A dedicated group of volunteers on the East End has helped ensure the survival of the once endangered osprey, helping the birds to overcome a population decline caused by the pesticide DDT, now banned in the United States, that caused their eggs to weaken and collapse.
The volunteers help by maintaining ideal nesting sites for the birds. Their work begins each year in January, as the Group for the East End sends out a call for volunteers to scout out 60 osprey towers that have been erected throughout the East End, searching for poles that need repair or have fallen down. Many of the volunteers then help repair and replace poles before the birds come back for the summer nesting season around March 17.
Groups of volunteers can be seen at this time every year marching through the marshes of the East End, carrying spruced up osprey poles.
Kate Schertel, an environmental advocate at the Group for the East End, has been coordinating the volunteers for several years. She said it is crucial that the nests be repaired by the time the birds return. Ospreys mate for life, and they also like to come home to the same nest.
One nest on Towd Point in North Sea is a perfect example of their habits, she said. High above the salt marsh, the nest is piled with the twigs and feathers of several seasons of hatchlings. “Sometimes the nests get so heavy that the pole breaks or collapses,” Ms. Schertel explained.
While many of the nesting poles have been watched by private citizens, the Lion Head Beach Association in Springs has taken the nest on its shoreline under its wing. That is a good thing, according to Merrily Sanfino, a community member who is very active in the association.
Ms. Sanfino said that, last summer, the osprey nest at Lion Head Beach fell off its pole after a particularly bad storm. It had two baby chicks in it.
One resident found both chicks in the dune grass on the shore. One had died but the other was still alive. Both were so young they still had no feathers.
“She wrapped the baby in her sweatshirt and called the Group for the East End,” Ms. Sanfino said. “She cared for it, but knew that it had to be replaced in its nest within 48 hours or the parents would reject it. The Group replaced the nest and put the chick back in it and the parents miraculously re-bonded with their baby and it survived to fledge and eventually leave.”
This year, the Group plans to move the pole farther from a walking path near the beach so that the ospreys are not disturbed by people and pets.
Within the next few weeks, Ms. Schertel will assemble a list of poles that need to be repaired, moved and replaced, and then volunteers—“strong backs required,” she said—will wade across muddy swamps in late February or early March to set the poles up correctly for the upcoming season.
Though the work surveying the nests is nearly complete, the Group is still looking for lumber donations, carpenters, volunteers and Scout troops to build nesting platforms and help repair the poles and platforms next month.
Most of the nesting poles were built in the mid-1980s, years after the osprey was first put on New York State’s endangered species list, by a bevy of East End naturalists associated with what was then called the Group for the South Fork, as well as The Nature Conservancy, the Peconic Land Trust and the towns.
Ms. Schertel said East Hampton Town was a particularly fervent sponsor of the program, helping to build nesting poles in Accabonac Harbor, Northwest Creek, in the wetlands surrounding Three Mile Harbor and in other wetland areas.
In 1999, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation downgraded the bird’s status to “species of special concern.”
Terry O’Loughlin, who moved to Mt. Sinai after retiring from the Navy in 1985, has been a faithful volunteer, returning each year to the marshes of the South Fork to protect the fish hawks’ nesting grounds.
“I consider it a privilege to volunteer with other like-minded individuals and to be a part of the solution in helping the ospreys continue their remarkable comeback from the brink of extinction,” said Mr. O’Loughlin, who credited much of the bird’s success to the nationwide ban on DDT that was enacted in 1972.
“These tolerant and magnificent raptors still deserve our assistance,” said Mr. O’Loughlin, whose first introduction to the art of replacing an osprey pole was an icy trek in marshes along the edge of Noyac Bay in 2007.
“As I had never ventured out on a task such as this, I assumed wearing a pair of sweatpants, rubber boots and a medium weight coat would survive the task. Wrong. My boots quickly got sunk in the soft, cold mud along the shoreline and soon I was trekking in my stocking feet,” he said. “It took an hour or so to remove the old pole and nest because it had been buried in about 3 feet of dirt and mud and was surrounded by rocks, which were originally put in for extra stability. We finally were able to pry it out.
“In early 2008, I was asked if I could inspect eight to 10 nests and poles along Noyac Road from Southampton to Sag Harbor. I willingly accepted the challenge and when I got to the site of the previous year’s nest we had put up off Clam Island, I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment in seeing that the nest was still standing erect and the remaining sticks that were in the nest from the past season indicated that a pair of ospreys had probably used the nest last year to lay an egg and to rear their young.”
“So I’m just a little cog in the wheel that watches out for these birds. They are pretty much at the top of the food chain, so if their numbers start dropping off then you can be assured that whatever they are eating to cause this drop-off will eventually find its way to humans.”
Ms. Schertel, meanwhile, has some simple advice for residents who are concerned about ospreys but do not have the time to volunteer.
“Don’t disturb them. A lot of the poles are placed where people frequently hang out on the beach,” she said. “Just have a little respect for these birds.”