in diameter and be up to twelve feet deep!
Ospreys are a conservation success story as their population has rebounded from a decline during the mid-twentieth century following the ban of some heavy pesticides that were poisoning the birds and thinning their eggshells. Today, Ospreys face new threats, including a proposed loss of protections under the United States’ Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). Under the newly proposed rule change, the MBTA will no longer hold responsible groups accountable for the accidental but foreseeable killing of birds through industrial activities.
Many of us on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are fortunate enough to mark the changing of the season with the arrival of ospreys over our creeks and rivers. If interested, visit www.audubon.org/takeaction to champion strong MBTA protections. As March and April approach, keep an eye out for spectacular dives over the water, signaling warmer weather and longer days just around the corner.