The Osprey Nest
Usually when people ask me what I liked the most about a certain experience, I have a hard time deciding on a single favorite aspect. But if I had to pick one thing I liked best about my stay at Hickory Knob, it would definitely be the osprey nest. Well, nests, actually, because there were several. But one of them was close enough to observe from a few different vantage points within the park—and it was occupied by a family with two adorable babies!
I absolutely love watching birds care for their young. They work so hard to feed, protect, and ensure the survival of their offspring, reminding me of what a miracle it can be for any wild animal to make it to adulthood. Nature is full of challenges to navigate, and it’s amazing to see how different species develop their own strategies to overcome them.
The first time we noticed the osprey nest was on the way back from a hike in the heat of the day. We heard the mother calling, which helped us spot the nest, but it was pretty far off in the distance. The view from that part of the trail was blocked by a bunch of trees, and the bright sun made it difficult to see. While I was trying to get a better view through my lens, I noticed something small moving beneath her wing, which turned out to be one of the babies. The mother osprey was holding her wings just slightly open to shelter it from the midday sun.
After watching for a few more minutes, I was delighted to realize that there was a second baby, and in the next few days we kept coming back to watch the family in its nest from a distance. Sometimes it appeared to be empty, but eventually I’d see tiny little heads pop up from the edge when the babies got curious and wanted to look around. But most of the time, the mother stayed in the nest with the babies waiting for the male to return with food.
Most ospreys mate for life, and they typically return to the same nest each year to rear their young. They often select tall trees to build in, but they also take advantage of man-made objects like telephone poles and even construction cranes. From the looks of their nest, this pair may have been using this site for several seasons already, adding on to the nest each time. Nests start around 3-4 feet in diameter but continue to grow wider and deeper as the birds return each year. They can get to be 10-15 feet deep!
Although I would have loved to, I never managed to get a shot where all four birds were visible in the nest at the same time.
I love ospreys, not just because they are magnificent and fascinating birds, but also because they have an inspiring story. They are one of the rare birds that can be found on every continent in the world except Antarctica, but in America they were once on the brink of extinction.
Habitat loss has always been a concern for birds, but for the osprey there was an even more significant factor in their decline. After World War II when humans realized that DDT was extremely effective at killing insects, DDT was widely used as a pesticide. Over time though, biologists like Rachel Carson began to realize that DDT had a devastating impact on the environment and food chain.
As DDT began to accumulate in the fish that osprey feed on, it interfered with ospreys’ calcium absorption, which in turn caused their eggshells to become thinner and more susceptible to breaking before they could hatch. By the early 1970s DDT had nearly decimated several avian species, including the osprey, bald eagle, and brown pelican.
Although DDT was eventually banned in the early 1970s, the osprey population took a long time to recover. They were listed as an endangered species in New York in 1976, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that the species could be downgraded to “special concern” status. In the last 20 years ospreys have really rebounded, and in many places their numbers are now 100-200 percent higher than counts from just several decades earlier.
I don’t know about you, but the more anxious I get about the way human activity is impacting the environment, the more I need to remind myself of the story of the osprey. It’s good to remember that once we humans realize that something we are doing is harmful, we also have the power to change course and remedy the situation. It may take time to get back on track, but ospreys are living proof of what can happen when people choose to step out of willful ignorance and start taking responsibility for their actions. I think that’s why seeing this osprey family will stay with me as such a powerful memory.