Tag Archives: osprey

An island rises from the Bay

Today we are hearing from Peter McGowan, environmental contaminants biologist at Chesapeake Bay Field Office.

In the 1600s Poplar Island measured about 2,000 acres. In 1874, roughly 1,140 acres remained. When I visited in 1994, less than 10 acres had lasted.

1847 map of Poplar Island (right) that was used as the design footprint for the restoration’s project construction outline.

Poplar Island was a rapidly eroding island complex in Chesapeake Bay, a few miles south of Annapolis, Maryland. The island lost substantial land (13 feet/year) due to erosion, subsidence, and sea level rise over the past 400 years. This is a common theme for Bay islands to this day. I found myself on one of the few remnants of the island as part of a team with USFWS, U.S. Geological Survey, and The University of Maryland working to identify possible stations to monitor the upcoming Poplar Island restoration project – still years away from starting.

The Poplar islets were free from human disturbances and provided excellent nesting habitat for waterbirds, including snowy and cattle egrets, little blue heron, and American black duck. It was also my first encounter with an osprey nest located on the ground, indicating a lack of mammalian predators. Little did I know that ospreys would later become a focus of my career from 2000 to present…

Ospreys, AKA ‘fish hawks’ are an iconic Chesapeake Bay species.

Ospreys are an iconic Chesapeake Bay species that were once in trouble along with other fish eating bird species. Their populations were severely impacted by the pesticide DDT and its resulting harmful effects on reproductive success. Banning of the chemical and conservation efforts have brought these birds back to the Bay. An estimated 10,000 pairs of ospreys currently nest in Chesapeake Bay, a far cry from the 1,450 pairs in the 1970s.

Poplar Island is now an international model for island restoration. Over 1,140 acres of remote island habitat have been restored, thanks to a dredged material project funded by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers and Maryland Port Administration. The island will feature more than 1,700 acres of tidal wetland and uplands, benefitting fish and wildlife with an emphasis on nesting waterbirds when completed in 2043.

Comparison of Poplar Island before restoration construction vs. construction stage in 2011

I am the lead wildlife biologist for the Poplar Island project and my team is responsible for the all wildlife management activities on the island, including installing and repairing osprey nest platforms before the spring arrival of the first ospreys.

To date we have installed more than 24 osprey platforms on the island, a number of which enlisted the help of volunteers including the Boy Scouts of America. In fact, during the past 5 years, two Eagle Scout projects involved osprey platform construction for Poplar Island.  This February our team installed seven new platforms on Poplar Island and are anticipating when the “fish hawks” will first arrive, which will mark the beginning of our 2017 monitoring season. Stay tuned for updates including a webcam link overlooking an active nest!



Floating Loon Rafts for Rent: One Occupied This Past Summer


Artificial nesting platform with loon egg.  Photo: NYSDEC.

What does it take to bring back an icon to Northern New York? That’s the question that has left habitat managers scratching their heads for the past decade. After construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project, much of the original habitat for shore-nesting birds was flooded out. As it turns out, with four cedar logs, some natural vegetation, and a lot of patience, there might be some hope for restoring the not-so-common loon to the St. Lawrence River.

“Here in the St. Lawrence-Franklin D. Roosevelt Power Project area, there are a few loons that nest in the general area, but there’s open water flowing so it’s not necessarily a great spot,” explains Mike Morgan, who manages the Habitat Improvement Projects (HIPs) on the St. Lawrence.

When the Power Project was up for relicensing back in the late 1990s, the Service, along with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) and other agencies identified potential impacts of the power dam that should be taken into consideration. As a result, the New York Power Authority has helped fund, construct, and implement at least ten Habitat Improvement Projects targeting a variety of fish and wildlife potentially impacted by the dam.


Common loon with chick.  Photo: USFWS.

One of those species is the Common Loon. “Loons are kind of a charismatic species that people care a lot about and are considered for a lot of hydropower projects” says Morgan. Loons are pretty susceptible to water level fluctuations since they generally nest close to the shoreline. “So a pretty common technique to mitigate that is to put out rafts in suitable areas for loons to nest on because the rafts will float up and down with the water and still be easy for the loons to access,” Mike explains.

After roughly five years of trying this on Lake St. Lawrence with no loons nesting on the rafts, some were ready to give up. Having a “you build it, they will come” mentality doesn’t quite work out for loons and other species, as Mike explains. It has been a process of trial-and-error to find areas where placing artificial nesting platforms most effectively meets the needs of breeding loons. Not to mention the amount of energy it takes to haul these water-logged rafts in and out each season. Some years, geese have taken up residency on the rafts before the loons could, posing some competition for breeding space.

“One of our concerns is actually bald eagles, which is kind of funny because we like to have bald eagles around and they’re a pretty charismatic species in their own right, but they’re big enough to make life unpleasant for nesting loons,” says Mike.


First loon chick to successfully hatch and fledge from an artificial nesting platform in the St. Lawrence Power Project area.  Photo: NYSDEC.

Finally, on the tenth anniversary of the start of the HIPs, the first loon chick hatched and fledged from one of the artificial nesting platforms this past summer. That’s not the only good news – 75 osprey chicks hatched on installed nesting poles, and roughly 11,500 common tern chicks hatched on artificial nesting structures during the 10 years of management efforts for St. Lawrence River birds.

Biologists Steve Patch and Scott Schlueter from the Service continue to meet each year with other representatives from the NYSDEC, St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, Northern New York Audubon Society, the Power Authority, and the local government to review progress and make future decisions about Habitat Improvement Projects on the St. Lawrence River.


Wednesday Wisdom – Annie Dillard


Original Image by Ron Holmes/USFWS

Our #WednesdayWisdom  and our last #WomensHistoryMonth spotlight is on American author Annie Dillard and her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), which is often cited – like Thoreau’s Walden – as a great source of inspiration for aspiring science writers and has swayed many to pursue natural science careers. Our celebration of nature writers like Dillard is also a recognition of how nature-based literature gives people with limited experiences in the outdoors with an amazingly rich connection to nature through stories.

Taking risks also includes the faith that the resources are in place – “your wings” – to stay aloft and fly.  This gorgeous osprey hails from the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, a green respite nestled within the urban setting of the city of Philadelphia. Refuge lands are a thriving sanctuary teeming with a rich diversity of fish, wildlife, and plants native to the Delaware Estuary and including numerous osprey nesting areas.  Environmental education is a core mission; the refuge provides a living classroom to connect both schools and communities with nature and local history…and helps area children and families grow “wings,” cultivating  courage to act in spite of challenges.