After winging their way north from tropical winter homes, ospreys are making a return to their favorite spots in the northern U.S. and southern Canada. Usually, ospreys settle into the same nest from the previous year to raise the next generation. Parenting duties are well-defined. The female does most of the incubation while the male delivers fresh fish — after making some spectacular dives to catch dinner. (Ospreys are the only North American raptor that depend on a diet of fish and have the ability to dive into water to catch them.) After the eggs hatch, the parents will feed and brood the chicks, protecting them from extreme weather and predators.
This spring, ospreys on Hog Island, Maine, are breaking the monotony – and monogamy – of a typical mating season. About 90 percent of osprey pairs stay together from one year to the next. While satellite-tagged birds have shown that females migrate south in late summer before the males, and the osprey pair do not winter together, mated pairs usually return to the same nest the following spring. When pairs break up, it’s usually because young males are stepping up to compete with older males. But in the case of one osprey couple — dubbed “Rachel and Steve” by explore.org and Audubon supporters — the battle for the nest is between Rachel and another female, which has scientists intrigued and the public chiming in.
World-renowned ornithologist Dr. Steve Kress (for whom the male osprey was named), offers a little background on the uniqueness of this situation: “Ospreys are typically monogamous and trios raising a family together are rare,” he said. “Occasionally, a male will have two mates, each female in a separate nest, and he will help each to raise a family, but this arrangement rarely leads to successful nesting. It is too early to know how the events of this week will play out, but one thing for certain is that the live cameras are giving us an opportunity to witness details of osprey family life rarely seen before.”
In Rachel and Steve’s nest, it’s a female — who viewers have nicknamed Trudy, short for Intruder (pictured at right) — who moved in, chased off Rachel for several days and mated with Steve. “If Rachel, the established female from 2012, stays away, Trudy will probably settle in,” says Kress, who is Audubon vice president for bird conservation and director of Project Puffin. (Kress successfully pioneered new techniques to bring puffins and other bird species back to Maine islands after a century of abandonment. His methods have been adopted globally.)
However, to the satisfaction of many loyal Hog Island osprey viewers, Rachel returned this past week, chased off Trudy and was seen mating with Osprey Steve. At the moment, it appears that Rachel has reclaimed the nest and her relationship with Steve. According to Kress, in some cases, such fights at the nest can disrupt the entire nesting season. And thanks to an overt display of ruffled feathers and flapping wings, viewers have dubbed the entire situation “The Real Housewives of Hog Island.”
For the birds
As part of a continued partnership between explore.org and the National Audubon Society, viewers from around the world will be able to watch the drama unfold via HD live cam as Rachel, Steve and Trudy sort out their relationships, bring chicks into the world, and feed them until they fly. Ornithologists are equally excited about the live cam because, as Kress notes, “our ability to take photos and archive them gives us an ability to see things that we had no way of knowing. The cams provide detail unavailable from hard-to-see bird bands.” Perhaps most important, the osprey cam helps people connect with nature, discover the remarkable world around them and share the excitement of watching wildlife.
The nest is located atop a 30-foot tower at the Hog Island Audubon Camp near Bremen, Maine. The camp is well-known for summer classes begun by Roger Tory Peterson, the artist who popularized bird-watching with his field guides, and for such visitors as author Rachel Carson. Carson’s book, "Silent Spring," played a key role in the eradication of DDT, a harmful pesticide banned in the U.S. in 1971, allowing the then-threatened osprey population to recover. Audubon celebrates Carson’s legacy with an annual award to leading female conservationists, and named the female osprey after her.
With round-the-clock video and audio streaming viewers can catch a glimpse of these incredible birds from any internet-connected device. And in addition to watching the fate of the love triangle, viewers will have the opportunity to follow the journey of a new osprey generation.
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