Returning ospreys have become rite of spring

High atop the Chesapeake City bridge, a pair of ospreys has returned to its nest, just as the birds have done each spring for the last several years.

These birds of prey have a hawk eye’s view of the town and canal below. Perched more than 200 feet above the water, they seem oblivious to the rush of traffic and boats below.

It’s an unusual place for these fish hawks to nest.  Ospreys prefer dead trees along the waterfront, utility poles or even pilings rising the county’s tidal rivers. Their high perch had some onlookers confusing them with their more rare and famous cousins, the peregrine falcon.

More than 10 years ago, when the birds first appeared, I invited local bird expert over to the backyard to help identify the birds.

“Any bird of prey is a good bird,” said Charlie Gant, who had been watching birds and hawks in Cecil County for decades. On that visit, he was able to positively identify the birds as ospreys. The birds have returned each spring since then. We can usually tell because of the noise. They tend to screech a lot, as if they are annoyed. Once the baby birds appear, that screeching multiplies.

Home sweet home at the top of the arch.

He explained that ospreys are not that unusual in the area.  At last count, he knew of seven osprey nests within a mile of his home on the Elk River.

Ospreys feed almost entirely on fish, although they might snag the occasional duckling or other small creature. In the canal, that means a steady diet of perch and catfish, perhaps with an eel or rockfish thrown in. The birds will hover over the water and then plunge down to spear fish in their sharp talons. They sometimes get carried away in their fishing, Gant said, latching onto a huge carp or rockfish that literally pulls the light-boned birds underwater.

This steady diet of fish was almost the undoing of the osprey. Not so long ago, these large raptors were a rare sight, much like eagles and falcons.  The culprit was DDT, a pesticide that had entered the ecosystem with devastating effect. Once DDT built up in an osprey’s system from eating contaminated fish, the eggs it laid had thin shells that cracked ruinously. The birds were in danger of disappearing from the Chesapeake Bay area. Since the banning of DDT in 1972, ospreys and other raptors have made a steady comeback.

“They’re fairly plentiful here,” Gant said.

But no so plentiful as to be ignored.  The ospreys on the bridge make constant hunting trips over the canal. Their nest is barely visible on the bridge’s highest arch as an untidy bundle of driftwood. One day last week, a bald eagle soared far above the bridge, causing the ospreys to swoop around their nest in alarm, making shrill cries.  Bald eagles are known for stealing fish that the hard-working osprey have caught. The eagle flew on, leaving the smaller hawks alone. The ospreys then settled back into the nest, their heads just visible above the rim of the bridge arch. Motorists on Route 213 can get a distant glimpse of the nest as they approach the bridge from Elkton. The birds and their home are best seen from the levee road along the canal.

Binoculars for watching those fish hawks!

During his early spring visit, there were no young yet in the nest, but Gant expected young hawks by around June 1.  The parents would then be busy feeding their young chicks.  “They’re going to be looking for fish constantly.”

Neighbors have nicknamed the ospreys Del and CC, a sort of play on their chosen home above the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal in Chesapeake City.

According to Gant, ospreys migrate to Florida or even South America each fall.  They return to their nests in Cecil County around St. Patrick’s Day.  (The birds have, in fact, returned each year almost on the same day.) Most return to the same nest year after year.

The nest on top of the busy bridge might be an unusual location, but it is a nice bit of real estate for an osprey.

“They want a view of the water where they will hunt,” Gant said.   “You couldn’t ask for a better view than that.”

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