This past winter has been particularly dark.
As the spring equinox rolled in Saturday, there are promising signs that a more uplifting season has turned in Anne Arundel County. Subtle buds on trees and shrubs edge their way to blooming, heavy rainstorms dampen the ground and mighty ospreys are once again soaring overhead near the banks of the Chesapeake Bay.
The unfailing return of warmer weather, and with it ospreys that fly in from South America, is not without annual changes.
Fans have followed the trials and tribulations of osprey couples in Severna Park and Kent Island for years thanks to webcams that live stream the lives of the apex raptors.
In Severna Park, Olivia and Oscar, were named for in 2020 to keep school children’s spirits afloat amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Olivia returned the first week of March to her nesting site built near Severna Park High School. Oscar, her lifelong mate, though, has still not returned as of Sunday. Male ospreys usually fly home first.
Heather Jeweler, vice president of Maryland Raptor Conservation Center in Severna Park, fears Oscar has died. And if Olivia doesn’t find another mate this season, there will be no eggs to lay nor chicks to see on the popular osprey cam.
The couple laid four eggs and raised three chicks in 2020. Once the baby birds were old enough and quickly large enough to feel the wind beneath their 5-feet wings, they soared off to South America. Young ospreys remain in South America for one to two years, learning how to dive underwater and become expert fishers. Strong, skilled raptors then return to Maryland where they were born to build nests of their own.
The Chesapeake Bay supports the largest breeding osprey population in the world, about 10,000 pairs. That’s more than 20% of the U.S. population. Global population is estimated at 500,000 total birds.
If Oscar does make a triumphant return, he will impress his lady with an aerial show, flying around their nest, then high in the sky before making a diving entrance. The lovers will catch up about their separate journeys in a series of chirps. Oscar will present a fish that Olivia will hold in her talons and rip apart. Then they get down to the pressing business of egg making.
Jeweler is giving Oscar another week to arrive from the 5,000-mile trek before his potential demise is settled.
While she waits for her husband to return from travel, Olivia has been seen clutching a disposable face mask, a prominent sign of a bizarre pandemic year. Jeweler stressed the importance of picking up litter and cutting the ear loops off masks that can entangle the feet and necks of birds large and small.
“There’s so much plastic in the environment,” Jeweler said. “It’s never pretty to see a plastic grocery bag or any kind of plastic in the nest.”
Jeweler, a raptor rehabilitator, and her husband, Mark, started a nonprofit called Maryland Raptor Conservation Center. They’ve monitored the osprey couple for six years with a livestream webcam donated from HDonTap and internet connection provided by Comcast Business. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. built the osprey’s nest stand, as the company does when birds nest on telephone and electrical poles.
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Jeweler estimates the osprey webcam has about 400 subscribers. She’s also seen a rise in homeowners setting up nest stands in their neighborhood and even steaming their own webcams. She hopes to raise around $1,500 next year to upgrade the nest camera to one that can zoom in on the eggs as they hatch.
“There’s nothing more exciting than that,” Jeweler said.
Kent Island’s celebrity bird couple, Tom and Audrey, have not yet returned from the sunny Brazilian wetlands of the Pantanal. The prime-time duo had a captivating start to an overall devastating 2020 season when the raptors won a dispute with a rival couple, built their nest and laid three eggs.
Long days away from the nest and harsh weather, however, resulted in the loss of all three eggs. A crow attack in 2017 also destroyed three eggs.
Audrey returned last year on March 20 and was joined by Tom on March 29. Ospreys typically lay eggs in April that hatch in July. Female ospreys will migrate in August, while the males stay back with the chicks until early September.
The Kent Island cam is monitored by the Chesapeake Conservancy that provides an online livestream of the nest in partnership with Explore.org and the “Crazy Osprey Family” that keeps an online blog detailing the happenings of the birds.
“There are millions of viewers from all over the world who tune in to our three bird cams,” said Jody Couser, vice president of communications for Chesapeake Conservancy, in an email. “In addition to the osprey cam, we also have a peregrine falcon and great blue heron cam, all available on our website at chesapeakeconservancy.org.”