Ospreys forced to feather their nests in the oddest of Fairfield places

Necessity has become the mother of invention for certain birds of prey looking for a place to lay their eggs and raise their young as their natural habitats are lost to development.

Local ospreys, for instance, are getting creative about selecting nesting sites in the wild ... or not-so-wild sites in the area.

Pairs of ospreys, one of North America's largest birds of prey with a wing span of up to six feet, are currently building nests in densely developed sites in the region.

One of the couples is working on new digs at the top of a light tower at Sullivan Field in Fairfield's South Pine Creek recreation complex, while another is weaving branches together atop a utility pole along busy Post Road East in Westport between Terrain and Fresh Market.

Ospreys -- also known as sea hawks, as well as similar nicknames, for their fishing prowess -- are most frequently seen nesting in platforms in the waters of Long Island Sound and near shore, but they are increasingly settling on nontraditional sites because the prime osprey real estate is taken, according to Milan Bull, senior director of science and conservation for the Connecticut Audubon Society.

Because the birds' numbers have rebounded to historic levels, after their populations plummeted in the 1950s through the early 1970s because of the impact from DDT and other poisonous pesticides, there is a shortage of nesting areas "so they are expanding their nesting range and they're beginning to nest in lots of bizarre places, including on the ground. Now they're nesting in what I would call subprime locations, the low-rent district," Bull said.

"They're getting very creative about where they're putting nests. Population pressure is moving them north," said Mike Horn, a volunteer for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

"All the low-hanging fruit, as far as available nesting sites, has been picked," Bull said. "All the classic, preferred osprey nesting places have been occupied, so the next generation of ospreys is struggling to find really good sites."

Any high vantage point that ospreys feel is within an easy distance of some fish resource they will take, he said. They prefer tall structures with horizontal beams and flat sections. Bull added that the birds will return to the same nest and build on it each year.

It's survival of the fittest. The strongest, most experienced birds get the best nest sites and the younger, more inexperienced birds get the less attractive, less desirable, less safe places to build their nests, he said.

"They're on navigation buoys, they're on cell towers, they're on telephone poles, they're even on the ground. There's such a shortage of places for them to nest they're looking anywhere," he said. None of the ospreys, like a pair in Norwalk, that have attempted to nest on the ground have done so successfully. Usually raccoons, skunks or other predators get to the eggs before they can hatch, Bull said.

People visiting Sullivan Field are surprised to see an osprey pair in the unusual nesting site considering the sports activities and the crowds of people directly below. "All this noise. I wonder if the ball ever goes up there," wondered Vicki Hyde, as she watched a recent softball game. Hyde enjoys having the birds nearby. "Nature's neat. It's amazing when it's right here," she said.

Ospreys are also becoming more human-tolerant. They were shy when their population began increasing again. "Now they're becoming more habituated to people," Bull said.

The nest on Post Road East in Westport is not a particularly good location, "but something's there that definitely attracted this pair of birds," he said. At the very least, their nest selection has created an educational opportunity, her said.

"People will focus on it. That's what's happened in other areas around the state. People begin to show ownership of their ospreys," he said.

Bull recommends enjoying the birds while they are nesting and fledging, if the female lays eggs there. If it's a young pair, this may be a trial run this year, he said.

Ospreys lay their eggs by the end of April. The raptors will sit on the eggs until they hatch about 29 days later. Then, about seven weeks after hatching, the fledglings will fly off.

Bull said he is often asked by people what they can do to protect the birds. The ospreys and other migratory birds are already protected by state and federal laws. No one can remove the nests in nontraditional places without a permit, he said.

For more information about ospreys and to find a link to Connecticut Audubon's "osprey cam," visit http://bit.ly/1jL3SP0.