By TODD McLEISH/ecoRI News contributor
Rhode Island’s osprey population is climbing, after a highly productive year in 2016, and while the wet spring of 2017 will likely cause a decrease in nesting success this year, the once-rare fish-eating hawk is a model conservation success story, according to new report issued by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, which has coordinated the monitoring of osprey nests statewide since 2010.
“We’ve had an amazing long-term trend of not just active nests but successful nests and the number of young,” said Jonathan Scoones, Audubon’s director of volunteer services who coordinates the osprey monitoring program. “Only nine of our nests were not successful this year, so it seems that our ospreys are becoming experienced at raising young.”
More than 100 volunteers recorded 159 active osprey nests in the state last year, with 150 of them successfully raising chicks, an increase of 28 successful nests over the previous year and 45 more than in 2014. The number of young ospreys that fledged from their nests skyrocketed from 186 in 2014 to 297 in 2016.
“Last year was the perfect year for ospreys, mostly because of the weather,” Scoones said. “The birds have to be able to see through the water to find the fish to bring them back to their chicks. They have to be able to see down about three feet into the water. If the weather is bad, they can’t see well enough.”
For the third year in a row, osprey nests in Barrington and South Kingstown produced the most fledglings, with 42 and 41, respectively. The Palmer River area of Barrington and Warren had the densest aggregation of osprey nests in the region, with 22 nests between the East Bay Bike Path bridge in Warren and the Swansea Country Club just over the Massachusetts border.
Butch Lombardi, who monitors a dozen of the nests on the Palmer River, said that food availability and water conditions make the area an ideal place for osprey to nest.
“Food is the prime reason they’re there,” he said. “The river is pretty shallow once you get past the Warren bridge, and there is very little boat traffic except for kayaks and canoes. The key is that the river is so shallow that the birds can hunt it pretty easily because the fish can’t go deep on them.
“If you add Merriman’s Pond at the country club, which is just two feet deep, it’s like McDonald’s takeout for them. It’s an easy place for a meal.”
Ospreys were driven to near extinction in the 1960s and ’70s because of the effects of the pesticide DDT, which caused reproductive failure in many fish-eating birds, including bald eagles. When the osprey monitoring program began in 1977 — originally coordinated by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management — just eight young ospreys fledged from nests in the state.
Today, ospreys nest in 28 cities and towns in Rhode Island, including every coastal community except Cranston, as well as inland communities such as Coventry, Exeter, Scituate and West Greenwich.
“There are probably more nests out there that we’re not aware of,” Scoones said, “so we’d love to get feedback from people who may know of nests we can’t easily access. The Scituate Reservoir probably has ospreys, but we don’t have access there to look for them.”
While ospreys appear to be quite common in many parts of the state, Scoones doesn’t believe the area has reached maximum capacity.
“Westport [Mass.] has 80 nests along a short stretch of the river there, so the birds can live communally rather than just one every mile or so, which is what we have here,” he said. “So we can still take on more capacity.”
Scoones said the Palmer River area may not be able to support many more ospreys, but there are numerous places around Greenwich Bay in the Warwick and Cranston area that are available for additional osprey nests.
The Audubon staffer doesn’t believe 2017 will be a banner year for ospreys, however. He expects to see evidence of more new nests being built by many of the birds that fledged from nests in the area during the past two years, but the rainy spring will probably mean that successful nests will produce fewer young than in 2016.
“It’s just harder to find food in the rain; the birds can’t see into the water,” Scoones said. “They don’t like to fly in the rain anyway, and the mother spends her time covering her chicks when it rains, so she can’t help find food.”
Despite his prediction for this year, Scoones anticipates that the increasing trend in osprey numbers will continue into the future.
“We have enough population here already that we can probably weather a few years of something going wrong, like bad weather or food not being available,” he said. “I’m excited about the future because more people are aware of the osprey and are willing to protect them. The birds are being accepted and no longer seen as a threat to fish.”
Scoones remains concerned, however, about continued coastal development that could limit the availability of nesting habitat.
“They need to be able to live in trees or nests close to the water where they can get to their food,” he said. “Nearshore development is forcing ospreys to leave their natural nests, and now they’re going to cell towers and power line towers.”
Anyone interested in becoming an osprey monitor or helping to repair osprey nest poles, should contact Scoones at 401-245-7500 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.