Ospreys Returning to Sanibel Following Poor Water Quality

submitted by James Schnell, The International Osprey Foundation Board Member

Osprey by Kyle Sweet, The Sanctuary Golf Club, Florida Master Naturalist

“They’re coming back … at least we hope they are,” says Susan Tucker, president of The International Osprey Association (TIOF) based on Sanibel Island.

This is the time of the year when the skies of Southwest Florida begin to be filled with the familiar cries and aerial acrobatics of our region’s iconic bird, the osprey. They return to our area in two waves. The first to arrive to their familiar nests are the non-migratory resident ospreys of the southern Florida coasts. They are followed one to two months later by the migrating population from their summer habitat on the rivers and lakes of South America. It is a timeless ritual dating back to the origin point of the osprey species 15 million years ago in North America.

Tucker is concerned. Just as Floridians voted convincingly last fall for decisive action in favor of improving our water quality, so too did the ospreys. They voted en masse to abandon waters contaminated with blue green algae, red tide and seemingly endless waves of dead fish.

Ospreys are prime sentinels of water quality and their message to us was loud and clear. Evolution has finely tuned their reproductive systems not to produce chicks without the availability of adequate nourishment from healthy fish.

Tucker’s teams of two dozen nest watchers have been monitoring osprey nests since 1983.

She explains that the nests of Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach have yielded an average of 120 fledged chicks annually over the last decade, a stark contrast with the 26 chicks fledged in the 2018-19 season. Nesting season runs approximately January through May but the adults arrive earlier to claim and prepare nest sites.

Tucker urges all of us who have interest to watch the skies and their local nests for the next several months. Ospreys live their lives in our full view. They build their nests, mate, parent their young, and train them to survive and thrive in an increasingly threatened ecosystem. Watching this fierce bird of prey delicately tear tiny strips of freshly caught fish and gently feed them to days old downy feathered chicks, and then also soar in spectacular aerial combat defending their nests and young against predatory eagles, is a privilege and high adventure.

Just as Tucker and her nest monitors will be watching, she encourages us to be citizen scientists, observing and enjoying. They’re coming back. Watch and listen. What will be the ospreys’ message to us this year?

Visit www.ospreys.com for more information on Ospreys or TIOF. To volunteer as a nest watcher or to report a nest needing maintenance, email tiof@outlook.com.

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