Update 7/12: Despite the Hog Island team's attempt to deter the owl with lighting, it returned last night (warning: the linked video shows the attack). After being battled off by Rachel once, the owl tried again and successfully took another chick from the nest. One chick now remains. In response to the attack, Steve Kress, executive director of Audubon's Seabird Restoration Program headquartered on Hog Island, wrote a letter to the nest cam community about the attack and what he's learned from watching Steve and Rachel through the years. Read his letter here.
Everything had been going so well this year. Rachel and Steve, the widely adored Hog Island Osprey couple, had three healthy chicks on the verge of becoming fledglings. And after last year's forced moved due to a wasp infestation, they'd returned to their old nest—one that is starting to feel more than a little cursed. Having had two previous Bald Eagle attacks and a pair of Great Horned Owl raids in the past three years, the nest has seen its share of drama. And so, given this history, avid followers of Steve and Rachel have been holding their collective breaths, hoping that this year all of the chicks would successfully fledge.
And then disaster struck.
Late Saturday night, just a few days shy of a year since the first Great Horned Owl attack, another GHO silently swooped into the nest and killed one of the chicks. As with all of the nest's happenings, the encounter was captured on Audubon and explore.org's nest cam. In the video above (warning: do not watch if you are easily upset by bird-on-bird violence), the owl can be seen flying in from the left as Rachel perches on a large branch protruding from the nest. The owl's stealthy approach combined with Rachel's poor nighttime vision meant that she was caught by complete surprise. Despite her attempts to defend the nest, she eventually gave up and watched the owl until it flew off with the young bird.
The cam community was distraught to see Rachel and Steve lose another chick in such a way, but in a letter to all, Steve Kress, Audubon's vice president of bird conservation and executive director of the Seabird Restoration Program, reiterated a message he's had to share before. “Once again we are reminded of nature’s way—that predators survive only by taking other animals to feed themselves and their young,” Kress said. “From the Osprey cam we have the rare opportunity to learn how animals live.”
In his note, Kress also mentioned that staff at Hog Island were looking into ways to possibly deter the owl. Then, on Monday, a chat moderator on explore.org shared an update from Kress: “The Hog Island nest now has two bright lights to help illuminate the [area] near the nest. We hope this may help to deter nocturnal predators and give Rachel better visibility to defend her chicks. The method has been used elsewhere with success, but each situation is different as is each predator.”
Although the decision to set up lights was roundly praised by fans of the Osprey family, it is more of an intervention than the staff has taken in the past in response to other nest attacks. When asked about the ethical considerations of such a decision, Kress provided this explanation to Audubon:
“Predator deterrence is commonly used to reduce risk at artificial nesting structures for birds. Baffles under Wood Duck and bluebird nest boxes, for example, are commonly used to deter snakes from entering nest boxes. Even the presence of resident researchers on puffin nesting islands serves to deter predatory gulls and eagles. Rachel and Steve’s nest sits atop a pole in the heart of the Hog Island campus. We are not following a strict no intervention policy with this nest because it sits on an artificial pole that was already equipped with a metal sheath to deter raccoons from climbing into nest boxes. Because Hog Island produces nearly all of its electricity from solar energy and the nest is near our other buildings, adding light to the vicinity of the nest at night was easy to provide and hopefully will increase Rachel and Steve’s chances for fledging young. This is not the first use of lighting for this purpose and the outcome here is still uncertain because owls are very capable predators.”
So far, the lights have worked, keeping the owl at bay and providing Rachel with much-needed visibility if it does return. For now, the two remaining chicks seem to have a chance at survival, but as Kress notes, the lights are no guarantee against another owl attack. And if the saga of Steve and Rachel have taught us anything, it's that threats persist right up until the young birds take wing on their own. And even then, Bailey, the couple's lone surviving chick last year, showed us that danger can still await.
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