An osprey carries away a pipefish it snatched from Knapps Narrows near Tilghman Island, Maryland, on September 1, 2015. Also known as fish hawks, ospreys are harbingers of spring in the Chesapeake Bay region. The raptors begin arriving in early March and remain along the estuary’s shorelines, rivers and marshes through late summer.
In the mid-twentieth century, the widespread use of pesticides and industrial chemicals led to the near-collapse of the Chesapeake’s osprey populations. The pesticide dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane—known commonly as DDT—was causing female ospreys to lay eggs so fragile that they cracked under the parents’ weight. By 1972, when DDT was banned in the United States, there were fewer than 1,500 pairs of osprey in the Chesapeake Bay region.
High levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, have also been found in the eggs and chicks of ospreys that nest along the Bay. These industrial chemicals act as flame retardants and have been used in the production of inks, adhesives, sealants and caulk. While PCBs have not been produced in the United States since their ban in 1977, their ability to persist in the environment means the chemicals continue to be widespread in the region—and can expose ospreys to potentially harmful residue.
Despite the threat of these long-lasting pollutants, recent research has shown that ospreys are thriving in the Chesapeake Bay. As many as 10,000 pairs of the resilient raptors breed in the region—close to one-quarter of the osprey population in the contiguous United States.
As part of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Toxic Contaminants Workgroup is working to reduce the impacts that chemical contaminants have on the Bay and its rivers—and the wildlife and people that depend on them.
Image by Will Parson
After a long, cold winter, spring’s arrival brings a vibrancy of life to the Chesapeake Bay region: critters are awakening from hibernation, birds and fish are migrating back to the area and countless animals are starting to raise their young.
For most of us, it would be difficult to see these critters in the wild. But a growing number of wildlife cameras are allowing us to get a glimpse into the lives of animals native to the region, from bald eagles to black bears. We’ve compiled a list of just a few of the types of critters you can watch.
Also known as the fish hawk, the osprey is an unofficial sign of spring for the Bay region. The birds begin arrive to the Bay in early March and remain through the spring and summer. Since 2009, the Chesapeake Conservancy has been streaming live video of a platform on Kent Island, where “Tom” and “Audrey”—a pair of ospreys—build their nest each year.
2. Great Blue Heron
This tall, blue-gray wading bird can be found year-round throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. Herons nest and breed in colonies—called “rookeries”—high in the treetops of isolated areas. With the help of the Chesapeake Conservancy, a camera was installed near the top of a 100-foot loblolly pine tree on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Live video of the rookery shows activity from multiple nests.
3. American Black Bear
One of the most common bears in North America, the American black bear can be found throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. In 2015, the Wildlife Center of Virginia rescued seven bear cubs who were separated from their mothers and possibly orphaned. Today, the Wildlife Center runs a wildlife camera showing the bear yearlings. But get your viewing in soon! The organization expects the bears will be ready for release in mid-April 2016.
4. Bald Eagle
Many of these iconic birds can be found year-round throughout the Bay region, but the area is also an important stop for eagles migrating from other parts of North America. One pair of the raptors, “Mr. President” and “The First Lady,” can be seen raising two fledglings at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. A live stream from the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, shows another pair of eagles (nicked named “Belle” and “Shep” by fans) caring for their eaglets.
5. Peregrine Falcon
Widespread pesticide use in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s led to a drastic decline in the number of peregrine falcons: by 1975, only 324 known pairs of the raptors were nesting in North America. But a robust recovery allowed the birds to be removed from the Endangered Species List in 1999, and the Chesapeake Bay has again become an important region for nesting and migrating peregrine falcons. Watch the Chesapeake Conservancy’s falcon camera to see “Boh” and “Barb” nesting on a skyscraper in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor; tune in to the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries’ falcon webcam to watch a pair of peregrines nesting in downtown Richmond, Virginia; or check out the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s falcon cam to watch a nest in downtown Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
6. American Shad
Birds and bears aren’t the only types of critters you can watch online: the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries runs a shad cam at Bosher Dam along the James River. Beginning in late March, you can catch a glimpse of American shad and other fish as they travel upstream to spawn.
Have a favorite wildlife camera you love to watch? Let us know in the comments!
Long-lasting chemical contaminants may still be persisting in the Chesapeake Bay region, but the pollutants have had no significant effect on the world’s largest breeding population of ospreys, according to a report from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
While the three-year study found some residue of pesticides and industrial chemicals in the Bay’s tidal waters, fish, osprey eggs and osprey chicks, researchers did not find a connection between the fish hawk’s exposure to the chemicals and its success in the Chesapeake region.
“Osprey populations are thriving almost everywhere in the Chesapeake,” Rebecca Lazarus, a researcher at the USGS’ Patuxent Wildlife Research Center and the lead author of the report, said in a release. “We found them nesting in some of the most highly contaminated areas in the Bay and we did not find any relationship between contaminants and their nests' productivity.”
Widespread use of DDT in the mid-twentieth century caused the Bay’s osprey population to fall to fewer than 1,500 pairs before the pesticide was banned in the United States in 1972. Close to 10,000 pairs of osprey are expected to nest in the Chesapeake region this year.
To hear Lazarus describe osprey life history and her research, watch our Bay 101: Ospreys video:
The study, "Chesapeake Bay fish–osprey food chain: Evaluation of contaminant exposure and genetic damage," is available online from the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.
For almost two decades, state and federal partners have worked to rebuild Poplar Island in the Maryland waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Once home to a sawmill, a general store and a schoolhouse, the island succumbed to sea level rise, shrinking to a fraction of its size by 1996. Rebuilt using sand and sediment dredged up from the bottom of the Bay and hand-planted with native marsh grass, the island has become a refuge for 175 species of shorebirds, songbirds, waterfowl and raptors.
Eastern bluebirds, black ducks and snowy egrets are among the birds that nest on Poplar Island, but it is the osprey whose presence stands out. Their sprawling nests can be found on wooden platforms, abandoned barges and Bay-side rip-rap. Plentiful food and nesting space mean Poplar’s osprey population is healthy, and can give researchers like Rebecca Lazarus an idea of what the birds should look like under the best environmental circumstances.
Working with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Lazarus is studying contaminant exposure in osprey around the Bay. Because the birds sit at the top of the food chain, their health is an indicator of environmental problems. Tracking the buildup of chemical compounds in the eggs and blood of birds that Lazarus calls a “sentinel species” can tell us what toxics are present in our rivers and streams.
Lazarus started her season of research when ospreys returned to the Bay in mid-March. The University of Maryland doctoral candidate and USGS employee visited nests, counted eggs and watched the ospreys grow.
Once the chicks hatched, Lazarus used motion-activated game cameras to monitor their diets. The birds on Poplar eat almost exclusively striped bass and menhaden, reminding us that the management of these two fisheries has a big impact on the balance of the Bay ecosystem.
As the chicks grew, Lazarus tagged each one of them with a metal band. She measured their weight and culmen length, and took samples of blood to test for chemical contaminants.
The last large-scale study of contaminant exposure in osprey was conducted close to a decade ago, and found elevated concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (or PCBs) and flame retardants in egg samples from the Anacostia and middle Potomac rivers. Lazarus hopes her updated research will show us what contaminants persist in the watershed, posing potential threats to wildlife and human health.
The birds on Poplar are healthy and serve as a benchmark against which Lazarus can compare those that nest in more polluted parts of the Bay. Ospreys experienced such a strong population boom after the United States banned the insecticide DDT and other contaminants that they are now nesting along urbanized waterways where dense development, wastewater treatment plants and the flow of pharmaceuticals and other new toxics into our water have concern about their potential to thrive.
By monitoring the link between clean water, contaminant-free fish and healthy osprey, Lazarus has taken a holistic approach to her research. Once published, her findings could help state and federal agencies develop plans to mitigate pollution or prioritize contaminants of concern. And they will help improve the environmental quality, ecosystem integrity and sustainability of the Bay.
To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program Flickr page.
Images by Steve Droter and Olivier Giron.
Captions by Catherine Krikstan.
The return of ospreys whistling through the air is a surefire sign of spring in the Chesapeake Bay region. But even those who can’t make it to the Bay’s shores can enjoy a glimpse of this remarkable raptor through online osprey cams at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS).
The Blackwater osprey cam is located on an osprey platform in a marsh on the wildlife refuge’s grounds in Dorchester County, Maryland. The VIMS osprey cam is trained on a nest at the top of a water tower on the school’s campus in Gloucester Point, Virginia.
The two osprey cams provide real-time views of osprey pairs during their annual nesting and breeding season in the Chesapeake region. Both osprey cams include a blog, where you can view photos and journal entries chronicling the lives and milestones of each osprey family.
Want to learn more about ospreys? Visit our osprey page in our Chesapeake Bay Field Guide.