Of the 300 known osprey nests on Cape Cod, 16 of them are located in Chatham.Text and photography by Marcy Ford
For me, spring doesn’t officially arrive until I see my first osprey of the year. Around the time of the vernal equinox, I begin driving around Chatham, looking up at telephone poles, towers, in marshes and at beaches for my favorite raptor. Of the 300 known osprey nests on Cape Cod, recorded by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, 16 of them are located in Chatham. You can find osprey pairs making nests of twigs and sticks on the towers at the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center, Ryder’s Cove, Forest Beach or near Stage Harbor Light. You can also spot them on platforms in the marshes around Morris Island and Stage Island. There is even a nest on the communication tower at the public safety buildings on George Ryder Road.
Ospreys are considered a conservation success story in Massachusetts, but things have not always been so positive. Between the 1950s and the early 1970s, the use of the pesticide DDT resulted in a population decline, bringing osprey perilously close to extinction. Thankfully, the outcry to end its use in 1972 helped save the species. We are now fortunate enough to have them soaring overhead and amazing us with their diving and fishing skills from late March to early September. According to Mark Faherty, science coordinator for the Massachusetts Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, the construction of nest platforms contributed to the success of ospreys, leading to high productivity and low nest predation. Protection of wetland areas, which serve as the osprey’s nesting habitat and a plentiful supply of fish, are factors in their success. That’s what makes Chatham and the Cape overall ideal locations for these large raptors.
Because ospreys’ nesting sites are so visible, it is possible to keep an eye on a family from courtship to migration, witness nest building and see their progress day to day. When a hatchling is finally big enough to peek its head above the edge of the nests, an observer is able to watch the constant feedings. These avian parents work tirelessly to keep their brood satisfied with freshly caught fish. It can be quite comical to watch the awkward stage of the young when they are just about to take flight for the first time.
When fall arrives, ospreys head for warmer destinations in northern South America, particularly Venezuela, to wait out the winter. And if you are like me, the countdown to spring begins all over again.
Special thanks to Mark Faherty, science coordinator for Massachusetts Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary for his contribution to this article. If you are interested in becoming part of the monitoring program, please contact Faherty at 508-349-2615, ext. 110.