Rachel and Steve seemed like the perfect couple — building a nest together and raising their babies in a perch high above Hog Island in the town of Bremen. Everyone figured they’d be together forever, or at least through this year’s nesting season.
“Osprey are famed for being monogamous and usually pair up again,” Dr. Stephen Kress, the director of the National Audubon Society’s Seabird Restoration Program, said Friday. “But ten to 15 percent of them do find new mates, so there is a divorce relationship sometimes. They do break up. And what we saw earlier was a glimpse of what can happen.”
That glimpse was broadcast into the homes and offices of many people from the live camera that was installed last year in their nest, perched 30 feet above Muscongus Bay. The osprey cam is hosted on the website explore.org, and the domestic dramas taking place in the nest have helped gain viewers, he said, with more than 10,000 comments left on the blog since the beginning of April.
“A lot of people are watching this,” Kress said. “Seabirds in general live on remote islands where people don’t have the opportunity to see them. Having a camera there really gives people the opportunity to see the birds and realize that they’re individuals … It’s a wonderful opportunity to connect people with nature in a very intimate way.”
That became even more true shortly after the birds returned and an unattached female raptor — dubbed “Intruder,” or Trudy, by the scientists — made a big play for Steve. Trudy swooped in, chasing off Rachel and even mating with Steve, who proved himself to be a good provider last summer when he and Rachel successfully raised three chicks.
“The drama continued when Rachel was displaced. We saw Trudy mating with Steve,” Kress recounted. “A few days later, Rachel returned. Some chasing went on, and Rachel remained dominant.”
Even more exciting, he said, is that very early Friday morning, during the full moon and on John James Audubon’s birthday, Rachel laid her first egg of the season — an action that also was caught on camera. Now the birds will wait for Rachel to lay at least one and possibly two more eggs, which she will keep warm and incubate for about 40 days until they hatch. Steve — named for the scientist, who has been working on Hog Island since 1969 — will take some turns sitting on the clutch of eggs. But he’ll mostly work to provide Rachel — named for Rachel Carson, the mid-20th century writer and environmentalist who was instrumental in banning DDT and protecting birds — with fish to eat while she’s nesting. The birds will also protect the nest from predators such as the great horned owl, which attacks at night.
“They seem to be doing OK, though we do have this issue with Trudy,” Kress said. “She’s likely to be in the area somewhere… we’re hoping she doesn’t show up and mess things up.”
The domestic issues are riveting, he said, but they’re not alarming, the way the osprey’s general predicament was when he first came to the island. At that time, it was hard to find an osprey anywhere in the state.
“Osprey populations in Maine and throughout much of New England were decimated by the use of DDT in the 1960s until the early 1970s,” he said.
After banning the pesticide in the U.S., the big raptors such as osprey and other bird species have rebounded. Now, birds such as Rachel, Steve and Trudy can concentrate on activities that include spotting fish under the water from the air, hovering over the prey and plunging into the water to overtake the fish in their own element. The osprey primarily dine on mackerel and flounder.
“We didn’t realize there were that many flounders around Hog Island, but the osprey found them,” Kress said.
He did say that the live camera in the nest allows researchers to pay attention to new problems facing the birds — even apart from intruders such as Trudy. Scientists are following when the birds lay their eggs, to see how climate change is impacting the species. They’re also observing if the osprey’s food supply will be affected, which happened last summer for Maine’s puffins, some of which starved when their favorite type of fish was missing.
Mostly, though, cameras such as the one detailing the osprey love triangle and the ones that will show puffins beginning in May at the Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge off Rockland are important to help people care about wildlife and conservation.
“That’s our hope — of connecting with nature,” Kress said. “Such beautiful creatures give people a sense of wonder that hopefully will lead to a sense of stewardship.”
To watch the osprey cam, please visit the website http://explore.org/#!/live-cams/player/live-osprey-cam.