Osprey — Credit: Tom Sangemino

Long Islanders of all ages help to ensure “their” osprey don’t just survive, but thrive

A day on the water

With cool air and water temperatures, and a blowing westerly wind rushing off Manhasset Bay, save for the abundant sunshine, it was hard to believe springtime had already arrived on Long Island’s North Shore.

It was, in fact, 12 days into spring — April 2, to be precise — and thus a few weeks into osprey season, which begins each year on March 15. And this year, like most years, many Long Islanders are celebrating, and preparing for, the arrival of the sizeable, black-and-white fish-eating birds of prey.

That morning, a group of student and local volunteers, led by Jim Jones, 63, from Bayville, a Long Island naturalist and Volunteers for Wildlife board member and educator, gathered at the Leeds Pond Preserve in Port Washington to install an osprey nest platform on the preserve’s sprawling seashore. Jones and the student group, the Paul D. Schreiber High School “Treehugger” environmental club, had built the 16-foot tall wooden platform — essentially a long wooden pole topped by a shallow three-foot by three-foot wooden box with a perch — a few weeks prior.

This was not the group’s first experience building and installing an osprey nest platform. And was it was certainly not Jones’s.

Over the course of the past 25 years, “I put up maybe 20, 30 platforms,” said Jones, “and we just finished doing another one today, and if we get lucky we’re about ready to do another one this afternoon.”

A deep admiration

Jones, like many other Long Island natives, harbors a deep admiration for the osprey. He shows his appreciation for the osprey by watching them, educating others about them, photographing them, building nest platforms for them and writing about them, most notably in his first book, titled: “Spirits of the Harbor: A Summer of Osprey Watching and Re-Awakening on Long Island’s North Shore.”

“My love of birds became a love of raptors when I was very, very young,” said Jones. “And the first bird I really bonded with — and it was just my bonding, not the birds’ — were osprey. Osprey were once very common on Long Island, but because of DDT and pesticides like that, they were almost exterminated.”

Jim Jones, the Schreiber Treehuggers and community volunteers build and install an osprey platform at the Leeds Pond Preserve beach in Port Washington — Credit: Jim Jones

A toxic history

Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as “DDT,” is a manmade organic chemical whose potent insecticidal properties were first discovered in 1939 by Swiss chemist Paul Herman Müller. As a result, DDT was used heavily during World War II by militaries as a way to kill the insects responsible for spreading malaria, typhus, bubonic plague and other illnesses.

After the war, the chemical was used all around the world both indoors and outdoors to benefit public health and eliminate insects on agricultural crops. On Long Island, DDT was sprayed heavily to kill mosquitoes and the gypsy moth, an invasive species that had been destroying the region’s conifers and broadleaf trees. But DDT and its by-products DDE and DDD — recognized today by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic” pollutants because they do not easily degrade in air, water, soil and in organisms’ bodies — were silently wreaking havoc on the region’s osprey population.

“There were a number of naturalists, one of them Dennis Puleston, studying osprey on Long Island in the decades following World War II,” said Mike Bottini, a 60-year-old East Hamptonite and Long Island naturalist, outdoor educator and environmental consultant. “They noticed the population plummeting for unknown reasons, and there was some conjecture that it might have been due to the spraying of DDT on the area’s salt marshes.”

The researchers discovered that female ospreys were laying eggs with eggshells so thin that they cracked easily under the incubating adults’ weight, and thus killed osprey embryos before they could fully develop and hatch. Most eggs that were not crushed, simply never hatched.

“They tested the eggs that didn’t hatch and found high levels of DDT existed inside of them,” said Bottini. “This validated what Rachel Carson revealed in her 1962 book, ‘Silent Spring’: that DDT was accumulating in the environment and was indeed harming osprey’s reproductive abilities; ultimately causing female osprey to lose the ability to produce eggs with normal, strong shells.”

A movement for change

In 1966, with just around 70 active, or breeding, nesting osprey pairs counted on Long Island (which had dropped from a 1940 pre-DDT-spraying population of 496 nesting pairs), Puleston and a group consisting of fellow naturalists and concerned Long Island citizens filed a class action lawsuit in the Suffolk County Supreme Court to try to stop the Suffolk County Mosquito Control Department (now the Suffolk County Department of Public Works, Division of Vector Control) from spraying DDT.

In the courtroom, Puleston’s group asserted that DDT was moving up the aquatic food chain — from the water to the plants to insects to fish. And, being a top predator, the fish-eating ospreys were accumulating high levels of the toxic insecticide in their bodies.

For Puleston and his colleagues, the lawsuit was a success: A judge forced the Suffolk County Legislature was forced to adopt a virtually complete ban on the use of DDT (use was to be permitted in “emergency” situations only) in 1966, becoming the first place in America to implement such a ban.

After Suffolk County’s ban went into place, regional bans on DTT began to spring up all across America. In 1972, the U.S. EPA finally declared a nationwide ban on the use of DDT. The 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants set into place a global ban on the use of DDT for agricultural uses.

Despite these restrictions on DDT, its use persists. For instance, under the EPA’s ban, exceptions exist for DDT’s use in public health emergencies, quarantine situations and on a few types of crops in the U.S., and American pesticide manufacturers are permitted to produce DDT and export it to other countries. Worldwide, DDT use is still permitted in small amounts for disease control in some countries facing insect-borne disease crises — such as for malaria control in South America, Africa and Asia — and is generally allowed for use anywhere in the world if an “emergency” situation merits.

A slow recovery

Thanks to the widespread ban on DDT use, Long Island’s osprey population has recovered significantly, particularly on the Island’s East End. But, said Bottini, “it’s been a long road and there is still quite a ways to go” when it comes to restoring Long Island’s osprey population back to its historic high pre-DDT.

“Being at the top of the food chain, they have a slow reproductive rate,” said Bottini. “Even after DDT was banned, the residue in the ecosystem still impacted the reproductive success of osprey right into the early ‘80s. Only in the mid-‘80s when much of the DDT began to degrade did we see Long Island’s osprey population begin to rebound.”

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) and other environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy, as well as citizen volunteers, have long been monitoring Long Island ospreys’ population.

The primary survey methods that have been used to monitor osprey in the region include counting and determining the occupancy status of osprey nests in helicopters and on foot said Mike Scheibel, 66, of Brookhaven, who works for the Nature Conservancy as natural resources manager at the Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island. Scheibel, who has spent decades monitoring osprey and other native Long Island species, said that, over the years, advances in technology have made the arduous task simpler. In particular, computer-generated GIS-enabled maps have enabled naturalists to easily log the precise location and occupancy status of each osprey nest.

New, more high-tech methods of osprey monitoring are now in the works, said John Sepenoski, 49, GIS coordinator for the Town of Southold, where he also resides. Currently, Sepenoski said he is working on an osprey nest-mapping app for use on smartphones and other mobile devices to make osprey monitoring more accessible to the public, in addition to updating an online GIS map.

Click link below to access an interactive map of osprey nests on LI’s East End.

Such monitoring has shown a surge in Long Island’s osprey population after the global ban on DDT. The once “endangered” species is now considered a species of “least concern” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, an international monitoring system of Earth’s plants, animals and ecosystems. Yet, though ospreys have rebounded, they’re not out of the clear yet. Today these birds face a new threat: humans.

Ospreys begin to return to Long Island between mid-March and early April each year, after spending the winter in South America. At that time, they’ll find a tall tree or cliff by a shoreline, in which to build an enormous — and often messy looking — stick nest, and find a mate. Ospreys remain on Long Island until mid-August, which is when they begin their fall migration back to South America.

Ospreys are remarkably adaptive and resilient birds. With residential development along Long Island’s coasts leveling trees and cliffs, osprey have taken to some less-natural nesting places, including utility pole transformers, cranes, chimneys and other elevated manmade structures and objects. Some osprey will even nest on the ground if they cannot find a more suitable place.

When pressed for natural nesting places, the highly adaptable osprey improvises. Marshall Field III Mansion, Caumsett State Historic Park (Lloyd Harbor) — Credit: Erica Cirino

But such alternative nesting places can be extremely dangerous. Nest atop a transformer and risk death by electrocution; on cranes, get knocked off; chimneys, get burned; and on the ground, face flooding and predation by dogs and raccoons.

Further, ospreys, which generally like line their stick nests with softer reeds and natural fibers, on Long Island have developed the habit of picking up human fishing debris — such as errant strands of monofilament and discarded fishnets — to use for this purpose. The monofilament and fishnets can easily entangle an osprey’s large feet and sharp, curved talons. Ospreys need their feet to survive: They’re what they use to catch fish. Without proper use of their feet, ospreys typically starve to death.

That’s where nest platforms can help osprey — at least with the selection of safer nest locations. The platforms, built of pressure-treated outdoor lumber and cemented into the ground are long lasting and sturdy. Metal wrap around part of the platform pole deters raccoons from climbing up the platforms to get to ospreys’ eggs. In regard to human debris, municipalities on Long Island are working to encourage fishermen and beachgoers to dispose of their trash properly, so that it does not enter the area’s natural environment.

A new generation of enthusiasts

Safety was number-one on Jones’ mind as his group worked to raise the platform that April day. An osprey couple had built their nest on a telephone pole, precariously close to electric wires. Jones said he hoped the pair would abandon their nest and rebuild on his group’s platform.

Jones has had a long relationship building osprey nest platforms with the Paul D. Schreiber High School Treehuggers. He worked as a science teacher in the Port Washington Union Free School District from 1973 to 2007, teaching first at Carrie Palmer Weber Middle School, and then moving to Schreiber, where he developed genetics and zoology electives. In addition to the Treehuggers, Jones’ zoology classes also assisted him in building and installing osprey nest platforms all over Port Washington’s coasts, from Hempstead Harbor to Manhasset Bay.

“One of the great things about doing this is if you involve students, of all ages,” said Jones. “They don’t get, in today’s education system, enough outdoor experience.”

Current Treehugger club advisor and Schreiber ESL teacher Julie Barbieri, 46, of New Hyde Park, agrees with Jones that it’s important for students to get hands-on environmental experience.

“I think they need to know that their actions can directly affect the environment in their neighborhood,” said Barbieri. “The ecosystem is fragile.”

And the students assisting Jones at the Leeds Pond Preserve beach didn’t seem to mind getting their hands dirty, first digging a deep hole for the platform, and then dragging, lifting and hammering the hulking wooden contraption into place.

“It demonstrates that we have concern for our local environment and concern for making sure that the ecosystem stays in balance,” said Kimberly Winter, 18, a senior at Schreiber and member of the Treehugger club. “And making sure that [as humans] we’re able to restore the damage that we’ve done as a species to the natural wildlife. My favorite part of the day was kind of the fact that we got to make a difference.”

See Jim Jones and the Schreiber Treehuggers in action, installing the Leeds Pond Preserve beach osprey platform in ‘NEST: A wildlife film by Erica Cirino.”

After experiencing a precipitous population decline in the decades following World War II, osprey have come back from the brink. Their remarkable recovery has been aided by dedicated Long Islanders’ devotion to, and respect toward, this iconic fish-eating raptor.