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Bay State Ospreys:  A Successful Recovery

Original Publisher: MassWildlife Magazine 1999



of fisher hawks increased the Cape Cod osprey population by two during the summer of 1999, and then departed for a warmer climate. After strengthening muscles and increasing flight ability, both siblings followed the parents south before the cold weather set in.
This American osprey pair returns each year to Skaket Marsh in Brewster and nests on a pole that a couple of workers from the forestry camp replaced after the original pole had rotted away. The new pole sits farther out into the estuary and closer to the bay.

Ospreys both young and adults, become victims of Great Horned owls, which hunt at night. The ospreys hunt by day, and are easy prey when sitting atop the nest in the dark.

The pair returned the last week in March and began refurbishing the nest. Two young ospreys hatched around May 30 and fledged about eight weeks later. Every day they flew in circles around the nest, gaining strength.  These birds hang out on the Cape until August or September, and then migrate – some northeastern ospreys migrating as far south as Argentina.

The same pair raised three youngsters the previous year, and had several successful nests in the past. In 1998 they arrived March 28, nested April 6, raised three young and then migrated the first week in August.
In an intriguing partnership, the male feeds the female while she incubates the eggs, and the female and young after hatching until she can leave the nest and help him hunt. Later, both feed the young while teaching the offspring to hunt for themselves
As predators, ospreys live at the top of the food chain and respond quickly and critically to habitat loss, or change.  Osprey reproductive success is a prime indicator of environmental stability as well. Ospreys accumulate chemicals and pollutants from the live prey they eat, and that contamination affects the reproductive process.

Around the turn of the century, logging and land clearing for agriculture and housing along the Atlantic coast reduced osprey habitat, primarily tall trees along the shorelines, and the populations began shrinking steadily.  In the 50s and 60s, chemical pollutants – DDT and DDE in particular – contaminated the adult birds, and the chemical accumulation in their biological reduced osprey

reproductive success. The birds laid eggs with shells so thin they broke while the female nested, or even if the eggs hatched, the young were so weak they died.

Although never classified as endangered or threatened, Massachusetts considered ospreys a “Species of Special Concern” because the population bottomed-out at about 11 nesting pairs in early 1970’s, prior to the ban on DDT.  The “’Special Concern” designation indicates biologists need more information on a species, the numbers, and the distribution and habitat requirements.

Over several years, a group of Massachusetts biologists collected field information on the number of nesting pairs and identified a lack of natural nesting sites as one limiting factor to population recovery.  And the habitat recovery program along with installing the nesting poles created a viable environment for these raptors.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1972 offered federal protection to ospreys – which also helped the populations recover.

By 1981 the osprey population in Massachusetts rose to 41 nesting pairs. In a unique partnership with ComElectric and other utilities, the state began an extensive recovery project, installing more than 100 nesting platforms on old power poles across the southeast portion of the state.

Today, more than ninety percent of the nesting ospreys in Massachusetts nest on artificial platforms or other man-made structures.  An example – one pair of ospreys has returned and nested in Hyannis for the past six years, raising youngsters on a light pole behind the high school.  The Cape Cod Baseball League has played games without light from that pole for several years. The Massachusetts birds respond well to the artificial nesting structures and began increasing reproductive success ratios.

MassWildlife removed ospreys from the Species of Special Concern list in 1990 when its population reached 200 nesting pairs, but monitored the population until it crested at 300 pairs.  MassWildlife still provides technical assistance to citizens who encourage the birds and offer guidance when ospreys are in conflict with people.

*Define the Osprey *

The American osprey, or fisher hawk, has white body plumage on its breast and throat, a dark band around its eyes, and darker red/brown feathers on its back and wings. The wings span 60 to 72 inches, and the birds stand about 24 inches tall.
Ospreys always live near water, and follow the waterways when they migrate as well.  This raptor species exists on every continent except Antarctica, although about 75% of breeding pair worldwide nest in North America, and about half of those in the United States.  Ospreys generally mate for life, unless reproduction problems occur.  If a pair nests unsuccessful for several years, they often separate and seek new mates.

Ospreys lay from two to five eggs that hatch five to six weeks later. The young stay on the nest about two months, and then begin learning to fly and hunt. At four to six months, the New England ospreys migrate south for the winter. Osprey pairs do not migrate together, but most often return to the same nest and the same partner year after year.

Ospreys feed almost exclusively on live fish, small mammals, crustaceans, or but occasionally supplement the diet with amphibians.  These raptors have extremely sharp eyesight and they can distinguish between a six-inch fish and a six-inch stick lying in the water from hundreds of feet in the air.

Hovering above a body of water, they spot fish swimming beneath the surface, then dive and plunge feet first into the water, grasping the prey with powerful talons. The osprey reverses the fish until its head points forward, and then flies back to its nest or a perch and eats. Tiny spikes on the soles of its feet and four opposing toes with long talons maintain a tight grip on the slippery prey.



A Beauty or a Beast!!

Copyright – M44 Enterprises

Original Publication – MassWildlife 2001

Graceful and elegant – no two words define a Mute swan quite so well.   These magnificent white birds glide serenely across ponds, inlets, and marshes with neck arched and feathers preened – an exquisite portrait of natural beauty.

One regal pair raised young for years on Cedar Pond in Dennis on Cape Cod, and another claimed Bound Brook, each pair defending its territory aggressively. Bobbing beneath the surface and feeding on the bottom, occasionally snatching a sprig or stem along the shoreline, each bird consumes eight to ten pounds of food a day. Primarily vegetarians and the largest of the duck family, these beauties simply float around the ponds – a vision of tranquility.


Don’t let that serenity fool you.  Extremely protective of their homes and young, swans defend cygnets and the family turf aggressively with sharp beaks and powerful wing slaps.   Male mute swans in particular often kill waterfowl and other birds to protect their territory, and numerous attacks on swimmers, hikers, dogs and even boaters have been documented.

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Biologists now consider the Mute swan a North American domestic species, but those found on Cape Cod were originally native to Europe and Asia. Several pair brought to New York as estate pets in 1919 escaped, and from there, the prolific birds spread throughout New England, Connecticut, Virginia and several mid-west states.

Swans have tremendous endurance and can easily travel a great distance at over forty miles an hour. Although many migrate in the late fall, they remain primarily in the northeast and simply move around to escape the freezing waters.

A successful and prolific transplant, Mute swans are expanding the nesting range inland from the east coast.  Swans are the largest of the duck family and separate into seven species. Observers identify the Mutes by the pure white plumage, fluffy back feathers, black legs and feet, and a black knob at the base of the bill. Both sexes look similar, but the females are slightly smaller and have a smaller knob.

When fully grown, swans are five feet from beak to tail, with a wingspan of six-feet, or more. Unlike other species of swan, which often are extremely vocal, adult mutes only growl and cough, hence the common name.

Mute swans differ slightly from other varieties, exhibiting an arched neck and an orange beak with a black knob at the crown of the jaw. Cygnets hatch in early spring, covered with gray-brown fluffy feathers that turn pure white as the young mature – cygnets normally have gray feathers and beaks. With age, the beak turns orange and develops a black knob at its base.

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