On May 10, 2016, then Herron Island ferry captain John Farris posted a photo on the islanders’ group on Facebook with a laconic caption, as was his style, even though the announcement could easily be considered breaking news.
“Osprey nesting on the mainland,” read the caption.
The photo showed an osprey pair perched on the crossbeams of the gantry, the imposing steel structure supporting the pulleys and cables that raise and lower the ferry ramp below. The large nest was a deceptively precarious-looking arrangement of sticks and twigs partly built around one of the pulleys. Several twigs hung loosely down the side of the gantry’s beams.
Some islanders had noticed the nest being built, so the response to the post was quick.
“Several times waiting for the ferry I watched as they were carrying these sticks bigger than they were up there to make the nest. It must be hard work for an expecting mommy,” one person commented. “My 5-year-old asked me how those sticks got up there as we were docking last weekend,” added another. “I now have a legit answer!”
An island birder noticed osprey activity near her home at the south end of the island a couple of weeks earlier. “I was hoping that was an osprey nest going in,” she said. “They were cruising the south end for several days but I haven’t heard them in about a week and a half.”
Our mainland ferry terminal is no stranger to birds. Crows, gulls and pigeons have been some of the regulars for years; eagles and kingfishers are common overhead; barn swallows build mud nests up against the underside of the concrete dock.
But the osprey family stole the show.
Three chicks arrived a few weeks later, their heads bobbing over the rim of the nest demanding to be fed. We got to recognize the loud high-pitched chirp of the adults and the frantic-sounding calls of the chicks that seemed to carry for miles across the water.
And I learned very quickly that the osprey parents objected to my red bike helmet when I walked my bike down the ramp to the ferry. Once I took my helmet off, with some trepidation given the size of their talons and the possible damage they could inflict on my exposed noggin, their alarm calls subsided. Quick learners on both sides.
We watched them carry on with their daily routine all summer, their nest out in the open as is their preference, to allow for an unobstructed approach and for protection from land-based predators like raccoons. They fished, fed their young, perched on the gantry, and joined crows in harassing bald eagles, a serious nest predator to both.
Then by early September, they were gone, off to their wintering grounds in California or Central America.
Osprey prefer to return to the previous year’s nest site. Males arrive first, including adults and young over a year old; osprey do not migrate north in their first year. They typically show up in our area a week or two after the spring equinox.
Sure enough, they were back in April 2017 and have been there every year since, always arriving on the first of April, according to local birders.
And they steal our hearts all over again. We take photos, and post about them on Facebook; we stop and watch them as we wait in line at the ferry. Word has gotten out on the peninsula, and a couple of photographers I know have made it a point to come and shoot a few pictures every year.
Our ferry crew has front-row seats to the action. Deckhand Robert Axt has been observing them for a few years and has witnessed their joyful moments but also the inevitable heartbreak, at least from the human perspective. Of the three chicks in the brood last year only two fledged successfully and went on to become self-sufficient and fish on their own. The third did not thrive and was left behind when the rest of the birds flew south. Axt remembers seeing the remaining bird huddled among the pigeons under the ferry ramp one morning. “And that was the last I saw of it,” he said.
The nest on the gantry interfered with maintenance of the pulley system, so in March 2019, after consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the island built a wooden platform off the north end of the gantry to encourage the birds to stay away from the pulleys. The osprey arrived a month later and proceeded to ignore their new penthouse. The following year we decorated it ahead of time with a few sticks and twigs, and they’ve occupied it ever since.
This year for the first time a nest appeared on the island-side terminal, once again built over one of the pulleys, perhaps for stability. And once again, that has kept the crew from servicing that pulley.
An island penthouse with a view is almost certainly in their future.
Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist, historian and avid birder who writes from Herron Island.
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