Thumbnail image: C. Gibson

[Steve] Good evening.

[Audience] Good evening.

[Steve] My name’s Steve Kelling, I work at the Lab of Ornithology, for the past 20 years I have had the opportunity to work a lot of that time with our speaker tonight. And I first heard of Alan Poole in the mid ‘90s when all of my friends and colleagues were thinking about this new project called The Birds of North America. And The Birds of North America was a project started by the American Ornithology Union, the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences that was focused on developing monographs of every species of bird that bred in North America. Very early on in the process, Alan Poole became the scientific editor of the BNA, shepherding the creation of what? 760 accounts written by the foremost authorities of that species in the world.

And beginning in around 2000, the Lab of Ornithology got involved with the process, and we began to think about whether we could take this concept of BNA and put it on the nascent internet. And instead of having it as a single account that would be fixed in time, we would develop a, a editing process to update the accounts.

And in 2003 Alan and I wrote a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation and we got money to begin putting the BNA online. Since then we’ve, we’ve, we’ve updated over half the accounts in the BNA. The BNA is a lively, very highly regarded monograph, arguably the best monograph, ornithological monograph, in existence. And there’s more exciting things coming along so stay tuned.

But all this time I knew of Alan’s passion for the BNA. I’d never realized his love was for ospreys until I had the opportunity with my family to visit his house along the coast of Massachusetts where he took us out to show us his birds.

And from that I realized his love of the osprey and his deep knowledge of that, which he’s going to talk to us a bit about tonight. So it’s a pleasure to introduce Alan Poole.


[Alan] Thank you, Steve, and thank all of you for coming out on such a beautiful May evening, it’s sort of tempting just to keep birding and not even show up inside. So I’m very grateful that you’re here. It’s delightful for me to be back at the Lab. This was my home for ten years, and a wonderful home it was. I feel honored to be here tonight, this place has so much history. There are so many people who have come through here to speak about such a variety of topics in the ornithological world, and here we are surrounded by Fuertes paintings, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

Tonight I want to think a little bit about ospreys with you and talk to you about some trips that I took through Europe.

[Slide text: AN OSPREY REVIVAL: FROM THE FINGER LAKES TO FINLAND; Photo: Osprey soaring, from above]

Well I think we’ll start with Roger Tory Peterson who, on whose shoulders so many of us here at the Lab of Ornithology stand. Let’s think about it, Peterson really started America bird-watching. He started the development of birdwatchers, he he cultivated birdwatchers along his along the way with his writing and his painting, and here we are at the Lab doing many of the same things, although in a digital age taking advantage of newer technology to do a lot of the same things.

But Roger Peterson in the 1950s, early 1960s wrote a article for National Geographic called “The Osprey, Endangered World Citizen,” and indeed it was at that point. Roger lived along the coast of Connecticut, ospreys were in the marshes along his backyard. One of his favorite birds, he was thrilled with them. And after two or three summers he started noticing that at the end of the summer he wasn’t seen very many, if any young ospreys in the nest. That, one of the beauties of ospreys is that they nest in the open, and you can see the young in the nests when they’re big, they’re not hidden.

And so Peterson sounded the alarm. He was smart enough and connected enough so he was able to get the ball rolling. This is an era when other parts of the world were also having problems with birds of prey. It’s a story I’m sure many of you know, but if you know, it’s the story of the of contaminants, DDT particularly, thin shelled eggs, poor reproduction, peregrines, bald eagles, brown pelicans, and ospreys were the big four. Those were the species that were the most the most affected.

And they launched, helped launch an environmental movement in the 1970s. That was a turning point, the first Earth Day, the beginning of much of the environmental legislation that was written for our country, and sort of a greeting of cultures and we’ll talk more about that as we go along.

But what I want to do this evening is talk to you about what Roger was thrilled to see later on in life, he lived into the ‘90s, so he began to see ospreys coming back to his coast there in Connecticut, along the New England coast. Actually they were back in a big way by the 1990s. But the 1970s were sort of the turning point, and I was lucky enough to jump on board as a graduate student and start working on ospreys during those years.

And I’ve always had them in the background. BNA was a big part of my life for 20 years, but I still kept a place on the coast, and I got back there, and when I got back there, there were ospreys to study and nests to check, and I had a little boat to get out there, and that sort of helped keep me going. It was something to go back for, and I I loved that.

But what I want to talk about tonight is three separate populations that in a way illuminate the osprey story of the last 50, of the last 50 years. One of them is fairly recent, it’s right here in the Finger Lakes. I could not come to the Lab of Ornithology and talk about ospreys in faraway places and not mention what’s going on here in the Finger Lakes because it’s nothing short of phenomenal.

Also Finland, I was lucky enough to be given a small grant, actually a fairly nice grant to travel in Europe for a summer. That was three, four summers ago, 2016, three summers ago I guess. And I, there I visited Scotland and England, which have a remarkable osprey story to tell, an osprey recovery revival story, France where it’s just beginning to gain footing. So we’re seeing the revival at different stages of the game. And Finland where people are determined to make ospreys successful, they already are successful there, they’re determined to keep that success rolling.

Three different cultures, but all focused on wanting ospreys to thrive. So that’s our story for tonight. Um first of all though I want to talk a little bit about what it is about the life history of ospreys that makes them a species that has been able to to revive so so well. There are particular characteristics of this bird that wouldn’t work with a nuthatch or a heath hen, or a a seabird. Ospreys were primed to come back, roaring back in a big way because of who they are. So let’s think about who they are.

[Slide text: A GLOBAL SPECIES; Image: World map with osprey subspecies ranges shown across all continents except Antarctica]

First of all they’re are global species, that helps a lot. You’re not just dealing with one population, you’re not just dealing with a couple of populations, you’re dealing with hundreds of subpopulations around the globe. Ospreys are primarily Northern Hemisphere breeders, so there’s a North American population from Alaska all the way to Labrador, down into Florida, and along the Gulf Coast, although it stops right there from there on from Baja, South these are all wintering birds. This map is wrong, I’m sorry to say, and it got into my book, very embarrassing.

Europe, full of ospreys although not nearly as many as in North America, much more scattered populations with a very different history than ours. Fascinating, I’ll be telling you about that. Australia, where there is a non-migratory resident population. Ospreys that live in warm climates don’t need to migrate, makes sense, they’re fish there year-round. And you see the same thing here in the Caribbean, where there’s a tiny but very interesting population in Cuba, the Bahamas, and on down the the coast the uh Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, the coast of Mexico and into Belize.

[Slide text: A HAWK THAT FISHES; Photo: Osprey flying just above water with a fish in its talons]

The other thing is that ospreys are um, as I’m sure many of you, most of you know, they are exclusively fish-eaters, they eat only live fish. Now that might seem like a real restriction um, it’s um, but there are a lot of fish in the world, and there are a lot of places to catch fish. Keep in mind that most of the world is covered with water, of course a lot of that’s open ocean, which isn’t going to do an osprey any good.

They need shallow water, where fish are at the surface. They need shallow water or water where fish are at the surface. They can only dive about not even a a meter deep. So they’ve got to get fish up in the top layer of water. But you do the math and there are a lot of fish species that meet that criterion, and many of those fish species are schooling species that occur in vast numbers. And so there are times when ospreys, just there are so many fish that ospreys couldn’t eat them if they were eating them all day long, which they wouldn’t do.

[Slide text: FRESH AND SALT WATER; Image: Map of North America showing range of ospreys, including breeding, migration, winter, and year-round designations]

Fresh and saltwater, we’re dealing with a critter here that is both, equally at home on both on the ocean, on coasts, in estuaries, and all across the, whoops, all across the vast freshwater lakes of Canada and Alaska, reservoirs here in the in the in the western US have developed large populations, Great Lakes has significant numbers of ospreys as well. But just looking at this map a quick overview of North America, there are something like 25 to 30,000 pairs of ospreys now in North, North America, which is more than were here historically, we’ll see why.

Places like Florida have 5,000 pairs, Florida is a hotbed for ospreys, New England has two or three thousand, Chesapeake Bay has 20% of the ospreys in the world breeding there. Over 10,000 pairs of ospreys in Chesapeake Bay. There are as many ospreys nesting in Chesapeake Bay as there are in all of Europe.

[Slide text: NEST — A BIG INVESTMENT; Photo: Pair of ospreys at a large stick nest near water. One is on the nest, and the other is on a branch nearby]

The other thing about ospreys, they’re two things that provide that, as a population biologist, a reproductive biologist, there are two things that limit reproduction in birds, in birds of prey, and that is an adequate, safe nest site, and food. If you have enough food and a safe place to nest, you’re going to produce young. And if you produce young that’s going to drive the population changes, the population increases, in the year ahead, in the years ahead.

So here’s a typical, well not a typical, but a particularly well-developed osprey nest. This one happens to be in Australia, but it could easily be here. And this is classic home life. Home life of the osprey. Female probably on the nest, although they both share incubation duties, a feeding perch off to the side where the fish are consumed, although once the young hatch they’re consumed in the nest. This is, this is the peaceful home life of, this, all is well at this osprey nest. Male is here, female is incubating, probably just caught a fish in the last couple of hours, everybody’s full, nobody’s worried.

[Slide text: WORTH FIGHTING FOR; Photo: Birds fighting in flight just above an osprey nest]

Except for occasional, the occasional belligerent neighbor. Nest, nest is the big investment in the osprey’s life, and it’s worth hanging on to. Especially if you’re a migrant osprey, this is what you come back—this is where you start breeding. If you don’t have a nest, the odds are very good you’re not going to breed that year.

[Slide text: QUICK TO ADAPT; Photo: Pair of ospreys on a nest on a power pole]

Quick to adapt. This is, um most of you around here who know Finger Lakes ospreys, I don’t even, I don’t have to introduce this at all, you know this scene. This happens to be in Germany, but it could be in many, many other parts, in many other parts of the world.

Ospreys have taken over our net, using human structures for nest sites. Power poles are particularly attractive to them. They’re nice and nice and tall, they’re up there. They’re also dangerous, because they’re carrying huge amounts of voltage in those lines, and ospreys can and do get electrocuted. But here what they’ve done is modified this with a basket that’s built up on the top of this, and I know the same thing is happening around here, and in many other parts of the world.

So electric companies, we owe a lot of the revival of ospreys in various parts of the world to the kindness of electric companies.

[Slide text: IT DOESN’T TAKE MUCH; Photo: Woman on a ladder looking into an osprey nest in a marsh]

This is my, this is my home turf. This is one of my assistants helping, helping me check osprey nests on the salt marshes of Massachusetts. The point here is that they don’t need a lot to nest on. Any Cub Scout could build that nest, it’s not, build that platform for those birds to nest on. It does not, it does not take, it’s not rocket science construction at all. As long as they’re up off the marsh away from the high tide, they’re good. A predator guard wouldn’t hurt. Most of our platforms are taller than this. We have a hundred pairs of ospreys nesting on platforms like this within three miles of my house in Massachusetts, on the salt mar—, on our salt marsh estuaries. And these platforms are all up and down the coast, from the Carolinas to Maine to Nova to Nova Scotia.

[Photo: Osprey nest on a manmade, metal channel marker]

This is the secret we talked about, I was talking about Chesapeake Bay with 10,000 pairs of ospreys. This is the secret to the osprey revival in Chesapeake Bay. There are hundreds, thousands of nests on channel markers and buoys all along the back, back reaches of Chesapeake Bay. Those um, those tidal um, the sort of tidal and semi-tidal stretches of the bay there, and of course these are shallow waters so the birds do, do very well in finding, finding fish there.

[Slide text: FINGER LAKES OSPREY: REVIVAL OR INVASION? Photo: Lake from above]

So on to the Finger Lakes.


And the first question that I found myself asking. First of all, let me acknowledge that whatever I am saying here tonight about Finger Lakes ospreys, was learned in the last two weeks. And who did I learn it for, from? Miss Candace Cornell, please stand.


Candace has been doing fantastic work here for the last decade, even before that not only watching nests, she’s the ultimate watcher, Margaret Morse Nice would be proud. The ultimate watcher at the nest, but also documenting the growth, the fantastic growth of the Finger Lakes osprey population in the last decade, really. So here we go, the question is, are these new birds where there, what was going on here 200 years ago with uh with with ospreys, or even a hundred years ago?

To find out I went to the library up here at the Lab of O, and opened a, an ancient volume of the Birds of New York by Elon Howard Eaton. How many people in this room have ever looked at the Birds of New York by Elon Howard Eaton? Good for you, oh that’s fabulous. Well there you go, and the answer was right there. It turns out there weren’t a lot of ospreys here. In fact, if any, there may not have been any.

The the populations of ospreys that are historical in New York State are in eastern Long Island, where there’s been a strong salt marsh, um salt marsh and estuarine population for years, especially around Gardiners Bay, Gardiners Island, eastern eastern Long Island. The Adirondacks, scattered nesting through the Adirondacks, never a never a big population. Hundreds of pairs on eastern Long Island, maybe 20 or 30 in all of the Adirondacks, maybe 50, nobody really knows, they haven’t counted them for years. And the rest of New York, it turns out there were few or none historically.

[Slide text: CAYUGA BASIN OSPREYS NO. OF BREEDING PAIRS (per Candace Cornell); Graph: Number of breeding pairs of ospreys in Cayuga Basin in 1999 and 2018]

So I think to answer this question, we should call it an invasion. And invasion it is. Thank you, Candace, for these data. Here you go, 1999 fewer than 10 pairs in the Cayuga Basin, most of those, most of those in Montezuma, and since then 2018 almost 100 pairs, 90, 90 pairs, am I right? Then, yes okay.

[Candace] Actually, that was sort of the ones on public land. There’s ten more on private land.

[Alan] There you guys, see I said, I said a, 100 is probably it.

[Slide text: CAYUGA BASIN: FAST (!) POPULATION GROWTH (per Candace Cornell); Graph: Number of breeding pairs of ospreys in Cayuga Basin in 2013, 2015, and 2017]

This is what I find utterly fascinating. The growth, most of the growth, has taken place since 2013. Admittedly there were 20 plus nests, so it had already grown there, but this is exponential growth in bir—you rarely see this in bird populations. It truly is extraordinary, and especially extraordinary with large birds of prey that have slow breed—that have relatively slow breeding rates.

So these birds may have been coming in from, part of it was probably local reproduction. They just reached a point where there were enough of them producing enough young. Ospreys tend to return to the area where they were born as breeders, not the immediate area, but close by. They could also have come, Steve Kelling was suggesting that some of these birds may have come from the Great Lakes where there apparently is law, are large and robust populations, a lot along the northern and eastern reaches of Lake Ontario, do I have that right? Yeah, okay.

[Slide text: POWER POLES ARE KEY: NYSEG TO THE RESCUE; Photo: Osprey nest on a power pole]

So here we go. I think I’m preaching to the choir, a lot of you know, know all this already, but I find it fascinating. Again, this is typical, you could see this all over the world, where phone pole for electric poles are being fitted to accommodate osprey nests. Keep in mind this takes time and it takes money. These things don’t, these aren’t mushrooms, they don’t spring up overnight. Somebody has to get into a bucket truck and go up and do that work. Not only that somebody has to call the guy in the bucket truck so they can come and do it.

So each one of these have required quite a bit of work.

[Slide text: SAFE FOR OSPREYS; Photo: Power pole with platform for osprey nest]

This happens to be the western US, but they could easily, it could easily be here. This is very professional work, a guy. There is now a guy living in in Oregon or Washington I can’t remember but um who runs a business called Osprey Solutions, LLC.


This is how you know ospreys have experienced a revival. There’s a guy making a living fixing osprey problem nests.

[Slide text: VIEWING NIGHTTIME GAMES; Photo: Osprey nest at the top of a light pole over a soccer field]

I think probably most of you know this know, know this nest. Again think of how few birds would be tolerant enough to nest at the top of a light structure on a soccer field, where those lights are probably going for four or five hours every evening. That’s not your average hawk.

[Slide text: FISHING THE SHALLOWS; Photo: Osprey in a tree holding a catfish with one foot]

The other thing that’s been, I think, driving the expansion, um the the really fast growth of ospreys here in the Finger Lakes Bay, in the Cayuga Basin, particularly is, and by the way most of this growth has been in around Lake Cayuga, not the other Finger Lakes, is um the large extent of shallow water at both the north and the south end of lake, of the lake. Candace has alert alerted me to this. And here you see that, see them with a bullhead, that’s a shallow water, that’s a shallow water fish.

They’re getting perch as well, some trout, I understand those are sort of the big three. But it takes shallow water to fuel that kind of, to produce three young broods, which is the most that ospreys are able to do. When you see three young in a nest, you know the ospreys are in good shape.

[Slide text: CAYUGA’S WATERS: OSPREY TRAIL; Image: Map of osprey nests around Cayuga Lake]

And you see this reflected in the current placement of osprey nests. Notice that most of them are at the north end of the lake, they’re also quite a few down at the south, a lot fewer in the central ar—in the central areas there, where water is deeper and shallows are less accessible, fish probably harder to get.

So my congratulations to you, you’ve got a fantastic population here. Your, your just where we were 20 or 30 years ago, your population is just taking off. And it’s going to be fascinating to see where it lands, so to speak. What, almost all these populations grow and then level out. What is going to be the leveling point for Finger Lakes ospreys here? I have no idea, no way to predict that, but part of the answer is going to be when people get tired of building nest sites.

[Slide text: NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE; Photo: Sign in Finnish]

Okay, we’re going to shift gears here, and a case of beer to anybody who can tell me what any one of these words mean.


Okay, we’re in Finland.

[Slide text: FINNISH FORESTS — EURO-OSPREY HEARTLAND; Photo: Finnish forest from above]

The great boreal, the great northern boreal forests of Scandinavia have been the heartland of ospreys in Europe. Most of the rest of Europe osprey’s got wiped out, not so much by pesticides the way it was here, but by what we call persecution, which means basically shooting them or trapping them. And one of the reasons Europe was particularly prone to shooting and trapping was that Europe is a country, is an area full of fish farms.

Keep in mind, going back to the Edict of the Pope, you eat fish on Fridays. So everybody in Europe mostly, not everybody, but a lot of Europe was eating fish on Fridays, that meant a lot of guys were making money selling fish from out of their backyard, and when osprey showed up they were not happy.

[Slide text: EUROPE’S OSPREYS; Image: European range of osprey nesting areas]

Quick glance at where they’re, where they’re found, again 95% of the ospreys are from Norway, Sweden, Finland, and eastern and western, western Russia. These those big huge boreal forests that are still left there. Far fewer numbers, although a very interesting story that I’ll tell you about in just a little bit here in the United Kingdom, Scotland particularly, but also now in England. It’s beginning to, just beginning to, ospreys just beginning to come back to areas like Germany, and France, Spain, and Portugal.

[Slide text: FINNS BUILD NESTS; Photo: Man in the top of a tree building an osprey nest]

One of the reasons that I just love this picture.


It it summer, it is the essence of Finland. Only a Finn would climb 60 feet up to the top of tree and build a nest for an osprey, which is what they do year after year. There are over a hundred people that are part of the osprey network in Finland, and their their job is to find nests, particularly nests in precarious situations, and shore them up, make sure they’re solid, make sure they last for decades, and that’s and that’s what they do.

Finland has about 1,500, 1,500 pairs of ospreys. Fairly steady population since it’s been monitored over the last 30 years or so. Slow growth, thanks to work like this. Every single young that fledges from a nest in Finland is given a band. So that’s 1,500 nests, figure roughly two young per nest, that’s 3,000 young that are found in the back reaches of the Finnish forest. These guys are trekking through these forests for days on end.

[Slide text: OSPREY LAKES AT 10 PM; Photo: Calm lake and blue sky]

I think one of the advantages for Finland, it just struck me when I visited there was, they’ve got a long fishing day. It barely gets, barely gets dark even at, even at midnight.

[Slide text: PERTTI SAUROLA — FINNISH BANDING LEGEND; Photo: Older man climbing a tree]

This is the guy who bands a lot of those ospreys. 77 years old, still climbing, still climbing nests.

[Slide text: FINNISH OSPREYS LOOK LIKE OURS; Photo: Two osprey hatchlings in a nest with one egg]

This is what he’s going up for, this would be, this would be the hatch. Checking young at the hatch.

[Slide text: ANOTHER OSPREY BANDED; Photo: Pertti Saurola in a tree, holding an osprey up]

And there’s Pertti. Another osprey found and banded.

[Slide text: FINNISH OSPREY CENTER; Photo: Yellow building next to a pond]

I want to tell you a little bit about the Finnish Osprey Center because a lot of Europe has developed sort of mini versions of The Lab of Ornithology that revolve around ospreys. And they’ve been hugely successful. Finland in, Finland in particular, UK even even more so, Scotland. So this is the Finish Osprey Center. If I could pronounce the word in Finnish I would do it for you, but I can’t. Potiolampi.

[Slide text: TROUT PONDS — OSPREY MAGNETS; Photo: Two men standing next to a pond with a structure nearby]

And one of the things they do here is they, it’s an old it’s an old trout hatchery. And ospreys were coming in there to grab trout as often as they could, so they thought if you can, if you can’t, if you can’t beat them, join them. So what they did is they started seeding these ponds, smaller ponds, with lots of trout, and then building these little hides right here. Guess what it costs to sit in that hide for a day?

Three hundred and, three hundred and fifty dollars. You got to sell a lot of trout to make three hundred and fifty dollars. And they’ll put four or five people in there. People fly in from Russia, from Japan, from the US to photograph,

[Slide text: PHOTOGRAPHER’S DREAM; Photo: Osprey in flight just above water]

to get photographs like that. So, Lab of Ornithology


I understand that there are ospreys showing up at a pond here, and it occurs to me that with just a little bit of an investment, that you could be charging fifteen hundred, two thousand dollars a day for people to sit in a blind, take pictures of ospreys.

[Slide text: ENGLAND & SCOTLAND — A NEW ERA FOR OSPREYS; Photo: Fancy building on a pond with trees in the background]

Again, switching gears, Scotland. And there’s a rich and very interesting history of ospreys in Scotland going back hundreds of years, quite well documented. And I think I sketched out a little bit earlier um the problem there was less contaminants, less pesticides, than it was um slow steady shooting of ospreys at fishing ponds. Not just in fish farms, but also at the large landed estates. Keep in mind most of the land in northern, in Scotland, in a lot of Europe, is owned by very wealthy families. Huge holdings, 50, 70, hundred thousand, hundred thousand acres.

And those were the spots where the ospreys were, were trying to nest. People were trying to protect the fishing streams, the trout streams, that the that the wealthy people came up for on their weekends, their weekend hunting and fishing parties, and so ospreys did not fare well.

By the 1920s and ‘30s there were virtually no ospreys left in the, in England and Scotland. They were gone. Might have been one or two pairs way off in huge forests, but um, essentially wiped out.

[Slide text: SCOTLAND — FOREST NESTS; Photo: Pine forest with an osprey nest at the top of one tree]

So there were, here’s where ospreys nest, and compare this with that photo I showed you from the salt marshes in my backyard. Here’s a, same bird, totally different habitat, thriving in Scotland and these big tall pines where they’re nesting. And this again, this is part of a huge landed estate, but owned by the same family for three, four hundred, five hundred years, and I think they own a hundred thousand acres, something like that.

[Slide text: FORAGING — RIVERS AND LOCHS; Photo: Countryside with water in the distance]

This is where those ospreys are fishing. This happens to be a loch, an estuary, but they use the rivers, the rivers as well. And often commuting fairly long distances, five or ten, 15 miles to to get to them.


Oh, for some reason that slide didn’t come through.

[Slide text: UK OSPREYS — POPULATION GROWTH; Graph: Active UK osprey nests in 1975, 1995, and 2015]

Anyway there is an, also an osprey center in Scotland at a place called Loch Garten, where the, one of the first ospreys returned in the 1950s. They began to come back mostly scan, probably Scandinavian birds on their way migrating through up to Scandinavia. And like that osprey center you saw in Finland, the same thing exists in in Scotland where one nest has been protected for years since the nineteen in, since the 1950s, and they’ve nested there continually.

Over 1 million people have been to see that single osprey nest in Scotland. Tremendous interest there. Here you can see the growth, we’re up to there up up to somewhere between 250 and 300 nests in Scotland. They started out in 1975 with just literally a handful.

[Slide text: ROY DENNIS — SPARKPLUG FOR UK OSPREY REVIVAL; Photo: Roy Dennis next to an osprey nest]

This is the guy that made it all happen, or certainly one of the one of the major guys who made it all happen. He was the first warden at Loch Garten, Roy Dennis, great friend of mine. Wonderful wildlife biologist doing just fantastic work, conservation work, in Scotland and England, and is also spearheading a lot of the work to transfer birds from Scotland and northern Europe down into the Mediterranean area and southern Europe. We’ll talk about that in just a bit.

[Slide text: UK MIDLANDS — OSPREYS BROUGHT BACK; Photo: Mostly open field with some trees, one with an osprey nest at the top]

Typical nest in in England, this is um, um down in, near Birmingham, and the farmland outside of Birmingham, beautiful rolling fields, this is a landscape pieced and plotted. And here we have an osprey nest up in one of these trees. They, this is a population that was started from Scottish birds that were hacked or transferred down to a reservoir.

[Slide text: RUTLAND WATER HACKING; Photo: Two people holding an osprey on a boat]

A reservoir just outside of Birmingham. Paid for by the local water company that owns, that owned the reservoir. Set up a beautiful nature center there, they’re managing three or four hundred acres plus the osprey population on this on this lake.

It’s a truly a stupendous operation, really well run. If you have a chance to go, it’s just outside of Birmingham, it’s a place called Rutland Water.

[Slide text: ACTIVE MONITORING PROGRAM; Photo: People looking for birds from inside a viewing area]

Hides, they call them hides, and there are people there all the daylight hours monitoring, uh taking notes on the osprey nest. Every single fish delivery to that nest is is recorded. And they’re now something like 10 or 15 nests in this immediate area that have sprung up from that.

[Slide text: FOCUS ON MIGRATION; Photo: Tagged osprey being held by a person]

They’ve also put in a lot of work tracking osprey migration. So European osprey migration is particularly well known. These are satellite transmitters strapped on the back, a backpack transmitter, which some of you may know about.

[Slide text: W. AFRICA – SEPARATE WINTER VACATIONS; Image: Winter migration routes of breeding pairs of European ospreys to West Africa]

And this is a track, it happens to be from Finland, but it could be from Scotland, the data just particularly, this map is particularly good. And this is interesting because it was a single pair in southern Finland, both the male and the female were given transmitters. So you could see how the pair undertook their migrations and their wintering. And you can see there are very separate routes, and very separate wintering locations.

Now my friend Rob Bierregaard likes to joke that the only reason ospreys can stay mated for life is because they take separate winter vacations.


Notice year two that they both spring and, spring and fall migration are not identical routes, they’re close, but certainly not identical. Notice how they get across the Mediterranean, they are looking for land bridges, Italy and Sicily coming across Malta, and this is there, here they’re flying down what Corsica, Sardinia, and then they have to jump across from there.

Now keep in mind what’s on the other side of the Mediterranean.

[Slide text: SAHARA – TOUGH CROSSING; Photo: Dry desert landscape with mountains]

They got across that. There aren’t a lot of fish there. So this is a four, anywhere from a four to five day, six day, six day crossing. The good news is that they can land at night. So they don’t have to fly 24 hours, which they do over the water.

[Slide text: OCEAN CROSSINGS; Image: Painting of an osprey flying over the ocean with a ship in the background]

But they do it. Ocean crossings. This is lovely painting by Julie Zickefoose who did a series of watercolors for my book. I don’t think I’ve ever, I don’t think I’ve seen a single image that captures migration better than this painting. Overwater migration. Osprey that cross the Mediterranean will fly maybe 12, 15 hours. Ospreys crossing the Caribbean, which they our ospreys do here in North America routinely are leaving Cuba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, and flying to northern South America. That’s a 24 to 30 hour crossing. This is what they’re doing, day and night.

[Slide text: GAMBIA WINTERING; Photo: Osprey on a rocky area by the ocean, with a boat in the water nearby]

Back to Europe. This is where the wintering, where the, this is the coast of West Africa where so many of these European birds winter. Totally different area, they settle right in. Find what they need, feed on a lot of mullet there, big schools of mullet there, that’s one of their key species.

[Slide text: SHARING THE BEACHES; Image: Painting of an osprey perched on a snag on the beach, with people in horse-drawn carts nearby]

They share the beaches, with the beaches are, um provide, are basically highways for traveling up and down, horse-drawn carriages, bringing goods that are brought down from the rivers to the beaches, and then transported along the beaches to the villages that are along the, along the side.

[Slide text: LINKING CONTINENTS AND CULTURES; Photo: Group of people looking at a computer screen]

Rutland Water has been fantastic at linking schools between both Europe, between England and and West and West Africa. So here this class, this Senegalese class is getting a lesson in in ospreys, osprey breeding in Europe, via that via the via the internet. And I know the Lab has some programs that are starting to work this way as well. But this idea of linking schools in different parts of the world, using birds to link schools in different part of the worlds is just a fascinating idea to me.

[Slide text: BASQUE SPAIN HACKING; Photo: Wooden structure near a forest]

Quick look at the, how these northern European birds are being used to reseed areas that haven’t had ospreys for generations. This is in the Basque region of Spain, in northern Spain. Typical hacking tower.

[Slide text: RELEASED! Photo: An osprey flies off while another remains on the structure]

Some of you know about it, ospreys being released, being brought down from Scotland or Finland, released here.

[Slide text: OSPREY FOOD PREP; Photo: People preparing fish to feed the ospreys]

Lots of work goes into this. Fish being cut up, they have to have fresh fish every day.

[Slide text: THE LURE: BRINGING THEM BACK; Photo: Person on a ladder working on an osprey nest, with others on the ground]

And not only do they have to be fed, but when they return, it takes them at least two years to come back, after wintering in Africa, to come back to these breeding grounds. They need a place to nest, so here are some of the marshes in Spain where they’re building nesting platforms.

[Slide text: ON THE WING: A NEW GENERATION; Photo: Three ospreys flapping their wings in a nest]

So there we are, that’s basically the story that I wanted to tell you today. I hope you’ve gotten a feeling for, first of all how widespread ospreys are, and how they are are being nurtured by so many different people in different parts of the world. I find it very encouraging. You know, we live in a in an era when it’s, you have to struggle to find good news about, about the environment.

Those of us who keep a finger on the pulse of the planet, it’s very easy to get discouraged. What UN report just came out the other day that told us we’re gonna lose something like a million species in the next two or three, two to three decades. So what we see here is that it doesn’t always have to be that way. That there are species that can make it back. Yes, ospreys had lots of things going for them. They were tolerant, they could nest on human structures, umm they were very versatile in the food that they could take, even though it was all live fish, there are lots of different kinds of live fish that they could get, and they’re resilient.

Keep tabs on your ospreys here, I hope you’ll do that for me. I really want to follow, I don’t live here anymore, but I want to follow the story. I want to know what happens to Finger Lakes ospreys, so please let me know. Thank you for coming this evening, hope you enjoyed this.


I think it’s time for questions, and I think apparently we have they’re online people that are gonna ask questions as well. And you need to remind me, I need to repeat the questions. Question, sir?

[Man] So can you, at the southern end of the lake it was fairly sparse for a while. And then we had a couple more [inaudible]. Can you talk about the behavior of sort of ospreys in isolation versus, kind of what the threshold behaviors are, or density of a colony effect of ospreys?

[Alan] Yeah, sure. Thank you. The question was ospreys as solitary breeders versus colonial breeders, I think that sort of is the nexus of what you’re, what you’re asking there. And the short answer is ospreys attract other ospreys. So if you’ve got a breeding pair you are more likely to bring in more, assuming the nest sites are there to accommodate them. Either that or they’re going to fight over the nest sites, which can be to the detriment of the breeding bird that’s that’s already established there. So yes, I mean they do, they are, as a fish eating bird they’re, they don’t have to be territorial, they can nest very close together.

I have nests in my, on my mass—Massachusetts marshes that are 30 feet apart. So they can nest very close. They’re a fish-eating bird. You can’t defend fish, they’re moving around all the time. If you’re a red-tailed hawk you can defend a field, and be sure of finding rabbits and voles there. That’s not true of fish-eating birds, so you get gulls and terns, nest by the thousands on a very small area because they don’t have to, they only have to defend their immediate nest site. That’s kind of true for ospreys, it’s not quite as much but almost.


[Tim] You mentioned persecution of the birds in Europe and I’ve often thought myself, you know there’s a lot more ospreys and peregrine falcons now, much more than there were before DDT. They’ve come back really strong. But I wonder, wasn’t there a lot of persecution here too, which was probably suppressing their numbers [inaudible], I mean commercial fishing interest for the ospreys.

[Alan] Good question. The question has to do with persecution of ospreys in Europe versus here in in North America. In Europe it’s it’s far better known and it was apparently more effective because it really wiped the birds out. There were more ospreys here, that also helped. Good question, we really don’t know, we don’t have a good handle on how much persecution of ospreys was occurring here. You know, it would be anecdotal, somebody shot one in their backyard. It’s, that’s a really hard thing to get good good data on. I’m sure it occurred.

[Tim] Well, I mean there are pictures from the ‘20s and ‘30s of various kinds of hawks piled up after they were shot, and I’ve even seen a couple ospreys in those.

[Alan] Yes, yes, yeah those are shot, the bird, shot in mi—in migr—in migration. Ospreys are particularly vulnerable in the breeding grounds because they nest in the open, they’re not like a goshawk that’s out in the middle of nowhere, hard to find. So they were, they were more vulnerable. What’s fascinating to me is what, and I have a slide, but I didn’t, I didn’t, I could have shown it, but I didn’t. What’s fascinating to me is how attitudes changed almost in one generation. About, basically our generation, 1970s, they came, there was a turning point, and birds of prey were shot a lot less, a lot less than they had been before that.

The same thing in Europe. I have a graph that, graph that shows shooting in Italy, where it was rampant, I mean Italians shot everything that moved. And the number of recovered bands from Finnish ospreys dropped from, you know, two or three percent of the population banded down to almost zero percent in 20 years. So there were changing attitudes that were going on there. People were living, there were fewer people living in the country, there were more urban dwellers. So there weren’t as many kids out with a shotgun on a weekend with nothing better to do than shoot but, what they could, that kind of thing.

Candace you might have some observations here.

[Candace] Well people referred to ospreys as evil birds. That was in 1902, 1903. They described all the other birds as being lovely plumage bearers, but ospreys were evil.

[Man] The ones that left the nest after we put a camera up are definitely evil.


[Candace] Oh, stop.

[Alan] Anyone else? Okay, sure, mhmm.

[Woman] There’s all this talk about ospreys and other birds eating too much fish and getting persecuted. Is there any evidence that ospreys and, say cormorants, actually do decimate fish populations so humans can’t have them?

[Alan] It’s hard to lump ospreys and cormorants in the same basket because they eat very different. Oh, the question had to do with are ospreys taking taking fish that fishermen are interested in, and therefore there conflicts arise between the fish that people want and the fish that ospreys want. And to a great extent no, they are not taking, most of the fish they take are not fish that people are that interested in. Candace can speak to the Finger Lakes situation better than I can.

I’m sure the occasional trout does not please people when they take those, but how many people eat bullheads? I mean, probably not that many. How many people eat carp? Not that many. And perch are not, you know you’re not going to go to the fish market and buy perch. So you’re not putting anybody out of business by taking perch out of the southern end of Cayuga Lake. And where I live they’re taking things like menhaden and herring which are essentially planktivores, they’re oily fish, they’re used commercially but mostly for fish meal, not for human consumption.

[Woman] Algae blooms and uh, along the east coast and down in Florida. Are those creating problems for the shore birds?

[Alan] Algae blooms, are they problems for ospreys? Um not that it’s been documented. They’re killing a lot of fish, so they may well, they may well haven’t, have an impact on the ospreys. On the other hand ospreys are amazingly versatile and adaptable, and if one fish goes they can often find fish in other places, not always. The short answer is we don’t, we don’t know. I don’t think they’re any, there haven’t, certainly haven’t been any studies that I know of that have looked at that. But it’s it’s a worry, and it’s an increasing worry.

[Man] How heavy a fish can an osprey actually lift?

[Alan] How heavy a fish can an osprey lift? Good question, there are, there are tales, probably apocryphal, of ospreys latching on to a fish that is so big that they get dragged underwater. I’m not sure that’s ever been totally documented, but um, and also they can usually, they can usually, usually release their fish. Ospreys weigh about about 18, about 2,000 grams, so that is, I should be able to translate into pounds off the top of my head and I can’t right now. Hmm, four or five pounds, there you go.

And they can, they can take a fish about half their weight. The males weigh less, the male ospreys lay west, let, weigh less than the females, by about fifteen or twenty percent, and so they are going to take somewhat smaller, and they do most of the most of the fishing for the family, so they’re going to take somewhat smaller fish than the females will once once they start fishing on their own. Do we have some online questions?

[Man] We do, we have a question from Montana. Someone’s been observing an osprey nest for five or six years, and only just last year, I believe, they started sharing nesting responsibilities, with the male sitting on the nest and the female going fishing, he’s just wondering if this is common behavior and if it’s something that’s more common in mature pairs.

[Alan] I’m gonna get you to repeat that cuz I’m not 100% sure about that, I’m sorry. Okay sure. Should I repeat that question? Yes, so the question had had had to do with sharing, the osprey sharing nesting duties, male, male and female taking, each taking a role in in in in the nesting activities, incubating eggs and feeding young. And if I understand this question correctly it had to do with a pair where apparently that wasn’t happening earlier on, when they were a younger pair, but it did happen later when they, yes, later. Okay, um that’s very unusual. Most ospreys share nesting duties right away.

Females won’t put up with males that don’t do that. I’m very surprised that this male got away with that


but yes, I mean, that the typical situation is that both both both males and females incubate, male does all of the foraging, brings all the fish to the nest, female will leave the nest to, he’ll deliver the fish to the nest, the female will take that fish, go off to a separate perch away from the nest, feed on that and while that’s happening the male will take over incubation. And that can go on for quite a long while, he can offer, he’ll often incubate for an hour or more while the female’s resting, she’ll go bathing, and you know just getting a break from sitting on the nest all day.

But what’s interesting is some males incubate a lot more than others, and so what happens is the females have to come up and actually, I’ve seen females actually nudge the male off the eggs so she could get back on, because he wasn’t going to give it up. Females almost always incubate at night. Now once the young hatch, that things change because the male no longer, he does not brood the young. The young need to be kept warm when they’re small, and the female broods them, sit sits on them, and keeps keeps them warm.

What happens then is the male brings the fish up, and she keeps it in the nest and breaks it up and delivers bits of, bits of pieces to the, to the, to the young. He does his feeding before that happens away from the nest. So there are, there are a few instances known where males did not deliver, were poor, were poor foragers and didn’t bring in a lot of fish. And in that case the female would would leave, the male would stay at the nest, the female would leave and go off and and forage on her own and bring fish back to the nest. But that’s rare. Anything else?

[Woman] My question is about competition with other species. There have been observations around here, myself personally too, of ospreys harassing great blue herons, and one theory was that herons actually predate, can predate, can prey on the young offsprings or the eggs. Is that true, or would it be more like competition for food, or nest sites?

[Alan] Has to do with that, the question has to do with ospreys seeing herons, I guess in this case green herons, great blue herons, yes, okay that makes sense. Seeing herons as being aggressive toward them, chase, chasing them. And I’ve seen the same, I’ve seen the same thing. And I’m pretty sure they see them as predators, because they can come up. When an osprey chick is is that big, the size of your thumb, twice the size of your thumb, it’s going to be a tasty little morsel for a great blue heron, and they are remarkably agile at getting up into into nests. So yes, ospreys will not tolerate great blue herons near their nest at all. I’ve seen them chasing them time and time and again, and it usually works. A a female osprey whose, whose dander is up and is flying hard at you at about 45 miles an hour is something that any great blue heron is going to get out of the way from, fast.

[Woman] How do they pair up? Does the male try to attract the female, you know if he doesn’t have a pair, have a mate. What is that process, and?

[Alan] Good question how, question is how do osprey, how do ospreys form pairs? And a lot of it has to do with a nest site. You don’t have pairs forming. The pair coalesces around a nest site. It could be the male that arrives there first, it could be the female that finds a spot where where she wants the nest. But once they have the site, another, that’s going to be something that attracts another bird, a potential mate in, into that site. In other words they’re not going to form, they don’t, they don’t form pairs on the wintering grounds, they don’t form pairs in migration. They migrate alone, they winter alone. They only form pairs when they come back to the breeding grounds, and those pairs almost always form around nest sites.

[Woman] And that’s a lifetime, or generally a lifetime pairing?

[Alan] It is, but keeping. Is it a lifetime pairing is the question? Um ospreys do pair for life, but keep in mind that they, adult mortality is about ten percent a year, so do the math. You know, you think about it, and in five years you have a very good chance of having lost, one of the two mates having died in that in that period. If you lost 10% of your friends every year, you would have, wouldn’t have that many friends at the end of the you know at the end of the at the end of a decade. That’s essentially what, that’s the way ospreys live. Thank heavens we don’t, we’re not, we don’t have that situation, but ospreys do.

But they’re very quick, they’re very quick to find a new mate, especially if they have a nest site. If you you you you, look if you have a nest site and you’re single, and sitting around there, the odds are real good you’re gonna have a mate very quickly.

Okay let’s do one more, and then I think I’m…

[Man] On the average, how long does an osprey live?

[Alan] Look, life too, how long do ospreys live? They will, that’s a tough question because some of them live a long time, most of them die young. So in the first year of life, once they fledge and leave the nest, that next 12 months 50% are gonna die in that period. So for every every two young that leaves the Finger Lakes, only one of them is going to come back. And actually let, probably less than that because you’ve got another year year in there. So 50% die in the first year, after that it’s the weight from the shaft, they are, the lucky from the unlucky, a combination of those two. They weeded out pretty much everybody who wasn’t gonna, wasn’t gonna make it.

Especially my, migration is a big filtering factor. It gets rid of a lot of the birds that that just don’t have it to complete that migration. From there on it’s about 10% a year, so if you look at, there are several ways of answering this question. If you look at the age structure of the population, in other words if you look if you take the median age of that population, most populations it would be somewhere around 8 to 7 to 9 years, something like that. But there are us, I have trapped ospreys with bands, convincing evidence, that were over 20 years old. We’ve had ospreys as old as 27, I think, have been known to be breeding. But that’s, it’s one in a thousand, one in 10,000 I don’t know. It’s sort of like, it’s sort of in human terms, that’s kind of like the person that lives to be 105. You can do it but the odds are pretty slim that it’s gonna going to happen. No, but, and the other difference is that ospreys are still breeding at 105.


Okay thanks for coming.


End of transcript
Alan Poole with an Osprey
Dr. Alan Poole Retired Editor: Birds of North America, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Alan Poole, an Associate of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, was editor of the Birds of North America life… Read full bio

The extraordinary revival in Osprey numbers that we are witnessing here in North America has not been restricted to our shores. Nearly eliminated from most of Europe half a century ago, Ospreys are staging a remarkable comeback there as well–from Scotland to Spain and from France to Finland. Follow local Osprey expert Alan Poole as he leads us along on a 3 week summer trip through Europe, visiting Osprey researchers and gathering material for his recently published book: Ospreys: The Revival of a Global Raptor. Part travelogue, part natural history–this beautifully illustrated lecture will give us glimpses of Europe through an Osprey lens. Come celebrate the revival of a global raptor!

Book cover Ospreys: The Revival of a Global Raptor