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Photographing Osprey
by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III 

It's really hard to describe it to someone who didn't see it for themselves. At the height of the gypsy moth infestation of the late 1960s and 1970s, the caterpillars, at times and in some places, were so thick they were several layers deep and you couldn't see the ground. The caterpillars' constant chewing denuded the leaves from the trees in early summer so they stood as stark as they would in winter. The caterpillars' feces, dropping from the trees, sounded like a heavy rainstorm when they hit the dried leaf fragments that littered the forest floor. Mature trees were being killed by the millions. Hemlocks were killed in one year, some of the oaks lasted three years before dying while some, like the ash, weren't touched at all. It was the most drastic devastation to hit the forests of the northeastern United States since the blight killed the American chestnut trees during the twenty year period from 1910 to 1930, but was much faster, with most of the preyed upon trees dying within three years.

To combat this menace, in an attempt to save our forests, the U. S. government launched an all out aerial war using the poisonous spray D. D. T and in most cases, the cure was worse than the cause. D. D. T. never controlled the gypsy moth menace; it did curtail it but it wreaked havoc on so many other forms of life. The red-eyed vireo, at one time the most numerous type of bird east of the Mississippi River, was annihilated in my area. Whip-poor-wills disappeared, forest birds of all kinds were decimated.

D. D. T. is a long-lasting toxin. When it was washed into the streams, it killed the fish. The ospreys and the eagles that fed on the dead and dying fish were not killed, but their populations plummeted when the D. D. T. residue that the birds got from the contaminated fish built up in their bodies, preventing the proper calcification of the birds' eggs. Eggs that the ospreys, eagle and other raptors laid were so thin shelled that the eggs broke when the birds attempted to incubate them. Thank God, the use of D. D. T. was banned in this country and should be banned throughout the world. Our chemical companies should not be allowed to export D. D. T. to other countries, which they still do, where their wildlife populations are still being decimated by this chemical's use.

Through the ban on D. D. T. and the concerted efforts by local, state and national groups, organizations, conservation departments and individuals, most of our raptors have undergone a tremendous resurgence. Osprey have been such a success story that almost all coastal regions and many inland lakes again have good populations of osprey so that, with a little effort, almost anyone who wants to has the opportunity to photograph these magnificent birds

As a boy, I occasionally accompanied my dad, who was a marine engineer, on the oil tanker on which he worked, up the Connecticut River. Osprey were abundant and I was fascinated as these birds plunged into the river from on high, only to reappear with a wriggling, silver fish in their talons. Bald eagles were common too. Many times I would see the eagles harass the osprey until it dropped its fish, which the eagle would snatch out of the air as it was falling. The bald eagle is an expert fisherman in its own right; the osprey is better.

As a young man, I would occasionally take my family to Sandy Hook State Park in New Jersey. While they were swimming in the ocean and played or lay on the beach, I would go back into the brush to photograph ospreys and their nests. My dream was to get to Gardiner's Island off Long Island's eastern tip. It was always reported to have the largest concentration of osprey in the country. Many of the birds reportedly nested low on different snags or down on the ground as the island had no predators. I never made it. I don't know what the osprey population is on the island today, but I'm sure that it has also recovered nicely. It always was ideal osprey habitat.

While it is well known that osprey take fish, what is not as well known is that the fish also take an occasional osprey. I don't mean to even suggest that the fish deliberately try to kill an osprey because they don't. What happens is that every once in a while the osprey latches onto a fish that is more than it can handle. We have all taken on such jobs.

It was in the shallows between two islands in the Delaware River of Manunkachunk, New Jersey. The osprey spotted a carp swimming in the shallows and dove in, caught the fish and locked its talons. There were two problems: the carp was a huge carp and the osprey couldn't unhook its talons. Carp are also very strong fish and this one made a run for deep water, dragging the osprey along and down. Well, the osprey was a fighter; it, too, was fighting for its life. With beating wings, the osprey dragged the carp up to the surface so it could get some air before being dragged back under by the carp. This went on for five or six minutes with the osprey being able to get up to get air about once a minute, but it was evident that the carp was winning the battle because the osprey's efforts were noticeably weaker each time it surfaced. Finally the osprey was able to loosen the fish. When it bobbed to the surface, it weakly swam to shore, dragged itself out of the water and sat there, a bedraggled heap of soaking wet feathers. It took almost a half hour for the osprey to recover. Finally it was able to stand. It then shook the water from its wings and body and then lightened, slowly raised up and flew off while the carp regaled his kin with the tale of "the one that got away".

No, I didn't have a camera with me to record all that activity, but then you folks know that feeling too.

One of the best places to photograph osprey is Sanibel Island, Florida, which has over four dozen nests. Unfortunately, many of the nests are on man-made platforms put up to encourage the birds to nest there. Such platforms have played a big part in the osprey population recovery. There are, however, also a number of natural nests. Fortunately, the osprey, in almost all areas, have become so acclimated to people that they pay little or no attention to us.

While most bird photography has to be done from a blind, most osprey photography does not. I do recommend that you use your longest lens so that you can stay as far from the nest as is possible and still get a good image on your film. Secondly, by using your longest lens, you decrease the angle at which you are shooting. Photographs taken at say a thirty degree angle of the birds in their nest will be much more pleasing than those shot at a closer, but steeper, angle of forty-five degrees.

I have long advocated the use of a roof rack or platform on your car whenever possible. By using our roof rack, my wife and I were able to raise our cameras about twelve feet above the ground instead of just five feet. Although we were not on the osprey's eye level, which would have been much better, we were able to photograph the bird incubating the eggs while the other photographers, standing on the ground, could not even see the bird.

There is a big difference between photographing raptors and small birds at a nest. Small birds bring in small insects and they make hundreds of trips per day with food, each trip offering photographic opportunities. Raptors usually bring in large prey and may come back to the nest only once or twice a day. After the young raptors are two to three weeks old and, if the weather is moderate, the parents don't even come to the nest to incubate the young at night. What this all means is that, if you don't get to the nest at dawn to get the parents' first flights in with food, you may not have any other photo opportunities that day.

Ordinarily I advise folks not to photograph at nests until the young have hatched and the parents bonded to them. This prevents nest abandonment. With osprey, you need not take this precaution because, as I said, most of the birds pay no attention to people. If you are working an osprey nest where incubation is still taking place, you will probably have a great photo opportunity between 9 and 10 a. m.

The female osprey incubate the eggs at night. The male goes out feeding the very first thing in the morning. If he is successful, and he usually is, he will catch a fish and fly to a perch some distance from the nest and consume the head or the first 1/3 of the fish. He will then take the remaining 2/3 of the fish to the nest for the female. You can tell when he is coming even if you don't see him because the female will start calling. You will then have great photo opportunities as he comes in with the fish, while both parents are on the nest and when the female flies out of the nest with the fish to eat. The male will then incubate for several hours before the female returns to release him.

Contact the local bird club in the area in which you wish to work. They usually know where every osprey nest is located and which will be the best to work on.

I still hope to get to Gardiner's Island someday.

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