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The Osprey are on their way and Falmouth is ready

Mark Faherty

In the coming weeks, one of our most anticipated markers of seasonal change will be arriving — the Osprey. After a winter perhaps spent in some dark corner of Brazilian Amazonia, or a river delta in Suriname, “our” Ospreys will be back to reunite with their mates, spruce up the nests, do a little fishing, and get ready for another summer on Cape Cod. Some males will immediately start feeding the females, which they may do until she leaves again in September. In a month, they will all be back and many will be on eggs.

One thing very few of these big raptors will be doing is nesting in trees. Ospreys have happily taken advantage of the many tall structures we’ve offered, intentionally or not. Cell towers, utility poles, ballfield lights, and even chimneys are some of their favorites, but overwhelmingly they nest on platforms specifically built for Ospreys. All these artificial sites offer essentially predator-free nesting, so pairs here fledge chicks at a super high rate, well above what is needed for population growth. When they nest on electrical infrastructure, which still consists of uninsulated 13,000 volt wires crisscrossing our airspace, it causes problems for Ospreys and people — fires, outages, and dead chicks are all too common. The problem has grown with the Osprey population.

Last year in Falmouth, one man set out to solve the problem. Kevin Friel is a photographer and unusually passionate nature enthusiast. With an impressive beard that looks like it could support a pair of nesting Ospreys, he looks the part. Kevin initially set out to photograph all the Ospreys in Falmouth, starting with an old list of over 100 nest sites he got from my Mass Audubon Cape Cod Osprey Project (more on that later) but abandoned the photography project when he realized how many there were — he eventually documented closer to 120 nests just in Falmouth. But mainly he started noticing how many well-known nests were missing from utility poles, having been removed en masse by Eversouce over the winter, while others were catching fire, sometimes repeatedly, as deterrents placed by Eversource proved ineffective against the determination of the birds.

Friel eventually teamed up with a PR savvy Falmouth local named Barbara Schneider and the Osprey Project was born. The idea was that Eversource was no longer going to put up alternative nesting sites for Osprey nesting on their equipment, so someone else was going to have to do it. Kevin and Barbara raised awareness and then money, thanks to social media. Town conservation agent Mark Kasprzyk facilitated permitting and worked with Eversource on problem pole locations so they could add deterrents. Kevin worked with landowners to get permission for 20 new poles that would get the birds off the powerlines. Individuals and Boy Scout Troops volunteered to assemble nesting platforms, and the completed poles have been going up left and right in recent weeks, just in time for the first Ospreys to arrive.

Don’t confuse this Falmouth Osprey Project with Mass Audubon’s Cape Cod Osprey Project, a low-key citizen science project I’ve managed for about 15 years, focused on getting nests mapped and monitored. Anyone can participate by carefully monitoring at least one nest and sending me the resulting data, especially the number of chicks fledged. We’ve mapped over 400 nests, and shown very strong reproduction year after year, confirming that the Cape has the largest and fastest growing population of Ospreys in New England — pretty good when you consider that we were down to one or two remaining pairs here on Cape back in the 1970s, thanks to the pesticide DDT. Call or email Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay sanctuary and I’ll get you what you need to participate.

So things are looking good for Ospreys – numbers are up, and good people like Kevin, Barbara, and their supporters are doing good things to help them. And any day now, the familiar chirp of your first Osprey of the year will let you know that spring is just a few more months of terrible weather away…

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.