Ospreys Making a Comeback, Against All Odds


Walking barefoot across a narrow steel beam 65 feet above the grounds of the U.S. Navy's radio transmitting facility here, antenna mechanic John Schorpp swayed perilously against a sudden breeze, twisting for balance with outstretched arms, a camera swinging crazily from his neck.

Ahead, straddling girders inside the huge antenna, lay a conspicuous mound of twigs and branches, a nest fashioned by osprey high over the Chesapeake Bay. A mother hawk, her talons clenched, circled the tower shrieking alarm. Schorpp inched forward and peered inside the nest.

"Oh, my God!" Schorpp yelled, the noise sending an electric jolt through a white-knuckled visitor. "This egg in here is hatching. The chick's coming out right now."

In all, Schorpp found two newborn chicks in addition to the emerging hatchling in the nest, another milestone for the transmitting facility's growing population of fish-hunting ospreys.

Before his arrival here six years ago, Schorpp would have found little to crow about in the forest of radio towers that loom over the capital. Ospreys and the Navy weren't exactly on speaking terms then.

Unimpressed by the ospreys' choice of their transmitters as nesting sites, Navy officials did their best to keep birds away, often ripping nests apart before eggs could be laid.

Schorpp, a nature lover who walks the razor's edge, changed that. With 12 nests thriving in the transmitting facility, he has emerged as one of the Chesapeake's pre-eminent osprey landlords, helping the birds on a remarkable comeback from a time two decades ago when the species was threatened by DDT and other pesticides.

Ospreys now seem to be spreading like rabbits around the bay, partly because of a growing number of amateur ornithologists who have taken up the birds' cause.

Vaguely similar to bald eagles, the large hawks have become an object of intense fascination to boaters, who marvel at the birds' ability to snare fish by diving into the water feet-first.

Osprey couples have set up housekeeping on hundreds of navigational buoys and channel markers, generating fierce loyalty in the bay's marinas, where they show an uncanny tolerance for heavy boat traffic.

Homemade nesting platforms are sprouting behind docks and weekend houses along miles of shoreline, the coastal equivalent of back-yard bird feeders.

"Osprey essentially have saturated the area," said Glenn Therres of the Maryland Forest, Park and Wildlife Service. "The population is at an all-time high."

The osprey resurgence is all the more remarkable given the problems of pollution, overfishing and traffic plaguing the bay. Some researchers, saying the birds have been pushed out of traditional nesting grounds by waterfront development, fear the hawks are merely riding a run of good luck against losing odds.

"I think it's miraculous that some of these animals have been able to hang on as well as they have," said biologist Jan Reese, who spent 20 years studying ospreys out of St. Michael's on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "The osprey is obviously one adaptable bird. Somehow, it's managed to hang on this long."

Therres said the ospreys have recovered from an estimated low of perhaps 800 pairs on the bay in the late 1960s to around 1,500 today. But measuring the comeback is tricky, Reese said, because no accurate count of the birds was made before the DDT scare, which at one point was causing grave problems in osprey reproduction.

Reese plunged into the osprey investigation after researchers in Great Britain uncovered evidence in the 1950s that DDT had ravaged the ability of peregrine falcons to lay healthy eggs.

Using the scant available osprey records here for comparison, Reese concluded that pesticides were having the same effect on ospreys. By the early 1970s, he said, osprey reproduction had been cut by nearly two-thirds, from an average of more than two eggs a nest to less than one egg.

A ban on DDT, along with other pesticide controls, has made a substantial improvement. Ospreys now commonly lay two, three or even four healthy eggs. But other events have brought some good news, and some bad news, for the ospreys.

Spreading waterfront development along the bay has meant the clearing of acres of trees, which may have provided nesting sites for up to 30% of the area's ospreys, Reese said.

At the same time, though, a surge in recreational boating has prompted the Coast Guard to plant hundreds of additional channel markers and other navigational devices that house-hunting ospreys find ideal.

Popular boating myth has it that the Coast Guard specially designed its buoys to suit the osprey. In fact, the Coast Guard was at war for years with the birds, which sometimes short-circuited navigational lights and built bulky nests that interfered with maintenance.

"They've found many ways to make the lights go out. And they can build a monstrous nest in one year," said Lt. George Walker of the Coast Guard's navigational aids unit in Portsmouth, Va.

Shooting osprey and destroying nests ran the Coast Guard afoul of environmentalists, and Coast Guard officials declared a cease-fire after the osprey was designated a protected species.

Now the guard removes nests for maintenance only at the end of the breeding season and sometimes builds alternative nesting platforms around sensitive navigational lights.

"We all learn," Walker said. "Environmental protection is much more of a concern now than it was then."

Those changing attitudes encourage biologist Paul Spitzer, who, under a state contract, has been tracking many of the ospreys originally banded by Reese on the Eastern Shore.

The birds, which winter in South America, typically return to the same nests here year after year to raise new broods.

Spitzer said construction of nesting platforms by local property owners has given the osprey a significant boost. Breeding is so successful that Maryland has become an osprey exporter, sending spare chicks to areas of Pennsylvania and West Virginia to bolster populations there.

"The bay could become a real garden for osprey," Spitzer said.

The Navy transmitting facility, meanwhile, has been named a wildlife refuge under a cooperative agreement between the state and the Defense Department, and antenna mechanic Schorpp recently received a governor's award for his work promoting ospreys.

Back at the nest in the radio tower, though, Schorpp had less luck with his camera, which jammed just as the new chick was pulling itself from its shell.

"Wouldn't you know it," said Schorpp, slapping the camera as he balanced on his slender perch, 65 feet up. "Just when you need it to work, it doesn't."

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