March Marks the Return of the Osprey and Adversity Continues to Follow One Pair

February 28, 2014 & March 2, 2014.
Osprey are beautiful birds and lead an amazing annual life cycle. Half of which can be seen on the James River. Pandion haliaetus, or osprey, return to the James River in early March from their annual migration spending about six months of the year on the James and the other six in the deep south, migrating as far as Central and South America. Each year, a few new pair of osprey make their breeding home on the James in Jefferson’s Reach as the overall numbers of osprey continue to grow and expand from the historic lows, in the 1970’s, caused by DDT.
Osprey are easy to love. They are majestic and even angelic, looking like an angel when they hover, in place, preparing to dive on a fish.  One of my favorite pair nest on the top of an old navigational post on the upriver end of Varina Farms. When they return this March it will mark their third year as a mated pair on the James River.
I first noticed the new pair in mid April 2012. They were late getting started. Six weeks after the beginning of osprey season on the James, this pair showed up and it took them an additional two weeks to decide upon a site to build their nest.  They flew along a quarter mile of riverbank, diving low along the trees and soaring high above the bluffs. Back and forth, up and down, they searched, until they settled on an old light pole at the river’s edge.  Long past it's life as a structure used to illuminate the river at night for navigational purposes, the top of the light pole was a perfect manmade structure for their nest.
“It sure is late in the year to lay eggs.” I remember thinking, as they were busy constructing their nest … flying amongst the limbs of oaks, pines and sycamores, diving in and around every branch.  Visually inspecting each one, occasionally touching a limb with talons.  When the right branch was located, the osprey would circle around on its flight path and grab it in mid air, snapping it off, instinctively turning the new nest material aerodynamically. Upon their return to the nest site they would carefully weave each stick into an exact location.  Breezy days are my favorite days to watch them build as they fly into the wind to maintain precise control, hover above the nest, then land to weave the next branch into place.  I am in awe when watching nature’s architects at work.
April soon turned to May, and every osprey in Jefferson’s Reach was deep into breeding season, some with young seemingly ready to fledge, or fly for the first time. This pair laid an egg in mid May and incubated into June.  The chick hatched in late June and was welcomed into the world with mid day temperatures reaching 102 degrees in it’s first week of life. The attending parent on the nest was diligent in protecting its chick from the heat of the direct sunlight, shading the newly hatched bird with its outstretched wings throughout this period of extreme heat. The parents would shift position around the nest as the sun rose and the heat set in always keeping the young bird in the shade. Miraculously, the young male osprey fledged and eventually headed south, leaving in late September, one of the last osprey to leave on its first migration.
In September, young-of-the-year osprey migrate for the first time, spending the next year and half in the southern end of their migration route. They usually find their lifelong mates after their second full year of life, often after arriving to their breeding grounds, like the James River. But maybe they are more romantic than we think? Perhaps they met before leaving their southern range, or along the route of their first migration north; on a beach in Aruba before crossing the Caribbean Sea or a riverbank in South America. Perhaps while crossing hunting flight paths on the Orinoco River in Columbia while looking for a small peacock bass meal.

Or in the midst of millions of acres of wetlands and thousands of miles of shoreline in Georgia’s string of barrier islands a male and female osprey were perched on the same branch when one caught the eye of the other. Seems quite dreamy, but more likely they met on the James, both returning for the first time in 2012 and it just took the male time to entice a female to stay and spend the next fifteen to twenty years together as life-long mates. How and where they met is a part of the story that will always be theirs.    

Knowing what these osprey have overcome, through numerous observations, during their first two migratory seasons on the James is what makes this pair special to me. These observations are the parts of their story, which are ours, and we can share, learn, protect and inspire.

In early March 2013 when this pair came back for their second breeding season they had a bit of a surprise. Their nest remained intact during a mild winter, but an unexpected visitor had taken it over. A large female Canada goose was sitting on eggs.  Lots of eggs! It was not long before the multitude of eggs hatched and goslings were packed around mother goose, on top of the 30’ pole.
So they waited … patiently.
Normally Canada geese nest much closer to the ground, and in this case “Mother Goose” chose poorly.  When the goslings left the nest they had to jump out and down about 30 feet to the water. The goslings must have made their break at low tide and instead of hitting water at the end of their skydive, they smashed into the sand, rocks and mud of the river’s bottom at the shoreline. One day Mother Goose had a dozen chicks chirping tightly around her and the next day she was swimming with only one tough gosling near her.
Canada geese taking over an osprey nest happens more than you might think, and the osprey will wait for the geese to leave, take back their nest and prepare it for nesting. Unfortunately for the osprey (and Mother Goose) the lone gosling was gone less than two days after it jumped out of the nest, forcing Mother goose back up onto the nest to attempt another clutch of eggs. I don’t know if she ever laid eggs or not, but she sat in that nest for weeks, and no chicks ever appeared. The action of Mother Goose forced the osprey to build another nest, choosing to build on the next light pole downriver, about 100 yards to the east. So even though they were ‘on time’ in 2013, they were still late laying eggs.
They quickly built a large, sturdy nest, laid eggs and began incubation, which takes about six weeks. Although impossible to tell how many reddish-brown spotted, cream-colored eggs were in their clutch, they were most certainly sitting on one to three eggs.  Both male and female took turns incubating. Over time it was apparent that something had gone wrong, as neither parent ever made any attempts to feed young, indicating the eggs never hatched. They failed to hatch any eggs, and were one of two osprey pair that had a failed breeding season in Jefferson’s Reach in 2013.
By September they were unceremoniously gone. The female left first, in late August, followed by the male within a week or so. Female osprey generally leave first followed by the males and the young-of-the-year within a few weeks. The males spend those last couple of weeks ensuring the young osprey know how to hunt and fend for themselves to increase their chances for survival on their treacherous first migration. A young osprey, making it’s first migration, has a 50% chance of survival its first year. Factors of survival include getting lost at sea, hurricanes and just bad luck, like finding themselves in the Dominican Republic. Dominicans have been known to shoot osprey because they believe them to eat their chickens.
If an osprey makes it to South America, it will stay for a year and a half before returning to the area it was born to breed, marking another new beginning in the adult life and annual life cycle.
This year, In March 2014, adversity is waiting for them on the James. When they return they will again find a new visitor in that original nest, where Mother Goose was the year before. A pair of great horned owls have taken over the nest and are sitting on eggs.  The owls took the nest in late January and laid eggs in early February.  The time it will take too long for the young owls to fledge, and will most certainly force the osprey to use nest number two for the second year in a row.  It also may prove that the second nest location is too close to the owls and force them into a third nest location, as owls have been know to kill and eat osprey.
Regardless, perhaps the osprey will have learned something in year two that will help them have a successful breeding season in 2014. It is these kind of stories that can only be known through observing nature over time, and its these stories that drive me to share, write and hopefully educate.  --Capt. Mike 
Photo Credits: Top, left: A female osprey in flight with some fish in her talons, above the James River.  Female osprey can be identified by the patch of dark feathers on the neckline.  Males have no dark feathers in that area.
Middle, right: An osprey comes down onto the river to snatch out a fish from the river's surface. Osprey also crash down, into the water after hoving above like an angel.  Photo by Ricky Simpson.
Lower, right: This photo was from 2012, the last time a pair of great horned owls took over an osprey nest in Jefferson's Reach. Here, two young (pre-fledge) great horned owl chicks sit waiting for one of the adults to bring back a meal.  Photo by Linda Stoneham. 
Note: March 2, 2014
Saw the first osprey of the season today about 7:25am. The female osprey was perched on the 146 channel marker on the James River, as her nest name is 146 Osprey Way. She has been the first sighted osprey on the James for the last three seasons, including 2014. Also, the owl is still nesting is nest number one (from story above) and guess who is back in nest number two? The osprey? Nope ... it's Mother Goose from last season!!  Who would have thought it, but she is back. No eggs, just standing on the nest with Daddy Goose protecting from the ground.  --Capt. Mike
Note:  March 8, 2014, about 10:00am
This morning, the male osprey came back to the 146 Osprey Way nest. He announced his return by showing off high in the air, sqwaking and chirping while diving up and down in areal acrobatics. Once he finished, he came down and landed on the channel marker.  Soon there after, the female osprey came down and perched wing to wing with her mate. It was obvious they are mated for life as it just seemed like they were happy to see each other.  They didn't leave each others sides for quite some time until they both left their nesting site to go begin gathering branches for their nest together. 
The female began building last week, March 2 but a storm must have blown out her work. The nest barely had any sticks in it the early morning of March 8, but by mid afternoon, they was noticeably more branches and sticks on the channel marker.  They also now have names, which is a story for another time .... Ann & Walter.  --Capt. Mike