Game Commission seeking public's help in finding osprey nests

An adult osprey sits on a nest, with two fledglings visible, on a nest platform at Donegal Lake. Birds have been using the nest site for several years.
An adult osprey sits on a nest, with two fledglings visible, on a nest platform at Donegal Lake. Birds have been using the nest site for several years.
Photo by Bob Frye I Tribune-Review
Bob Frye
| Saturday, June 22, 2013, 11:36 p.m.

Some things are unique for their look.

Ask people to picture in their minds a 1969 Dodge Charger and you may get a blank look. But mention the General Lee of the Dukes of Hazzard, and everyone knows what you're talking about. Pontoon boats conjure an obvious mental picture. Stealth bombers, too.

Ospreys are a little bit like that.

They are one of several birds of prey found in Pennsylvania. But they're the only ones that bend their wings at the “wrist” in flight, making them look like giant Ms when riding the skies.

“They keep a crook in their wings when they fly, so they're pretty distinctive,” said Patty Barber, endangered bird biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “It's just one of those things that makes an osprey an osprey.”

That you can see one of the flying Ms locally is a conservation success story.

How much of one? That's a question the commission will seek to answer this summer.

Once common on Pennsylvania waterways — they prey almost exclusively on fish, hence their “fish hawk” moniker — the birds were gone by 1979, the victims of illegal shooting and pollution early in the 20th century and of pesticide use that limited nesting success in the decades after World War II.

Reintroduction efforts were carried out between 1980 and 1996. A total of 265 osprey nestlings obtained from the Chesapeake Bay region were brought to Pennsylvania and released, primarily in three locations: the Poconos, Tioga County and in Moraine State Park in Butler County.

Though they remain listed as a state-threatened species, the birds appear to have done well in the years since. The state had one known nesting pair in 1986. That jumped to nine by 1989, and to 100 or so by 2008, according to the commission. There were thought to be 115 nests spread across 21 counties in 2010.

Precisely how the birds are doing, though, is unknown. Biologists think the number of nests has continued to grow, but — compared to species such as bald eagles and peregrine falcons — ospreys have been a “little bit neglected,” Barber said.

“I believe there are a lot of ospreys in Pennsylvania. But to believe it and to be able to demonstrate it to people are totally different things,” Barber said. “But that's our responsibility. We have to be able to say how well they might be doing.”

An effort to get answers is underway.

The commission is conducting a summer osprey survey and is asking for help from the public. Birders, anglers and others who see a nest are being asked to report it. Biologists hope to learn not only where they are, but what kinds of nesting structures the birds are using and what kinds of waterways on which they're living.

“It's not necessarily seeing the birds that's important. It's knowing where the nests are so that we can protect them,” said Samara Trusso, regional biologist in the commission's southwest region office in Bolivar.

So far this year, six nests have been confirmed in Allegheny, Westmoreland, Beaver and Somerset counties, Trusso said, and six others in Westmoreland and Somerset are under investigation. One of the confirmed nests is located at Somerset Lake; another is at Donegal Lake. Birds have been using that one for years.

“Donegal Lake is stocked with trout. I think those ospreys really like those fish,” joked commission wildlife conservation officer Jason Farabaugh.

Several nests also are located in Butler County, including a couple within Moraine State Park. One popular with visitors is located across the lake from the McDaniel's Launch on the North Shore.

“Whenever we do our kayaking programs, we almost always see an osprey,” said park environmental education specialist Natalie Simon. “Fishermen of course see them all the time, too.”

This is prime time for looking for nests, Barber said. Adult birds will be rearing their young — they typically have one to three — through the end of July, at which time the fledglings become more independent and more accomplished fliers. Nests can often be found atop manmade platforms. The birds seem to do as well along big rivers as they do near lakes and ponds, Barber said.

“They're a species specialized on fish. If there's not a lot of fish, they're not going to stay long, just because there's not enough to eat,” she said.

“But otherwise they're incredibly adaptable as far as thriving around people. They will nest close to people, where there's a fair amount of human activity.”

Just how extensive their comeback has been, the commission hopes to be able to quantify soon.

“We've done some work on ospreys before. But it's always been a matter of time and resources and priorities,” Barber said. “This is a wonderful problem to have, that the birds are doing so well, but it makes it difficult for us to keep up with them.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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