Chicago seahawks? Osprey population surges to new heights in Illinois, Montana and elsewhere

One-of-a-kind raptor makes astounding recovery thanks to some help from its human friends.

The Yellowstone River makes its way north into Montana after leaving its eponymous national park. It flows through a wide valley, Paradise Valley, between the Absaroka and Gallatin ranges. It’s a fertile area for agriculture by Montana standards. The river provides just enough water for irrigation of the otherwise dry sagebrush terrain, once home to Očhéthi Šakówiŋ [oh-chey-tee shah-koh-ween], Cheyenne and Apsaalooké peoples.

I was there two weeks ago, exploring the river and surrounding mountains. The chilly river seemed one refreshing constant in a summer that’s seen yet another drought and wildfires smoking up the sky from Oregon to Minnesota. 

Another constant in the Yellowstone River valley: Ospreys, aka fish hawks, aka sea hawks. The only member of the genus Pandion. A cosmopolitan hawk, and the only one that can grab its prey with two toes in front and two toes behind. This helps when grasping slippery fish. 

There were so many Ospreys and Osprey nesting platforms in Montana that I concluded there must be some sort of Osprey recovery effort under way. Osprey populations crashed in the middle of the last century, in part due to the use of DDT. This proliferation along the Yellowstone couldn’t have been by chance. And sure enough, thanks to Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society, that is the case.

One of the neat things about cosmopolitan species is that they’re, well, cosmopolitan. You’ll see the essentially the same bird on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia as you will in Montana and closer to home, say, Schaumburg. Speaking of which, let’s talk Chicago seahawks. No, the Seattle football team isn’t moving to Illinois.

Chicago Tribune reporter Morgan Greene had a neat piece recently on the status of Ospreys in Cook County. The Forest Preserves of Cook County have put up 20 nest platforms for the raptors. There were 14 nesting pairs on the platforms in the county this year, with 11 making it through the summer despite severe weather. The nonprofit Friends of the Chicago River has put up five nesting platforms since 2015. The Ospreys’ presence is a good indicator of the clean water in Chicago waterways, too. 

Ospreys are “showing up in all sorts of places,” said Doug Stotz, Senior Conservation Ecologist at the Field Museum.

“It dips its talons in the water and then bam, picks out a fish,” Stotz said. “It’s just a really cool thing.”

According to the Tribune piece, Osprey populations have increased in North America by about 2.5% a year from 1966 through 2015. They’re still on Illinois’ list of state-threatened species, however. 

Like so many threatened species, Osprey numbers have dwindled because of people. Now people are its best chance at expanding its numbers, too. It’s a familiar dichotomy, and reassuring that folks in even the remote sections of Montana—and in urban Chicago—are doing something to help. 

If you go: Ospreys will be departing the Chicago area soon for their wintering grounds. There’s still a chance to see them, though. I suggest Paul Douglas Forest Preserve near Schaumburg (check my piece on five fall birding hotspots) or Powderhorn Lake on the city’s Southeast Side.

Ohio’s plovers are ‘small miracle’

Kelly Ball of Bird Watcher’s Digest wrote a blog post recently about Ohio’s Piping Plover pair, Nellie and Nish. Of course, you may know by now that Nish was hatched here in Chicago in 2020. The Buckeye State pair, the first in Ohio in 80-plus years, went on to hatch four chicks; all four made it to fledging, though one was lost just before fall migration. It’s a huge conservation success story for Ohio, for Lake Erie and the many, many birders who watched over the nest this summer. Kelly’s piece is available here, and she gives a nice shout-out to Chicago:

“If it hadn’t been for some painstaking advocacy by concerned birders to protect a piping plover nest site on a busy Chicago beach in 2019, the Ohio nest likely wouldn’t have been.”

Join us for the premiere of my second documentary about Monty and Rose! We will have reduced capacity due to Covid 19, and masks, but the show will go on. This is a new film, a new story line with new interviews and a lot of new footage of our favorite plovers. Buy tickets for the Saturday, Sept. 4, and Monday, Sept. 6, showings by clicking here and join us for a panel Q&A afterward. We encourage buying tickets in advance to limit interactions at the venue on Saturday and Monday. A percentage of proceeds benefits the nonprofit Chicago Ornithological Society.

Buy tickets

Individuals and teams are gearing up for Illinois Ornithological Society’s Big Sit next month. Big sits are where folks stay put in a 20-foot circle and count as many birds as possible during a 24-hour period. The event serves as a fundraiser for IOS, which leads the Illinois Young Birders program, produces Illinois’ ornithological journal the Meadowlark and supports bird research and conservation in Illinois. And, as I say, any day devoted purely to birding is a day well-spent! Learn more here.

TWiB Notes

World Shorebirds Day is Sept. 6 and the surrounding week (Sept. 1-7) are an opportunity to participate in global shorebird counts through submission of checklists to eBird. Gyorgy Szimuly is a Hungarian birder and conservationist who founded World Shorebirds Day to draw attention to the plight of shorebirds: some 50% of the world’s shorebird species are in decline, and vital habitat is being lost at a higher rate than ever. Your local submissions to the count make a difference; full instructions for participation are available here…..A Mexican Violetear thrilled folks by showing up in a Mundelein yard recently. The hummingbird species is typically founded in forests from Mexico to Nicaragua…..A Swallow-tailed Kite hung around for several days just over the border in Indiana’s Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area…..Chicago Ornithological Society completed its second year of managing a bird banding station at Big Marsh on the Far South Side of Chicago. First-time species that were banded included breeders like Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, Marsh Wren, Mourning Dove, and Warbling Vireo.

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