By Aaron Virgin, Vice President, Group for the East End
While our towns and cities were locked down and our schools and businesses closed, Long Island’s osprey population returned from wintering in South America in an annual migration ritual that was so unremarkable, it was comforting. Their majestic flight over our waters and iconic nests dotting our landscape have come to symbolize our island’s beauty, bounty and resilience.
It has not always been this way. The osprey’s annual migration was nearly halted in the 1950s with the widespread spraying of DDT — an insecticide used to control mosquitoes. Once in the food chain, however, DDT had an unwanted side effect, causing eggshells to thin and collapse under the weight of nesting parents. Birds of prey were particularly vulnerable.
Because of the decline in offspring, the osprey population plummeted. Nearly 90 percent of the birds were lost between 1950 and 1975 along the northeastern U.S. coast.
Thankfully, New York State finally banned DDT in 1971, and as the osprey began to recover in the 1980s, it became apparent that, because of ever-increasing development and habitat destruction, there were no longer enough nesting sites.
Recognizing this problem, Group for the East End has built, installed and maintained more than 250 osprey nesting platforms across the East End over the past three decades. This work, which was critical to the osprey’s recovery, complemented efforts by scores of other conservation groups like Seatuck Environmental Association and The Nature Conservancy, New York State and Suffolk County Parks, Audubon chapters, homeowner associations, municipalities, and private citizens with the shared goal to protect and sustain our majestic ospreys.
Today, there are an estimated 2,000 pairs nesting across Long Island. But our success comes with a cautionary tale: ospreys — usually the young ones — can sometimes choose dangerous areas to build their nests, such as chimneys, boatlifts, and utility poles. As growing populations of people and ospreys come into closer contact, there is an increased possibility of conflict if our engagement is not well-managed.
Thankfully, the utility company PSEG-Long Island has risen to the challenge. This year alone, their line crews have modified or moved dozens of nests that faced imminent danger, and since 2014, the company has installed scores of nest platforms across Long Island. About 125 workers in all divisions of the company are involved in osprey conservation-related work. This past winter, two nest cameras were installed by PSEG Long Island in Oyster Bay and Patchogue, so everyone can enjoy a front row seat on raising an osprey family.
Group for the East End and PSEG Long Island have developed a long-term monitoring and maintenance program for active osprey nests Island-wide, which will help identify problematic nest sites and provide accurate population and habitat data.
There is a strong need for increased public awareness about the osprey and for “citizen scientists” to help assess the population and identify problematic sites. A new group, the Long Island Osprey Conservation Partnership, will help address these issues through a network of environmental groups, government agencies, the business community and other stakeholders.
Each year the osprey returns to Long Island, it reinforces the message that human actions can directly help an imperiled species not just endure, but thrive. The lessons of our success are abundant and can apply to many endeavors: the power of collective action, the importance of science, the need for collaboration, the rewards of community engagement and the necessity of responsible environmental stewardship.
The osprey’s story is also a call-to-action for citizen science, volunteerism and standing up for those who cannot speak up for themselves.
Every citizen of Long Island can help identify osprey nest sites and inform us when a nest is in potential danger. We hope you will play a role in ensuring a safe and healthy future for Long Island’s iconic osprey for generations to come.
To learn more about the Long Island Osprey Conservation Partnership and to join as an Osprey Ambassador, please visit: GroupfortheEastEnd.org
To learn more about PSEG Long Island’s Osprey Conservation Program as well as view the ospreys live and grow visit: psegliny.com/wildlife.
Wildlife Ecologist Aaron Virgin is the Vice President of the Group for the East End. He had previously worked for the Audubon Society and as the director of the Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary in Oyster Bay.