Bird watching

Volunteers help keep track of osprey nests

An osprey, nicknamed ‘Oscar,’ leaves a nest on a utility pole by Toby's Pond in Beacon Falls in 2013. -LYNN CRASKA

An osprey, nicknamed ‘Oscar,’ leaves a nest on a utility pole by Toby’s Pond in Beacon Falls in 2013. -LYNN CRASKA

BEACON FALLS — Most mornings, Lynn Craska of Beacon Falls takes a walk down a path of hard-packed sand and rock beside a long and narrow man-made pond. She’s out to check on two huge osprey nests perched on long poles.

In early summer, osprey pairs usually have fledglings in sprawling nests of intertwined sticks. But one of the nests Craska watches went unused this year, and a second was largely abandoned after June.

Craska still sees the large hawks soaring nearby. They’re hunting fish in Toby’s Pond and the nearby Naugatuck River.

“Last year was so exciting,” said Craska, a freelance writer. “They were down here every day, so I was down here every day. I’m hoping next year is better.”

Craska is part of a small army of osprey groupies helping the Connecticut Audubon Society keep track of osprey nests for state wildlife biologists. In June, the society advertised this Osprey Nation effort on its website and Facebook page.

Nearly 200 people have signed up so far. It’s a lot more than Audubon Senior Director of Science and Conservation Milan Bull expected.

“I knew people were very interested in ospreys, but I had no idea this many people were interested in following ospreys,” Bull said.

Ospreys are large hawks that feed mainly on fish. They’re easy to spot. They like nesting in large dead trees that are isolated from other trees. It gives the birds a good view of the surrounding countryside, of potential food or threats. They’ll nest in cell phone towers and the tops of utility poles. State biologists and private groups have erected nesting platforms on poles.

Connecticut Light & Power Co. took a lot of criticism in 2012 when it removed a nest from a transmission pole near Toby’s Pond. It belonged to one of Craska’s pairs — she nicknamed them Olivia and Oscar. CL&P erected a platform nearby, which the osprey pair used successfully last year.

Biologists and Craska agree the birds are fun to watch.

“It’s not like other bird species, where nests are hard to find,” Bull said. “And ospreys are just such a charismatic bird that people — I don’t want to say flocked to the program — but they certainly showed up in numbers.”

Loss of habitat and thinning eggshells due to the pesticide DDT decimated the state’s osprey population to fewer than 12 breeding pairs in the early 1970s. But a ban on the chemical and the creation of nesting platforms have helped the species bounce back in a big and continuing way, state Wildlife Biologist Jenny Dickson said.

“Now we probably have well over 200 pairs and it’s not just restricted to the coast anymore,” Dickson said. “Folks along the Naugatuck River in the Waterbury area are starting to see them, and we are getting reports of them further inland and pretty much across the state. It’s truly one of our biggest wildlife success stories in Connecticut. It went from a species on the brink of being exterminated to a species thriving across the state, and one that everyone can enjoy.”

Why does a thriving species still need such close monitoring?

The state already has decades of data on osprey nesting sites and success. The birds’ continued success serves as a good indicator of water quality, environmental health and the fish populations on which they depend, Dickson said. They’re like the canary in the coal mine.

At Toby’s Pond last Thursday morning, Craska spotted a green heron, a cormorant and several smaller birds. There osprey nests were empty. As she walked away back toward the parking area, she heard two loud screeching bursts, the osprey call. One bird soared along the crest of a nearby hill before disappearing to the other side. Craska spotted a second hovering high in the sky, toward one end of the pond.

Craska said she was already keeping a close eye on the birds. When she saw the Audubon Society’s request, it was a natural fit. The effort requires simple updates and observations. One doesn’t have to be an expert. And the volunteer work only requires a check-in once monthly with some basic observations.

“I’m a freelance writer, but you’ll get surgeons and retired people,” Craska said of the volunteers. “You get people from all walks of life.”

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection used to organize its own corps of nest-watchers. That effort stopped about four years ago with the retirement of its organizer, biologist Julie Victoria. So DEEP asked the Audubon Society for help this year.

“We are excited to be back in the osprey monitoring business in a big way again,” Dickson said.

People interested in volunteering for Osprey Nation can email organizers at Osprey@Ctaudubon.org.

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