When Milan Bull was a child growing up in Milford, Connecticut, he’d often accompany his father on fishing trips to the mouth of the Housatonic River. One day when he was 6 years old, he noticed a large white and brown raptor slicing through the air. Never having seen such a “magnificent” bird, Bull asked his father what it was. His father glanced up and told him it was an Osprey, a species that would surely go extinct in his lifetime.
Luckily, that prediction never came true: About 50 years later, Osprey are thriving along the East Coast, rebounding from an all-time low of eight breeding pairs in Connecticut to hundreds. The comeback is astounding—a result of tighter regulations on environmental contaminants such as DDT and improved water quality.
There are so many Osprey nowadays that Bull, who is the senior director of science and conservation at The Connecticut Audubon Society (an independent organization from the National Audubon Society and Audubon Connecticut), needs reinforcements to keep track of them all. It was his idea to start Osprey Nation, a citizen science program that spans Connecticut’s many rivers, along with its coastal sound. Now in its third year, the project has become somewhat of a seasonal attraction for Nutmeggers.
“The Osprey Nation has become much larger than I expected,” says Bull. “We have more than 100 volunteer stewards monitoring 515 nests across the state. Connecticut residents just get really excited about Osprey!”
Up until 2014, a sole biologist with the Connecticut State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) was in charge of monitoring hundreds of Osprey nests. The raptors became so numerous that they ran out of volunteer-made platforms, and started nesting on transmission towers, cell phone towers, statues, cranes, navigation structures, platforms, buoys, and even the ground.
From both a conservation and a human-safety standpoint, it was clear that the population need to be followed more closely. That’s when Connecticut Audubon stepped up to help.
“I told [The Connecticut Audubon Society] it was really important to maintain our long-term dataset on Osprey populations from the 1960s,” says Jenny Dickson, supervising wildlife biologist at DEEP. “They jumped at the chance and have been plugging away ever since.”
There are two reasons why DEEP is tracking the number of Osprey that nest in the state. One is to learn more about how the species is making its comeback; the second is because the birds are excellent barometers of environmental health. They only eat fish, which means the health of specific populations offers insight on local water quality. The more polluted a water source, the less healthy its fish—and the Osprey that prey on them.
“If we see changes in Osprey populations, we can address whatever’s affecting them before it becomes a crisis situation,” says Dickson. The extra eyes of Osprey Nation are a huge help, she says.
Being a volunteer takes little commitment; participants are required to watch a nest in Connecticut for at least 15 minutes every two weeks. When the Osprey return in early May, stewards use binoculars to check whether their assigned nest is occupied. Over the course of the five-month monitoring season, they keep tabs on nest activities, including the number of eggs laid, the number of eggs hatched, and the number of hatchlings that fledge.
Osprey Nation member Dawn Brucale says she’s so passionate about the program that she spends a few hours every weekend monitoring not one, but seven nests in her hometown of Branford.
“Being a steward is a great opportunity to learn more about the environment and what’s going on around you in your own community,” says Brucale. “Doing this work just really fills my soul.”