• A Bird’s-Eye View of Ospreys on the Cape

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    Cape Cod Museum of Natural History
    The mission of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History is to inspire appreciation, understanding and stewardship of our natural environment through discovery and learning.
    Cape Cod Museum of Natural History

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    Tiny black, reptilian-looking creatures anxiously wait while their mother tears apart a fish for their dinner. She then delicately places small bits into the mouths of the newly hatched ospreys. It’s just one of the marvels to watch on the osprey cam inside the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, Cape Cod’s Nature Place.

    The action is happening a few hundred yards away, behind the museum in the Wing Island marsh, where a man-made platform supports a temporary home each spring and summer for a pair of osprey and their offspring. The cam, attached to the platform, provides real-time views of the nest’s interior.

    Arriving in mid- to late March from their wintering grounds in Central or South America, ospreys like to nest in the Cape’s marshes, close to water and their favorite meal, fish.

    David Gessner, author of “Return of the Osprey: A Season of Flight and Wonder,” is an authority on the species.

    “The cam allows anyone to do something only naturalists used to do,” he says. “See the whole of nature embodied in an osprey family. Watching by cam gets you caught up in the spectacle, the cycle of nature. You can check it for five minutes a day and feel less isolated from other creatures.”

    The cycle begins as the mating osprey pair builds their nest. Sometimes, the work falls along gender lines, says Gessner, with the male collecting sticks and other items, and the female deciding where each one goes. The cam records their actions as the ospreys painstakingly design their habitat.

    As Gessner describes in his book:

         “As well as they fly, as brilliantly athletic as they are, they sometimes seem to have a difficult time landing on the nest, particularly when carrying large sticks. Before landing, they drop down 10 feet below the platform, almost to the ground, then fly straight up into the wind, hovering, and finally land with a great flapping of wings.”

    Soon the nest building, and the mating, is done.

    “In April you’ll see them on the cam hunkering down over their eggs; and by mid-May or early June, you start to see the telltale signs that the eggs have hatched,” says Gessner, as the adult male routinely flies off and then returns with a fish, while the female prepares it for the nestlings.

    It isn’t an easy life for the tiny birds in the heat of mid-summer, as this excerpt from Gessner’s book describes:

          “While I wear a halo of bugs, a thousand more insects buzz around the nest itself, drawn by fish and fish guts. Ticks, mites, larvae and God knows what other microscopic creatures swarm in the interstices of the nest. For the nestlings, it’s an intensely itchy life. One of their dominant sensations of being alive must be the need to scratch.”

    The baby osprey grow quickly through summer, says Gessner, and cam viewers will see they are noticeably larger every few days. Soon the nest gets crowded, and once feathers grow, the birds begin to try their wings, hovering for a few seconds at a time over the nest.

    “Then the biggest, or the bravest, will take off for a short flight,” he notes. The others soon follow, and before long they are learning to hunt for themselves.

    In late August or early September, the birds take off for southern climes. The nest succumbs to  winter’s wrath until the rebuilding starts anew the following spring.

    To learn more about the osprey.cam, visit www.ccmnh.org or call 508-896-3867.

    March 21, 2014