Osprey deemed a success story in Ohio

Admirer calls for population safeguards

Photo by Christopher Dacanay An osprey pokes its head out of its nest, positioned atop an old utility pole along River Road in Yorkville.

YORKVILLE — Alicia Basil finds that visiting the fishermen’s access area along River Road is a sublime way to entertain her lifelong love of nature.

A Martins Ferry resident, Basil has been visiting the tranquil spot, just downriver from the Pike Locks and Dam spillway, on and off for 30 years or “as long as I can remember.”

Depending on the time and season, Basil noted, one can see a Noah’s Ark of animals — eagles, turkey vultures, ducks, geese, swans, snapping turtles, fish, bobcats, beaver, deer, coyotes, rabbits, squirrels, brown bats and gray tree frogs.

The nearby residents Basil has been most excited about recently are two ospreys nesting just up River Road from the access area. Currently nesting atop an old utility pole, the pair has been returning for the last three years. During that time, Basil has come to expect the osprey’s return during winter as a sign of spring approaching.

Basil has witnessed chicks poking their heads out from the nest after hatching. She’s also observed a curious habit these ospreys and others have while hunting.

“When they catch a fish, they automatically turn it face forward when they fly so it’s more aerodynamic,” she said.

Ospreys and eagles have become a more familiar sight within the last 10 years, Basil said.

However, Basil said, River Road and its surroundings have been targets for human development.

She’s concerned about animal populations becoming displaced by possible habitat destruction and subsequent buildout along the Ohio River, noting active surveying for what she believes is a proposed hydroelectric dam at the access area, high truck traffic and deforestation a couple years ago to the area’s south, associated with a new business.

“Many of these critters are being displaced with the destruction of the native and natural habitat, and they’re still seeing a way to exist here, but I’d like to see a conservation effort that could happen at the same time — allow industry but protect something that’s natural and beautiful. … I know that industry has to exist, but I think these (natural) things have to exist as well for us to exist.”

Typically, around 25 inches long and 3 pounds with a 4- to 5-foot wingspan, ospreys can be identified by their “bright white underneath, with dark brown patches at the carpal joints and a mottled dark brown necklace,” according to a fact page by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Ospreys are known to nest anywhere safe — normally open and high platforms — near shallow water with an abundant fish population. Mated ospreys will return to the same nest each year, producing three or four eggs each time.

Known also as fish eagles or fish hawks, ospreys were once common in Ohio but began a population decline in the late 1800s and early 1900s, according to ODNR’s Division of Wildlife. Specific causes included shooting, decreased water quality, nest-site disturbance and habitat loss.

Water pollution would have an effect on fish, the primary food source of ospreys, and the use of the synthetic insecticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane would also negatively impact osprey, said Jamey Emmert, avian education coordinator for the Division of Wildlife. Along the Ohio River, heavy industry could have contributed to the population decline, she added.

The last known osprey nest occurred at Central Ohio’s Buckeye Lake in 1941, though another pair of ospreys would successfully nest on the Ohio River in Jefferson County in 1995, just one year before the Division of Wildlife embarked on a reintroduction effort.

According to a 2006 update summary, the division’s osprey reintroduction program began in the summer of 1996 with the goal of establishing 20 nesting pairs by 2010.

Since the program’s start, 302 young ospreys were placed in six Ohio locations: Deer Creek Wildlife Area, Lake La Su An Wildlife Area, Portage Lakes, Salt Fork Wildlife Area, Spring Valley Wildlife Area and the Wilds. Between 4 and 6 weeks old, the osprey were donated from established populations in other states.

Young ospreys were placed in hack boxes. Hacking is a process wherein young birds are placed in nesting boxes on elevated platforms, where they are fed until developed enough to fly.

“Every effort was made to minimize exposure of the young birds to humans,” Emmert said, noting that food would be lifted into boxes suspended on a long, basket-topped pole.

The program was successful, reaching its goal seven years ahead of schedule in 2003, and due to the success, the last birds were released in 2006, although the division continued monitoring the number of nests and chicks.

In addition to reintroduction efforts, Emmert said, “The return of the Ohio River osprey is likely due to conservation efforts for all sorts of bird species that were in decline. Banning DDT, cleaning up waterways, allowing fish populations to thrive, protecting habitat and putting a big dent in poaching all contributed to populations increasing on their own a little.”

Osprey’s “endangered” designation from the Division of Wildlife was changed in 2006 to the less grave “threatened” designation, according to Dave Sherman, wetland habitat coordinator and certified wildlife biologist for the division. The species was removed from ODNR’s state-listed species in 2012.

“Sometimes we conservationists/nature lovers get bummed out about current threats to wildlife and nature, but when we think about ospreys (and other successful species), we can smile knowing that humans can make massive, positive contributions to the natural environment too,” Emmert said. “We can fix what’s broken much of the time even if humans were to blame in the first place.”

Domestic issues that could affect ospreys, and bird populations in general, include plastic litter, which can be consumed by fish-eating birds, and improperly discarded fishing line, which can cause entanglements, Emmert said. Other issues like habitat loss and chemical contamination are being addressed “as much as possible,” Emmert said, noting that Gov. Mike DeWine’s H2Ohio program is a “great example of habitat protection and improvement.”

Aaron Dodds, project manager for the Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District, said Jefferson County is pushing for ideals of “coexistence” between industry and wildlife conservation in its projects, noting the county commissioners’ funding gift to JSWCD to create a pollinator habitat throughout the county last year.

“If we start thinking about development with conservation in mind, it will actually beautify the area and benefit both humans and wildlife. Ospreys are a bit of a comeback story in our region, and it’s fantastic to see because little steps were made in order to bring them back. If we can do it for them, we can do it for … other species that aren’t as common in those area as they once were.”

As of Friday, Basil said the behavior of the birds suggests their eggs have hatched and they’ve begun feeding the chicks.

She hopes developers along River Road don’t decide to destroy the pole on which the birds are nesting. If they do, she said, hopefully they can provide a replacement platform like other man made ones that can be seen along the Ohio River,

Basil said her hope is that people will slow down when traveling along River Road and “realize what’s around them” — an alive and diverse area that, to her, is “amazing and a blessing.”


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