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Wild About Pandion Haliaetus

Old Lyme native and researcher Dr. Paul Spitzer is wild about pandion haliaetus.

To the layperson, that’s an osprey – the intriguing raptors that make their home in the Connecticut River Estuary. Spitzer has analyzed these marvels of avian evolution for over fifty years, and was instrumental in reversing their loss during that time.

On a summer’s day, Spitzer heads out to the 500-acre Great Island Wildlife Area/Roger Tory Peterson Natural Area Preserve at the mouth of the Connecticut River in Old Lyme to check out osprey nests. Spitzer – who studied under famed naturalist Roger Tory Peterson before getting his doctorate in osprey study at Cornell – is in his second year of osprey study for the Connecticut Audubon Society. He’s ecstatic over the robust osprey population on Great Island.

Spitzer hitches a ride on a 17-foot Boston Whaler captained by Terry Shaw of Guilford, a stalwart volunteer for the Menunkatuck Audubon Society who has built osprey platforms in Guilford and Madison. He’s ready to give Spitzer a hand with boat and ladder for osprey chick rescues. Also aboard is veteran osprey platform builder Hank Golet of Old Lyme, who’s been providing predator protected osprey accommodations on Great Island since the 1980’s.

Without Spitzer and Golet, the osprey population of Great Island would likely not be as robust as it is. But Spitzer will point out nature’s role in the abundance. Before he boards the Whaler at Smith Neck Landing, Spitzer encounters a kayaking family and tells them to be on the lookout for ospreys hunting for their favorite food – the menhaden fish (a form of herring). “When they catch one in their talons, you can see the menhaden silhouette,” he says. “Look for the blunt head and the yellow forked tail.”

Spitzer knows (as few do) what a plentiful supply of menhaden can do. For one thing, it’s contributed greatly to the unprecedented osprey nest increase here. He counts some 34 to 35 active nests on Great Island, with a further 65 nests located in the Connecticut River Estuary. Not since the 1930’s have there been such numbers. Spitzer also carries with him the story of the dramatic decline of the Estuary’s osprey colony in the 1950’s and 1960’s due to DDT.

En route to what he calls his “Osprey Garden” on Great Island, where the platforms are spaced 400 to 500 feet from each other, Spitzer launches into his menhaden study. As of last year, he has traced the “very high osprey nest success rate” to the new menhaden harvest quota instituted for commercial fisheries by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Anchoring on the southwest end of Great Island, Spitzer heads across the salt marsh to Platform 18 to check on the status of the nest there. As the numbered platforms are 12-feet high, he uses an extension stick with a mirror and finds the single nested chick A-OK. “It’s nearly fledged,” he says. In most nests he’s found an optimum 2.5 chicks. But this isn’t all fun and games: his presence has agitated the female osprey. She cries out while circling overhead. Near fledging time Spitzer is cautious with his approach, as causing a fledgling to jump out of the nest prematurely will put it in harm’s way.

Overhead, Spitzer is alert to ospreys arriving with a menhaden meal for their fledgling families. He marvels at the strength of a 3-lb osprey to pull a ¾ pounder out of the water. He knows the menhaden life cycle: its wintering place on the continental shelf off the Carolinas and Georgia; and how the young ones make their way to the Chesapeake Bay to their “peanut” stage, moving north to their “bunker” stage in warmer waters in Long Island Sound and Great Island in May. “They’ll stay until October,” he says, “and then head south.”

Before they leave, Spitzer will see their swarm in the causeway off Old Saybrook, trying to escape from hungry striped bass while the osprey have a field day of feeding.

Spitzer has significantly tied the importance of menhaden to the health and welfare of five charismatic birds: the osprey, the bald eagle, the common loon, the gannet, and the brown pelican. “These birds serve as biomonitors for the entire coastal ecosystem,” he says, “where unharvested menhaden are performing profound ecological services for birds, fish, and humans alike.”

The Osprey Garden on Great Island is a “triumph” for Spitzer and his colleagues. He’s counting on continued harvest quotas by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to keep it so.

Image Credits: Terry Shaw

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