July 31, 2006

Empty Nest

empty.jpgNest Update: As our cam watchers could see on Monday, our youngest chick was out of the nest for a good part of the day -- marking his first extended forays from the nest.

Several days ago, we reported that the youngest had fledged, as he had briefly disappeared from our view on the Osprey Cam. Our bookstore manager, who has been keeping an eye on the TV monitor at the Visitor Center, told me a few days ago that the youngest had indeed flown, and on the monitor they had seen an empty nest at one point. After that first flight, the youngest had not seemingly flown again; however, today we see that the youngest is now venturing far away from the nest for long periods, and so we all have our first case of "empty nest syndrome."

I also wanted to report that our bookstore manager said she saw what she believed were all four chicks at the nest earlier last week -- but one chick was on the camera arm, which means it would have been impossible for us to see via the cam. If our manager was right -- and the fifth bird was not the father -- it would mean our four chicks are safe. We will continue to look for evidence that all four chicks are around, and we'll continue to look for shots of the father, who hasn't been around the cam as much since the chicks fledged, possibly because he's spending more time out in the Refuge with the flying young.


We have our four winning names for our "Name the Chicks" contest, but we are still waiting to hear from a couple of the winners, so we'll hold off on the name announcement until we get personal information from those individuals.


We're going through a very hot and humid patch here on the Eastern Shore of Maryland; in fact, there is an "Excessive Heat Watch" issued from Tuesday through Thursday when the heat index could reach 112 degrees, so the fledglings might spend some time in the shade of nearby trees if the heat gets too bad or they might even take a dip in the water to cool off.

And speaking of taking a dip, I wanted to share some photos that our friend Bob Quinn recently took which show the Osprey Cam family in action.

In the first photo, a cam bird is sitting in the water, possibly out of a desire to cool off. In the second photo, one of our fledglings sits on a post nearby and watches the other osprey in the water.

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In the third and fourth photos, we see a fledgling coming into the cam nest for a landing.

bq_july3_sm.jpg bq_july5_sm.jpg

In the fifth photo, we see one of the cam birds in flight, and in the final photo we see a cam adult sitting on a dead tree with a fish meal.

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Bob reported that while he was near the platform, he saw three chicks at the nest and what looked like two adults around the nest. Much thanks to Bob for taking the time to photograph our cam birds so we could see them in their local environment.

General Osprey News

The Calgary Zoo in Canada has posted a live Osprey Cam where you can currently watch their two chicks in action. Also, be sure to read the log on the cam page so you can get caught up on all the interesting happenings at their nest this season.

I also wanted to point out some wonderful photos on the Osprey Watch website -- a fantastic website that I've linked to before -- which is run by photographer Bob Montanaro and features osprey photos from Pelican Island NWR in Florida. Bob has a series of shots showing a mob of crows going after an osprey, and also a series that shows an osprey threatening a Great blue heron. Thanks to Bob for publishing his amazing photos, which give us a fascinating look at the daily lives of his local ospreys.

And as a final note, I wanted to mention that since all our chicks are now fully flying, we are planning to make a trip up to the cam to clean off the lens. We do, however, plan to wait until we get a break in the heat before we go up.

Until next time,
Lisa - webmaster

Posted by Webmaster at 06:02 PM

July 27, 2006

Eagles & Ospreys

family77.jpgNest Update: At this point, we're still looking for signs that our fourth chick is safe. We haven't seen any definite indications of his presence other than the dark photo from Sunday, and we can't be sure that was him. So at this juncture, we just don't know what to think.

Since the older chicks first fledged, we haven't seen a lot of the father osprey either, so there is a possibility that the father is off somewhere keeping an eye on the missing chick. But it is very odd that while the two older fledglings often return to the nest -- to eat, preen, and rest -- the other older fledgling is no where to be seen.

Some cam watchers have asked about what types of threats there are around the Refuge. Blackwater Refuge is in a pretty safe area for ospreys, but there are still risks. Sometimes young ospreys get electrocuted on power lines, drown while learning to fish (by getting caught in fishing line) or hurt themselves while learning to land. As for avian threats, Great horned owls and bald eagles have on rare occasions been known to take out a full-grown osprey, but they would more likely prey on eggs and small chicks.

Another cam watcher asked if our missing chick could have taken up residence at another osprey nest. Young ospreys do visit other nests (we had a fledgling visitor this week) but they do not normally stay at the other nest. Biologists have speculated that a "runt" might possibly spend more time at a neighboring nest because the littlest cannot get enough food at home, but our missing fledgling was one of the bigger birds, and would not have had trouble getting fed by the parents.

So at this point, we will just hope that the missing bird is all right and is with the father somewhere. Perhaps once the mother migrates in August, the father and missing chick will be seen more at the nest, as the father will then be in charge of protecting all the fledglings until they are ready to migrate.

Our youngest chick appeared to take a flight on Wednesday morning. He had been flapping quite a bit and finally seemed to disappear from the camera view for several minutes. He will be nine weeks old on Friday, so we're marking his fledging at 61 days -- which was about the same as our youngest last year. Despite his apparent flight, the youngest is still spending a good bit of time in the nest.

Meanwhile our two older fledglings have been seen bringing in their own fish. We're not sure if they're catching the fish themselves, or if the father or mother are providing the meals off-camera, but the young have been bringing them on a regular basis. Sometimes the mother lets them "hog" the fish, and sometimes she takes it away and feeds it to the family, or eats it herself.


I emailed our Blackwater staff and asked them to pick up the pace on the contest results. I know they're having a hard time deciding, but I asked if they could give us an answer soon. I'll announce the results as soon as I get them.

Eagles and Ospreys

It's hard to talk extensively about ospreys without mentioning their main nemesis -- the bald eagle. Eagles and ospreys have a unique, combative relationship that is sometimes visible in the skies over Blackwater Refuge.

Bald eagles may be the national symbol of the United States, but they have not been without their critics. In 1782, during the debate over the choice of America's national symbol, founding father Benjamin Franklin was reported to have said about the bald eagle: "He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labour of the fishing hawk (osprey); and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish, and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him." Franklin went on to call the eagle a thief and a scavenger, because sometimes the eagle prefers to steal a meal rather than catch one itself.

And that brings us to the osprey: The osprey is known as perhaps the most skilled angler in the natural world. And fortunately for the eagle, the osprey happens to specialize in catching the eagle's favorite food -- fish.

But it gets even better for the eagle, because while the osprey is an agile and powerful flier, it is also smaller than the eagle. The osprey has a wingspan of 4.5 to 6 feet, while the eagle's wingspan can be as much as 7.5 to 8 feet. So a single eagle can dominate a single osprey in most aerial battles.

ed_schulz_sm.jpgEd Schulz, a photographer who has worked with the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington state, was kind enough to lend me a photo that shows perhaps the best example I've seen of the size comparison between the eagle and osprey. In this photo the eagle is practically on top of the osprey as it attempts to bully the smaller raptor into dropping its meal. Ed reports that this photo was part of a series, "where the male osprey was in the process of delivering the headless Pile Perch to the female at the nest when the eagle intercepted them. The female joined in the battle to defend her meal but the eagle did eventually get the fish."

In most battles of this kind, the eagle will prevail by harassing the osprey to the point that the smaller raptor drops the fish just to get the eagle to leave it alone (see photo), after which the eagle will retrieve the meal. But if the osprey is determined to keep its bounty, the eagle will sometimes resort to a physical attack in order to win the prize. Oddly enough some biologists speculate that in the end, the eagle may spend more energy on stealing the meal than it would have used in catching the fish itself.

In the wonderful book, The Bald Eagle: Haunts and Habits of a Wilderness Monarch, one of the authors describes an eagle/osprey encounter on a Saskatchewan, Canada lake that shows how far an eagle will go to get what it wants:

"The eagle attacked from a few feet above and to one side of the Osprey -- once, twice, and then a third time. On each pass the Osprey visibly flinched, for the eagle's talons barely cleared its back. We anxiously awaited the outcome. Many observers had described how typically the Osprey drops its fish, and with surprising agility the Bald Eagle snatches the fallen prey in midair. We were not prepared for what happened. After three unsuccessful attacks, the eagle turned to brute force. This time coming up fast from behind and below, the eagle flipped onto its back, thrust its talons upward, and ripped the fish right out of the Osprey's grasp. What a sight! After quickly righting itself, the eagle turned and flapped leisurely to deposit the booty on its nest."

But at this point, you shouldn't think that ospreys are helpless victims. Although smaller than the eagle, ospreys still have a lot of fight.

As Ed Schulz previously recounted, sometimes an osprey will join up with its mate in an attempt to "save" its meal. Tom Miller, our park ranger at Blackwater Refuge, reports that several times he has seen an osprey head-off an eagle in order to allow its mate to get back to the nest with their fish.

Ospreys have also been known to team-up with their mate to attack an eagle that wanders too close to their home nest. A famous example of this occurred back on July 4, 1996, when former President Bill Clinton released a rehabilitated bald eagle named Freedom on the Patuxent River near the Chesapeake Bay. Craig Koppie -- Blackwater's friendly endangered species specialist -- was the one who helped Clinton release the eagle.

However, what the president and Craig didn't realize was that near the release site was an occupied osprey nest, and when the newly freed eagle flew over it, the ospreys decided to teach the young bird a lesson. The ospreys chased after the poor eagle, pecking and harassing it until it landed in the water where the Coast Guard later retrieved it to make sure it was all right. Eventually the eagle was re-released at a different location that was away from ospreys and other eagles.

eagleplatform.jpgAt Blackwater Refuge, the bald eagles often fly around or near the Osprey Cam nest, and the ospreys don't react well when they do. The parents will scream at the eagles and chase them away, and normally the eagles will then leave. Once we get near migration, the eagles will begin to circle the platform even more in anticipation of the ospreys vacating it. The eagles like the cam platform because it makes an excellent perch near the river. In the last couple years, we've noticed that we can tell when the last osprey has migrated, because within the next couple days, the eagles are on the platform, indicating that the ospreys are no longer defending it.

So this year, we'll once again look for that first photo showing an eagle on the ospreys' nest, and that will be the most definite sign we'll have that the last osprey chick has headed south for the winter.

Once the ospreys are gone, we will leave the Osprey Cam online throughout the winter so we can watch the eagles and other birds that visit. We get quite a variety of birds during the months when the ospreys are gone, including immature bald eagles, hawks, turkey vultures, Great blue herons and Great horned owls.

General Osprey News

While we're on the subject of ospreys and their relations to other birds, I wanted to share a couple new photos from photographer Russ Yeaton, who photographs a local osprey family at Spring Point Light in South Portland, Maine. In this photo by Russ, you can see the osprey mother is unhappy about a family of ducks that were swimming too close to the osprey nest. And in this photo you can see a gull chasing the osprey as it tries to carry a fish back to the nest. Apparently gulls are thieves, too!

Also, our cam watchers might remember that a while back I posted a photo that Russ took showing a small house sparrow sitting on a twig under the Maine osprey nest. Russ reports that the sparrows do indeed nest in the ospreys' home (in the area where you see the white paper on the nest). Apparently the sparrows are perfectly fine with having a large, powerful raptor as their landlord.

And finally, the nice folks at Public Service New Hampshire emailed us to say that they have an Osprey Cam on their website that features live streaming video of a nest at their Ayer's Island hydroelectric plant in Bristol/New Hampton, New Hampshire. When you visit the site, be sure to check out the interesting Gallery -- and note that the site works best if viewed with Internet Explorer. We're told that the cam nest has two chicks that should fledge in a few weeks. Best of luck to their young ospreys, and to all the ospreys that are making an impressive comeback in New Hampshire.

Until next time,
Lisa - webmaster

Posted by Webmaster at 12:07 PM

July 23, 2006

TV Monitor Videos

youngestflap.jpgNest Update: Over the last few days, we've been a bit concerned because we had not seen a photo showing all four chicks in the nest together. During the recent meals at the nest, only two of the three fledglings have been visible. And during the rain on Saturday morning, two of the fledglings returned to lie in the nest with the youngest, but the third did not. Also in the evenings, we've only been seeing two fledglings returning for the night.

Our bookstore manager says she thinks she saw four chicks with the mother on Friday (via the TV monitor) but we don't have a photo showing that, so we're not sure if it was the missing fledgling or the father that was on the nest with the others.

It seemed too early for any of the fledglings to be completely independent. They are still relying on the parents for quite a bit of their food, although we think we may have seen one of the older chicks doing some fishing of his own. Also it seemed too early for them to be spending their entire night in the trees, so we wanted to be sure that no harm has come to any of the fledglings. Our ranger did check beneath the platform, but from what he could see, there was nothing obvious to indicate that there was an accident.

Finally, Sunday evening we caught a fleeting glimpse of five birds on the nest. It was too dark to be sure, but we're hoping the fifth bird was the missing fledgling.

If any of our cam watchers catch a glimpse of more than four birds on the nest over the coming week, please send in the photo. If you've never sent in a photo before, you can find instructions for doing so here. We'll keep looking for signs that all four chicks are healthy and well.

For those who are keeping track, our three oldest chicks fledged at 56-57 days of age. The youngest chick is now eight weeks old, so he could fly at any time, although he doesn't seem to be in a hurry. He's been seen flapping his wings strongly, so he appears healthy and able. We'll just have to wait until he feels ready.

It's been touching to watch the mother osprey hanging around the nest with our youngest chick. While the youngest is at the nest all day, it's important that a parent keep an eye on him. Our bookstore manager reports that last Monday, an eagle was circling the platform and making the mother osprey very upset. (I think this photo was from that time period.) So a parent cannot stray too far from the platform while the youngest is still nest-bound.

One cam watcher asked about migration: The mother will likely head south first -- probably around mid or late August -- once the chicks are all fledged and capable of looking after themselves. Then the father will be responsible for keeping watch over the fledglings until they are ready to migrate, which will probably be in early or mid September. We'll talk more about migration in our upcoming web logs, but at this stage, none of the ospreys are ready to migrate just yet.

TV Monitor Videos

As I promised earlier, I am posting several video clips that I captured from our Osprey Cam TV monitor at the Visitor Center last week. These videos were recorded right after our first fledgling started flying last Sunday morning (an event you can see in the videos I posted previously).

The video clips below are Windows Media Video files. You can right-click the image and choose "Save Target As" or "Save Link As" to download the clips to your computer. Forgive the misty quality of the videos -- it's caused by the poop residue on the camera lens.

In the first video, we see the mother return to the nest with a piece of fish. The sole fledgling is gone from the nest, and one of the older chicks commandeers the fish for himself while fending off the youngest chick.


In the second video, the mother returns again with a piece of fish, which the same chick as before takes for himself (fish hog!). Then the mother starts looking skyward, and begins calling out in alarm at something above the nest. This is the scene we saw in my previously posted videos from the Wildlife Drive, when a strange osprey tried to land on the fledgling chick, which was sitting on the camera arm, out of our view. The mother jumps up twice to scare off the intruder, and at the end of this video you see the intruder flying away from the platform.


In the third video, the youngest chick decides he's had enough of the fish hog taking all the meals, so he tries to challenge the older chick. Unfortunately, the older chick has a size advantage and intimidates the youngest into backing off.


In the fourth video, the new fledgling hop-flies to one end of the platform, and a pre-fledgling imitates him by flying over to the same side. Then the new fledgling flies off the platform. Note that during this video the youngest has assumed his head-down submissive posture while near the mother. He assumed this posture after being bullied by the older chick over the food.


And in the final video, the new fledgling is sitting on the camera arm (out of our view), but his shadow is visible in the lower left corner. Then the new fledgling flies down to the nest, which makes the camera arm vibrate. Note that the chick in the middle of the nest is trying to swallow a fish tail, as he finishes off the mother's most recent meal.


Thanks to those sending in photos to our cam gallery. If we see any photos of all four chicks at the nest, we'll post them on the cam page.

Until next time,
Lisa - webmaster

Posted by Webmaster at 06:46 PM

July 18, 2006

Virtual Reality Movie

olderfledging.jpgNest Update: Much congrats to our two middle chicks, who were the likely birds that fledged on Monday. We'll keep an eye out for signs that the youngest has fledged as well.

One of our cam watchers asked about how meals will work now that several chicks are apparently flying. For the time being, the chicks will continue to rely on the parents for food, but the chicks might eat some of their meals away from the platform. The youngest is still eating at the nest, in fact this afternoon we saw the youngest and another chick getting a meal from a parent before the other chicks returned to get some, too.

Once the fledglings are fishing for themselves, they might bring their meal to the platform to eat, but if they do, they run the risk of having the meal taken away. Last year we had a younger chick that would bring back his fish only to have his bigger sibling steal it from him. So once the fledglings are fishing, they would be wise to eat some of their meals as "take out."

Virtual Reality Movie

As I mentioned in the last web log, I recorded some video footage from the Osprey Cam TV monitor on Sunday. However, I haven't had a chance to edit it all yet, so we'll save that footage for another log post. But I do have a movie from Sunday that I think you will enjoy.

During the course of running the Osprey Cam, I've had many folks ask me what the area around the Osprey Cam platform looks like. I've posted a few still photos, but they don't really give our cam watchers a full view.

While I was at the Refuge on Sunday, I took a series of shots showing the entire 360-degree view from in front of the Osprey Cam platform. I was able to stitch the photos into a 360-degree QuickTime Virtual Reality movie (often referred to as QTVR). The movie below is 540 KB in size, and you can play it with the free QuickTime player. Either click on the link below and let it load, or right-click and save it to your hard drive to play. (If you don't have QuickTime, you can get it here).

Osprey Cam Platform - Virtual Reality movie

When the file opens, just put your cursor over the movie, and while you hold down your left mouse button, move the cursor to the left and right, and you can spin 360 degrees to see the whole movie.

My creation is not perfectly aligned because I rushed the shots since the ospreys were starting to yell at me for being near the nest during meal time. But I think the movie gives you a good feel for what their environment looks like.

blackwater4.jpgIn the movie, there are several noteworthy features that I'll point out: If you move your cursor to the right after the movie opens, you will see the tall Osprey Cam platform, and behind it you can see our recently renovated Visitor Center. On both sides of the platform are small ponds, which are actually water impoundment areas that often contain herons, egrets, turtles, fish, and ducks. Sometimes the ospreys will look down and watch the action in the water (the water is closer to the ospreys than it appears in the movie). The staff at Blackwater Refuge can control how much rainwater is allowed to collect in these ponds.

The gravel road leading to the platform is the access road we use to maintain the camera and ground equipment. When the bucket truck visits to fix or clean the camera, this is the road they use to access the nest. Going down the road will make the ospreys fly off the nest, so we have a sign up saying the road is restricted to Blackwater staff, and we use the road only when necessary.

The stand of trees to the left of the platform are the ones that the eagles sometimes sit in, causing the osprey parents much consternation (the trees are closer to the nest than they appear in the movie). Also there is a water snag further to the left of the trees where eagles like to perch, and sometimes the ospreys are irritated by those eagles as well.

If you spin around in the movie, you'll see a paved road -- that's our Wildlife Drive. Much of the Refuge's 27,000 acres is water and wetlands, so unless you paddle, it can be hard to see some of the many species that call Blackwater home. In order to make the Refuge more accessible and enjoyable, we built a Wildlife Drive that runs through loblolly pine forests and along the Little Blackwater and Blackwater Rivers. The road is a 6.5 mile loop, and visitors can walk, cycle, or drive around it, and it takes them within close proximity to eagles, ospreys, numerous waterfowl, and even our endangered Delmarva fox squirrels. If you come to the Refuge, definitely spend some time on the Wildlife Drive, and be sure to bring your camera.

blackwater5.jpgThe long body of water in front of the Drive is the Blackwater River, which is the heart of the Refuge. This river is where many of the eagles and ospreys fish for their meals. It's hard to tell from my movie, but it's a big river with lots of marshland.

One of the features that makes the Blackwater River -- and the nearby Chesapeake Bay -- so attractive to eagles and ospreys, is that the water is very shallow, which fits in perfectly with their fishing styles, because eagles and ospreys catch their meals near the surface.

Visitors often ask us where the name "blackwater" comes from, and the answer is that the tannic acid from decaying leaves on the forest floor darkens the water, which then drains from thousands of acres into the river. Thus the dark, tea-colored liquid is called "blackwater."

Now that you've seen a bit of the Refuge, I invite you to come visit us if you can. Our most popular time of the year is around October to early December, when we host a huge amount of waterfowl. Blackwater Refuge is a major stop on the Atlantic Flyway (a bird migration highway) and in the fall and winter we host 50,000+ geese, ducks, and tundra swans. Throughout the year we host around 250 species of other birds, numerous mammals, and 165 species of threatened or endangered plants.

blackwater6.jpgBlackwater Refuge is also home to the largest breeding population of bald eagles on the East Coast outside of Florida. Eagles can be seen almost any time of year because our adult eagles do not migrate out of the area, but winter is our best time for seeing eagles because we host many migrating eagles from the northeastern and southern sections of the country as well as from Canada.

If you want to see ospreys, then spring and summer is the time to visit (March to early September). When I was at the Refuge on Sunday, I passed by three osprey water platforms that were occupied, and I saw at least seven chicks -- and that's not counting the four at our cam platform. So Blackwater Refuge is very much osprey heaven, and you're in for a treat if you happen to see an osprey diving into the river to catch a meal.

The only caveat for summer is to bring your bug spray. Mosquitoes here are legendary, and have been known to fly off with small children. ;-)

In addition to the Wildlife Drive, we also currently have three land trails and three paddling trails. Also, don't forget that if you visit when the Eagle Cam and Osprey Cam are online, you can see the live video on our TV monitors at the Visitor Center.

If you'd like to learn more about visiting Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, be sure to check out the Frequently Asked Questions page on our website. And if you require further information that's not on our website, feel free to use the address and phone number on our FAQ page to contact the Blackwater staff directly.

If you'd like to see more photos and videos of the Refuge, see our website Gallery page, which includes a video of last year's osprey family "yelling" at me as I videotaped them.

Finally, a note about the Osprey Cam Gallery: Thanks to all those who are sending in photos from the cam. We'll get the Osprey Cam Gallery updated by the end of the week.

Until next time,
Lisa - webmaster

Posted by Webmaster at 07:47 PM

July 16, 2006

Fledgling Videos

Nest Update: Today I went to the Refuge and was fortunate enough to see one of the older chicks fledge as soon as I arrived. I was able to film several videos showing the occasion.

The videos below are Windows Media Video files. They will play best if you just download them to your computer. Right-click on the photos and choose "Save Target As" or "Save Link As" to download. Note that the clips do not have audio. I stayed in my car to film them because when I get out of the car near the nest, the ospreys get aggitated.

In the first video, the new fledgling (which right before this sequence had flapped a couple times) suddenly jumps out of the nest. It is a short flight but a good start. At the end of the video, the fledgling lands, and one of the middle chicks is inspired to do a little flapping too (forgive the blurriness -- my auto focus was having a hard time keeping up with the young bird).


In the second video, a sibling gooses the new fledgling, causing the chick to take off on another flight. This second flight is a bit wobbly at the start and the landing is a bit tentative, but he hits the mark.


In the third video, the same chick is in flight yet again, but this time when the young osprey returns, a small marsh bird decides to harass the chick a bit. Welcome to the world, new fledgling!


In the fourth video, the mother returns with a fish (note that our fledgling is sitting on the camera arm, outside of our view). After her arrival, suddenly a strange osprey tries to land, but makes the mistake of attempting to land on a chick, which makes the mother osprey angry (the stranger looked like an adult, but it may have been another fledgling from a neighboring nest). The intruder is chased off by the mother, but the same bird returns again and is then chased off a final time.


Finally in the fifth video, our new fledgling comes down from his "bedroom" and joins the family in the dining area.


While I was capturing these videos with my camcorder, I was also taping video from the TV monitor at our Visitor Center using a VCR. It will take me a couple days to edit and compress that video for the website, but I'll try to have some clips ready for the next web log post.

So congrats to our new fledgling! The others should fly soon now that they have the example of their older sibling to follow. Unfortunately it may be hard to tell which chick is coming and which is going, but we'll keep an eye out for photos that seem to indicate more and more chicks are leaving.

And just a reminder, even though the chicks are starting to fly, they will still use the platform for eating, resting, and sleeping for a while yet. Over time they will become more independent, and then they will begin roosting in the trees and eating more of their meals on a perch away from the platform.

As for the youngest, I did see him do a little flapping today and a little hop flying around the nest. It's hard to say when he will fly or how close he will be in fledging with the others. But he might surprise us and go sooner than we think.

Until next time,
Lisa - webmaster

Posted by Webmaster at 08:08 PM

July 15, 2006

Map & Photos

family88.jpgNest Update: As our regular cam watchers can attest, the last week has been filled with somewhat frustrating moments where we thought we saw a chick fledge, only to find that it was hiding behind mom or hiding on the far edge of the nest and out of view. Also, sometimes a chick would hover above the nest, but then land again without having taken a real flight.

It's hard to believe that four large chicks could hide so easily in such an exposed nest, but they do. The oldest chicks are eight weeks old, with the smallest chick being a few days younger, so they are definitely ready to fledge. We would expect one or more to go any day now, but we'll just have to be patient.

On Sunday, I plan to head down to the Refuge to videotape the nest from our Wildlife Drive and also to capture some video clips from the monitor, if the view remains relatively clear. So maybe if I'm lucky, a chick will decide to take a full flight tomorrow.

Also, one technical note: During our recent rainstorms, you might have noticed that the cam temporarily stops updating. Sometimes heavy rain will interfere with our satellite dish transmissions, so if you just give it some time, the images will start refreshing again once the rain lessens.

Geo Map:

I wanted to mention something kind of cool that I recently discovered. Google Analytics is a free service by Google whereby webmasters can find out useful information about their websites, such as what are the most popular pages, what types of browsers and platforms are visitors using to access the site, and what are the cities where visitors are located. None of the data reveals personal information about visitors, just general visitor statistics.

One of the more interesting features of the program is what Google calls their Geo Map, which shows approximately where in the world website visitors are located. This information is useful to webmasters who wish to know how much traffic they are pulling from outside their own country.

I've only been using Google Analytics for a couple days, but when I pulled up the Geo Map for our website, I was pleasantly surprised to see the many countries that are represented on our site, mainly because of the Osprey Cam. Keep in mind that this is only after a couple days, and I do believe we draw an even more diverse crowd for the Eagle Cam in the winter.

At the time I captured the map, here is what it looked like -- note that the dots can represent more than one person in a given area. The countries on the map where we had visitors are: Africa, Japan, China, United Arab Emirates, New Zealand, Poland, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, United Kingdom, Brazil, and coast to coast in both Canada and the US, including several folks in Alaska.

So a big welcome to our many worldwide visitors. Everyone here is part of an international community -- a community of fellow osprey fans. :-)

Osprey Photography:

For me one of the great joys of running this website, and the raptor cams, is the way in which talented photographers generously share their photographs with me and with our cam watchers. Once again I'm lucky to have a pair of photographers who have sent me photos that I'd like to share.

As I've mentioned before, Russ Yeaton is monitoring an osprey nest at Spring Point Light in South Portland Maine, and Russ just sent a wonderful new photo that shows his local three-chick family. Note that there is a small bird -- possibly a house sparrow -- sitting on a branch under the nest. I'm not sure if the bird was just visiting, but sometimes ospreys will have other birds nesting in the bottom of their own nests -- especially if it's a deep nest. Apparently the smaller birds are not threatened by the fish-eating ospreys and may even benefit by nesting near a raptor that will help keep predators away.

In addition to Russ' photo, I also received some photos from Woody Dawson, who has supplied us with eagle photos in the past. This time Woody sent some osprey photos that he recently took at Blackwater Refuge. I already posted three of them on the cam page earlier (photos #1, #2, #3), which all show our Osprey Cam family on the platform.

Woody also took photos of one of our water platforms at the Refuge. Ospreys often prefer to nest over water because they like being near their food source and they feel safer away from land predators. Check out these three beautiful shots that also give a good view of our rivers and wetlands in the background (click on the thumbnails below):

ospreys ospreys

Something you might notice in these shots is how the chicks' eyes are red, while the parent's eyes are yellow. An osprey's eyes start out with red irises, but they change to yellow with increasing age.

Also, I wanted to highlight one behavioral shot that Woody captured at this same water platform. In past web logs I've mentioned how we can see a bird's crop -- the crop being the internal pouch that birds have on their chest where food is stored for later digestion. Even adults have crops, but often it's easier to see the crops on chicks since the younger birds don't have as many feathers. When a bird is ready to release food from the crop, so it can go down into the stomach, it moves its head from side to side, in a funny-looking motion. In falconer lingo this is called "putting over" the crop or "putting it away." In these two photos from Woody, you can see an osprey chick moving its head side to side as it empties -- or puts over -- its crop.

On the falconry website The Modern Apprentice, they have a short video clip showing a hawk putting over its crop. You can find it on this page -- just scroll down to the phrase "Put Over."

Thanks again to Russ and Woody for helping us learn more about ospreys through their wonderful photographs.

On a final topic: Our "Name the Chicks Contest" ended on Friday. Our staff at Blackwater Refuge will probably need about a week or two to sort through all the names. As soon as we have the winning four names, we'll announce them on the cam page and in the web log. Thanks to everyone for participating!

Until next time,
Lisa - webmaster

Posted by Webmaster at 06:33 PM

July 11, 2006

First Flights

family321.jpgA final reminder for the web log: Don't forget that Friday is the end of our Name the Osprey Chicks competition, so please enter today and help us name our chicks.

Nest Update: We've made the decision to delay our trip up to clean the camera lens since the chicks are starting to become airborne over the nest, indicating they could be close to flying. Going up now means we run the risk of spooking them into jumping before they're ready. So we'll just make do with our slightly misty cam until we feel it's safe to go up.

Our cam technician has designed a lens-cleaning device that we can activate from the ground. We plan to install it on the cam the next time we go up. If it works, we might be able to clear the lens of any future slicing accidents, both this season and in upcoming seasons.

On another nest-related matter: We've noticed that one of the parents brought what looks like a looped rope to the nest; it probably came with a previous fish dinner. Our ranger said he's not too worried about it because the loop is big enough that the ospreys should be able to free themselves if they get a talon caught in it. (A more worrisome item that ospreys sometimes bring to the nest is fishing line, which has been known to entangle adults and chicks, and even lead to death.) We'll keep an eye on the rope, although at this point it does not look like a problem.

Be sure to check out Tuesday's Gallery update as we had lots of great shots, including many beautiful photos from when our cam lens was nice and clean. In the update, we saw a few revelations as our chicks are beginning to act more like adults these days. We saw several photos where the chicks were feeding themselves and also some photos where they were wiping their beaks on the nest, just like the adults do after a meal.

Also we saw a couple shots where Mom was calling out at an intruder in the sky, and the older chicks joined in too, imitating Mom. Gone are the days when the helpless chicks just laid about in the nest like fuzzy little balls. Now they're starting to defend the nest just like their mother. And what was the intruder? We can't be sure, but maybe an eagle flew too close to the nest.

Lately we've also seen the father osprey dropping off fish and letting the kids fight over it when the mother is not in the nest. This is the type of behavior we'll see again around late August, when the mother osprey has started migration and the father is left to watch the kids until they're ready to head south. Dad's job at that point will be to provide additional food if the chicks are having trouble catching their own, and he will often do this by dropping a fish onto the platform for the chicks to eat.

First Flights:
land_platform.jpgAny day now we will witness our chicks taking their first flights off our tall Osprey Cam platform. Avian parents do not need to teach their young to fly -- chicks fly instinctively. Right now the chicks are "fly hopping" around the nest and even hovering above it. In fact on Tuesday, it seemed that one chick made a short "flight" above the nest. The chick must be careful though because a strong breeze could push it from the nest prematurely. If that happens, the chick will be forced into its first flight and may need to land on the ground and remain there for a while until it has the strength to return to the nest. If a fledgling is stuck on the ground, the parents will feed the stranded bird, but the chick will be vulnerable to land predators.

For most osprey fledglings, their first flight will be more deliberate, as ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent describes in Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey:

"Finally, confidence in the power of its wings, or the example set by its parents, prompts the boldest of the young to make its first real flight away from the nest, a supreme moment in its life. With surprising ease it sails or flaps along, but it soon becomes tired and looks for a place to perch. Its attempts to alight on a treetop are awkward and uncertain; it has not learned to grasp a slender perch and finds it difficult to get its balance with much flapping of wings and wiggling of tail. It may be forced to alight on the ground to rest...Such flights are short at first and the young always seem glad to return to the firm flat top of the nest, which will be their headquarters, bedroom, and dining room for several weeks yet."

Once the new fledgling has left the nest for the first time and managed to return successfully, the next task will be to master the wind and the use of its own wings, because much is riding on the fledgling's ability to become a strong flyer. By the end of September these young birds must be ready to get themselves all the way to Central or South America for the winter -- possibly 2000 miles or more. So although the first flight is an exciting moment, it is just one step on the path to becoming a strong and independent adult osprey.

flying321.jpgIn past seasons with our Osprey Cam we've learned that while watching the chicks disappear from the nest for the first time can be exciting, watching them try to land again can also be very entertaining. The reason for this is that landing can be just as difficult a skill to master as flying. There have been stories of ospreys crashing into trees, landing in water, and hanging from branches by one foot. Among the more humorous moments we've seen on the cam was the time when a chick landed on Momma, who looked more than a little shocked by the sensation of talons on her back.

One other perk of fledging season is the fact that sometimes juvenile ospreys from other nests will "visit." In the past, we've never had more than two chicks at the Osprey Cam platform, so it's been easy to notice when there was an "extra" chick that had dropped in for a visit. Here is a photo from 2004 where you can see Mom suddenly noticing that there is a strange chick in her two-chick home. Ornithologists report that osprey adults are rather tolerant of wayward juveniles from other nests, and sometimes even feed the visiting fledglings before the young head back to their real homes. It's kind of like "trick or treat" in the osprey community -- chicks visit other nests to see if the snacks at the neighbors' house are any better than the ones they're getting at home.

This year with four chicks, I'm not sure if a visiting chick will want to land on the cam platform with all the competition at our nest. And if one does, I'm not sure if we'll be able to pick it out from the native chicks. But we can keep our eyes open for any shots where there are suddenly five juveniles in the nest. Although the sight of five chicks might scare our Mom away for good. :-)

So best of luck to our chicks as they each prepare for that big jump out into the world. We wish each of them a safe and wonderful first flight.

Until next time,
Lisa - webmaster

Posted by Webmaster at 09:01 PM

July 07, 2006

Visitor Center Observatory

family26.jpgNest Update: As our cam watchers can see, the rain helped clean a little of our sprayed lens but not quite enough. Right now we're discussing what options we might have for cleaning the lens this close to fledging time. As always, the safety of the chicks will come first.

The good news is that once the chicks begin to fledge, there will be less slicing going on in the nest. With flight, the chicks will no longer be nest bound, and they will be able to relieve themselves elsewhere rather than in front of the cam. So the slicing situation will improve in time. We'll keep you updated on our possible plans for making another cleaning trip.

As we mentioned earlier, chicks often fledge at around 50-55 days of age. The oldest chick will be 47 days old on Friday, so that gives you an idea as to how close we are to possible fledging. We did see an interesting shot showing one of the chicks very close to the edge with his wings out. This looked like a chick contemplating takeoff.

When a chick commits to flight, we'll suddenly see a chick missing from the nest. Once the chick leaves, the mother will likely leave as well to monitor and encourage the chick as it strikes out into the larger world. In the next web log, we'll talk more about first flights and what happens when the chick takes that first scary plunge.

A couple more photos I wanted to point out: We had a not-so-fun moment regarding the youngest on Monday. During a feeding session, the youngest was sitting near the edge of the nest when one of the older chicks lunged at it, we assume in an effort to teach the smallest to be submissive. With the bully's aggressive jump, the youngest looked like it was about to get knocked from the nest, with it's head hanging out over the platform. Fortunately the youngest dug its talons in and tucked its head below the platform wall, but it still felt like a close call.

Also, at the beginning of the week the chicks had to tolerate some very hot weather. As anyone who has been in the mid-Atlantic area during summer knows, the region can get unbearably hot and humid, often feeling like a tropical rainforest. Although the chicks enjoy cooler temperatures by the Blackwater River, they were clearly uncomfortable for most of Monday, and in this photo you can see them with their eyes closed and mouths open. Birds don't have sweat glands, so heat is lost through the respiratory tract. Biologists report that songbirds pant, while birds like ospreys and eagles rapidly vibrate the upper throat and thin floor of the mouth (called "gular flutter").

Last year when we had two chicks, we experienced a brutal July and August with record temperatures. During the hottest periods, we saw some rather touching photos of the mother draping her wings over the chicks as the young birds clung to her for shade. Here's hoping this summer is not as harsh since our current mother might have trouble shading all four chicks at the same time.

flap34.jpgRecently we had several periods where we could clearly see all the chicks separately and make a relatively good size comparison. In this photo, I combined a shot from when the chicks were about 10 days old with a shot from this week to show how much they have changed in just over a month. Amazing growth!

And on a final cam note, if you look in the upper-left corner of the cam image, you will see a patch of trees, which just became visible when we installed the new cam and straightened out our view. The trees that you see are part of a longer patch of forest where bald eagles sometimes like to sit. If you see the mother osprey looking in that direction or calling out, it's probably because there are eagles there and she isn't happy about their close proximity. In fact, our mother from last year took it upon herself to fly over there and dive bomb a couple of bothersome eagles.

Visitor Center Observatory

On a slightly different osprey topic, we recently updated our Renovation page on our website with photos showing the progress we are making in adding a second floor to our Visitor Center. Once the renovations are done toward the end of the year, we will open the second floor to the public, and osprey lovers should definitely come check it out when the next osprey nesting season rolls around.

On the second floor we will have our "Wild Birds Unlimited Observatory" where visitors can look through large observation windows out onto the Blackwater River, the wetlands and also the Osprey Cam nest. We will have high-quality spotting scopes installed so when the ospreys return in March, you will be able to peer right into the osprey platform and see the action for yourself. You might even be able to see the ospreys fishing in the river. If you'd like to know when we will be holding our Grand Opening for the entire building, you can join the Friends of Blackwater email mailing list, which we use to update folks on upcoming events and the latest news from the Refuge. [Note: Once you subscribe, you'll receive an email that will require your confirmation, and then you will be added to the list. If you don't get a confirmation email, check to make sure that your email provider has not marked the email as spam.]

For those who didn't see the earlier announcement I made, we are in the middle of our Name the Osprey Chicks Contest, so be sure to visit our Contest page where you can find out more about entering. Remember that the contest will end on July 14.

And last but not least, I have one osprey photo to share that isn't from Blackwater: Russ Yeaton, one of our cam watchers, took this wonderful photo of a nest at Spring Point Light in South Portland, Maine. Much thanks to Russ for the great shot of these handsome young chicks.

Until next time,
Lisa - webmaster

Posted by Webmaster at 10:55 AM

July 03, 2006

Fishing Ospreys

family00.jpgNest Update: First, a reminder that we have started our Name the Osprey Chicks Competition. Be sure to visit the contest page for details on entering. The contest will end on July 14.

As our cam watchers can see, we have a new cam installed at the platform. The view is a bit different because we straightened out the camera, and we can now see the whole nest box. This will be a good view when the chicks start flying and landing in a short time. A cam watcher asked about a first flight -- flight normally occurs at around 50-55 days of age. For the oldest chick, that would be as early as July 10.

The tree service worker who visited the nest said the camera was covered in poop, which you can see from this photo. We were lucky we could see as well as we did. He also said there was a lot of poop at the base of the nest, and the weeds were really tall thanks to all the natural fertilizer. :-)

We know it's likely that the birds will hit the cam again -- especially since I've already seen several incidents since the new cam went up where an osprey's rear was pointing at it -- but all we can do is cross our fingers and hope that they miss the lens itself. Normally poop is not this big a problem at our Osprey Cam, but this year we have so many bodies in the nest that the amount of flying guano has greatly multiplied.

Our bookstore manager -- who has good access to our live TV monitor at the Visitor Center -- says that even though the youngest chick is occasionally getting pecked by an older bully, it is still feeding well, and as we can see, the youngest is definitely growing. The tree service worker said he couldn't believe that it was the same chick he saw the last time he was at the nest. Now that the youngest's feathers are starting to come in, in a short while it will be hard to pick the youngest out from the pack.

As you can see from our Gallery update, the chicks are spending a lot of time exercising and strengthening their wings. Our bookstore manager says that when one of the chicks stands up and begins pumping its wings, it's every bird for himself. The other chicks have to duck to avoid getting slapped by all the wing flapping in the crowded nest. Also we've noticed that once a chick exercises its wings, it seems to encourage the other chicks to do the same. Apparently it's rather infectious behavior.

We saw a few more photos of chicks taking the fish and trying to feed themselves. It's hard to tell if the chicks have been successful in tearing off any fish bits, but mom always comes back over and takes the food away again. I guess she's trying to make sure no one is hogging the meal. Also, we have seen Mom going out and catching a meal herself even though Dad is bringing in a reasonable amount of fish.

pullfish.jpgAnother activity we're seeing a lot more of is preening. As the chicks grow, they lose their down and develop feathers that grow out in protective sheaths, which they pull at as the feathers develop. You can see a close-up of those sheaths here, along with the business end of the osprey -- its sharp, piercing talons. Once the chicks have their feathers in, they must then clean them and waterproof them. They do this by taking oil from a gland at the base of their tail and rubbing it on their feathers. They can also pull their feathers through their beaks to "zip" the feathers back into a tidy alignment if the feathers become ruffled or unkempt.

We mentioned in the last log post that we wondered if the father osprey might have been temporarily waterlogged by all the rain we received last week. Recently we did hear that another osprey had to be pulled from the water near a bridge that is on the way to the Refuge. The osprey was dried out and later released.

While ospreys can waterproof their feathers with oil, that doesn't mean that they are immune to heavy amounts of moisture. If they sit in water or are in heavy rain for too long, they can become so waterlogged that it is difficult to fly.

Flying is crucial to the ospreys' survival because their main form of feeding is to dive for fresh fish. To catch a meal, ospreys use their excellent eyesight to spot fish from the air, then they plummet from as high as 200 feet, extending their feet in front of them right before they penetrate the water and drive their sharp talons into the slippery prey. An osprey's plumage is dense and oily to keep it from getting soaked after each dive, and the feathers on their legs are short and stiff so the legs will dry out quickly. (You can see a good close-up of osprey legs in this photo.)

We have a slide show on our site which shows how an osprey goes about diving for its food. Our chicks must learn this behavior before the summer is out and before they migrate to Central or South America -- on their own -- for the winter. The chick that excels at this skill will have the best likelihood of surviving to breeding age, which is about two to three years old.

Osprey Fishing Slide Show


Finally I wanted to mention a couple new osprey websites. First, here is an Osprey Cam in Minnesota where they currently have three chicks (we helped them a bit with their set up). Also here is an Osprey Cam in Virginia -- the cam is not live but they have a good photo archive of the current nest. By the way, the Blackwater River they mention on their site is a different river than ours here at the Refuge in Maryland.

Thanks again to all those who have been sending in images to our Gallery. Your images help many of our cam watchers follow the action that they might otherwise miss. And you also help us build a valuable record of the osprey family's nesting season. If you're new to our cam and wonder how others send in their photos, you can find instructions for doing so here.

Until next time,
Lisa - webmaster

Posted by Webmaster at 07:24 AM