Removal Of Osprey Nest Ruffles Feathers

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Environment

Ospreys are drawn to utility poles. This one was trying to build a nest on top of the lights at Whitehouse Field in Harwich. KAT SZMIT PHOTO

CHATHAM They're among the first seasonal residents to arrive each year, and they're a fixture on the local waterfront until fall arrives. Ospreys are a familiar, often beloved part of the local landscape. So when utility crews removed an osprey nest from a utility pole off Morris Island Road earlier this month, it left a number of neighborhood residents concerned and angry.

In an email copied to The Chronicle, resident Bill Storff called the action “perhaps legal but unforgivable,” and urged the practice to be stopped. The nest in question had survived severe storms and apparently hadn't interfered with utility service, he noted.

Bob Prescott, director of Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, said he received a number of phone calls about the removal of the nest.

“Technically, they could take it down because there were no eggs and the fledglings were mostly gone,” Prescott said. The ospreys seen around the nest site later might have been coming back to pick up fish the male sometimes leaves for them, he said.

“I know Eversource does not like ospreys nesting on their poles,” Prescott said. “They could have left the nest up and have taken it down in the fall.”

Ospreys often favor utility poles for nest sites because they provide a wide field of vision for fishing, Eversource spokeswoman Priscilla Ress said. The first year an osprey pair builds a nest, it is usually less than two-and-a-half feet wide, and only three to six inches deep. Each year, generations of ospreys add to their nests, which can grow to up to six feet in diameter and 13 feet deep. Typically, the nests collapse before they reach that size, and the birds rebuild.

The large volume of twigs and debris in the nests interferes with electrical equipment on utility poles and can cause fires that kill the birds and cause power outages.

“We have worked very hard to keep them safe,” Ress said. Crews that see ospreys building a nest will try to get them away from electrical equipment, “but we will only touch a nest when there are no eggs, no chicks, and as soon as those eggs are in the nest, we try not to do anything to disturb that nest,” she said. The particular nest on Morris Island Road was empty, Ress said.

After removing the nest, utility crews installed an osprey deterrent device, a split length of pipe installed on top of the utility pole's cross-members.

“Being rounded, the pipe makes it more difficult for the nesting material to stick to the equipment,” Ress said. The goal is to discourage the ospreys from nesting there next year.

Ospreys represent an environmental success story. Numbers plummeted in the years following World War II, when the pesticide DDT was in widespread use. The chemical caused a thinning of the shells of osprey eggs, and reproductive rates plummeted. Though it remains in use in other countries – including some parts of South America where ospreys spend the winter – DDT was outlawed in the United States in 1972.

In the 1970s, only one or two pairs of ospreys were observed on Cape Cod, but those numbers have steadily increased. Today, there are hundreds of nesting pairs over the Cape and Islands, and numbers continue to increase each year. The species is considered recovered, Prescott said.

“Ospreys are very tenacious birds and we've worked with state wildlife officials for years to protect them,” Ress said. “Unfortunately, utility poles are an attractive – and at the same time potentially dangerous – nesting place for ospreys.” The only time Eversource crews remove a nest on their own is if they are certain it is inactive, she said.

“If the nest contains an egg or a chick we either need permission from state wildlife officials to move it or, most often, we simply leave it alone and protect the electrical equipment to the extent possible until we're able to go back and remove the inactive nest,” she said.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, ospreys spend summers in Canada and the northern U.S., wintering across large areas of South America. A year-round population exists in Central America and the Caribbean. Also known as fish hawks, ospreys can live 15 to 20 years. During their migration, ospreys can travel more than 2,500 miles in less than two weeks, returning to nest sites from the previous year.

Prescott said he has no doubt what will happen to the Morris Island Road birds.

“The ospreys will be back next year,” he said.