April 2009 Issue
After an 80-year absence from Ohio, ospreys are nesting in Delaware County, thanks to a little help from their friends.
Even though ash and walnut buds have yet to erupt in seasonal livery, any day now ospreys will return to the upper reaches of Alum Creek Reservoir.
That they return every year to Delaware County is a somewhat unnatural success story for both ospreys and for a handful of visionary folks. The story’s beginnings demonstrate the power of faith and persistence almost as much as the workings of science. Nature shows resilience, the story teaches, once humans decide to offer an assist, or at least to no longer hinder or harm.
No ospreys nested in Ohio from 1913, when a pair either abandoned Grand Lake St. Marys or were killed, until 1995, when two of the birds raised offspring in a Jefferson County tree along the Ohio River. In the decades between, migrating ospreys found Ohio unsuitable for raising young because of habitat loss, poor water quality, agricultural chemicals, nest site disturbance and shooting by poachers. An osprey pair attempted to nest at Buckeye Lake in 1941 without success. And that was that.
Familiar with osprey failure, Dick Tuttle, with the help of two park rangers, constructed a nesting platform of his design at Delaware Lake State Park in 1982. Tuttle, today a retired middle-school life-science teacher who lives in Delaware, acknowledges that back then “we didn’t know what we were doing.” The platform stands, but no osprey has used it to raise its young.
Nevertheless, much in the years since has changed with Tuttle, 64, and with Ohio ospreys, whose numbers have grown from virtually nonexistent to endangered to self-sustaining in a little more than a decade since serious restoration efforts began in 1996. That year, young ospreys were brought to the Wilds in Muskingum County as part of a hacking project funded by the Ohio Division of Wildlife.
Hacking involves using the birds’ instinctive behavior to establish a local population. In short, southern birds were brought to Ohio for rearing as fluffy youngsters in hopes that as migratory adults they would choose their youthful surroundings to make summer homes, which in fact happened. However, biologists never know for several years whether hacked birds will return. When juveniles fly south for the first time, they are inclined to chill out in tropical or semitropical climes until they grow old enough to sense familial urges.
If and when they do return, ospreys tend to look for a partner within 50 miles of where they were raised. That instinctive impulse is probably what brought the first male to Alum Creek Reservoir several years after it was released from the Wilds.
The acres of chilly, early-spring water where Alum Creek transitions into a lake are shallow, festooned with stumps and fallen trunks, and peppered with fish. Such water makes the gill-breathers swimming just below the water surface vulnerable to keen eyes and sharp talons. Ospreys, known commonly as fish hawks or fish eagles, possess among the keenest eyes and the sharpest talons in nature. They also have, for reasons unrelated to human fascination, a theatrical mode of feeding that can only be described as spectacular by those who have witnessed it.
Good-sized raptors about 2 feet tall, ospreys have evolved an uncanny ability to hover over a spot until prey is spotted. And though they are incapable of floating along like a duck or diving underwater like a cormorant, fish hawks earn dinner by dropping out of the sky from as high as 100 feet, pouncing feet-first on a fish with a shimmering splash, and lifting themselves out of the drink to fly away with a foot full of slippery, flopping dinner. Ospreys on the wing invariably carry fish with head pointed forward to reduce wind resistance.
The season’s procreative urges notwithstanding, ospreys maintain a year-round interest in fish, their primary food. The shallows of Alum Creek Reservoir fill the bill, if you will, for both adults and the young they raise.
Like watchtowers protected by an expansive moat, four man-made nesting platforms now stand, built and kept in repair and tidy by Tuttle, longtime sidekick Dick Phillips, a 67-year-old retired science teacher, and a posse of regulars. The first three platforms were raised during the winter of 1997, the erection work having begun on a frigid Super Bowl Sunday to take advantage of the solid, frozen mud exposed by the winter drawdown of water at the reservoir.
That year, the builders could hardly wait for spring, but no ospreys showed interest. Nor did any the next year or the next, although the platforms attracted squatting Canada geese and still do. In July 2000, a male and a female osprey worked on a nest atop one of the platforms. The attempt came too late in summer to hatch a brood. Happily, the observers noted the male at least sported a blue leg band, indicating he’d been raised at the Wilds, two counties to the east.
In what might seem to some human partners an enviable arrangement, an osprey couple goes separate ways after nesting to spend the winter months hundreds of miles apart. In spring, they miraculously recouple at the old trysting spot and, for the sake of the species, produce offspring.
In early spring, after spending the winter in Colombia or Venezuela or Brazil, a handsome raptor will touch down in Ohio and fold its 6-foot wingspan at the end of a 3,500-mile journey lasting several weeks. An osprey’s return is almost guaranteed, provided it hasn’t run into a power line, been poisoned or shot, or succumbed to the final imperative of all living things.
In 2001, the ospreys that had been too tardy to build a successful nest reunited in time to refurbish their digs on platform No. 2. They raised three fledglings. In 2002, the nest on No. 2 launched two fledglings. In 2003, the fledglings totaled three. In 2005, two nests among the three platforms produced young, but a pair of young adults new to the family game had their two youngsters carried off by either a great horned owl or a bald eagle, both osprey nemeses. A fourth platform went up in February 2006 and was put to use that summer by a pair that raised three fledglings.
The platforms raised by Tuttle, Phillips and friends at Alum Creek have produced 27 young ospreys since 2001.
Aside from fly-ins, the spot at Alum Creek is accessible to canoeists, kayakers and hikers, and to motorized observers (see directions above). The area to which the ospreys return is not wilderness, though the locale offers an aura of the remote, particularly when the ospreys are there, a period from late March or early April until mid-September.
A second platform at Delaware Lake that can be viewed from St. Rte. 229 not far from Waldo has produced nine young ospreys since construction in 2003. At Hoover Reservoir, which touches the Columbus suburb of Westerville, a platform raised in 2002 has produced seven ospreys, starting with the first successful nest in 2006.
The original platform at Hoover can be viewed easily, though at telescopic distance, from a 1,500-foot boardwalk accessed from the village of Galena. In October, Tuttle, Phillips and some helpers built a second platform closer to the boardwalk.
“The project,” Tuttle says, “is 50 percent for the birds, 50 percent for the people.”
This spring or some coming spring, boardwalkers will be able to gawk from only about 120 yards at the comings and goings of ospreys as they preen, peck, hover, soar, splash down for a catch of fish, feed young and do whatever else comes naturally.
The show will be wild, Tuttle promises, and it’s likely to happen sooner or later. The only hitch is waiting for a pair of ospreys willing to play house in the full and unremitting view of an eager and enchanted public.
Directions for Osprey Viewing
To see the Alum Creek nesting platforms, exit I-71 at the U.S. Rte. 36/St. Rte. 37 exit and head west toward Delaware. Travel west less than a mile to 3 Bs & K Road, turn right and travel north about four miles to St. Rte. 521. Turn left and travel west about one mile to Hogback Road, turn left onto Hogback, which is just east of the village of Kilbourne, and travel south along Alum Creek until it opens into a lagoon. The platforms are on the right. If you cross Alum Creek Reservoir, you’ve gone too far west. Total time from I-71 is 10–12 minutes.