It’s a Kodak moment, one every naturalist hopes to see: an osprey, wings folded back, hovering low over the
water with talons outstretched. In the time it takes to blink, this superb hunter swoops down, captures its
dinner, and heads for home.

No wonder it is known as the fish eagle, sea eagle, or fish hawk. Fishing is what it does and it’s very good at it. According to OspreyWatch, a volunteer-driven program established by The Center for Conservation Biology (CCB), fish makes up more than 99% of an osprey’s diet. This makes them a wonderful indicator species for people concerned about the health of a river.

Libby Mojica is a raptor biologist with CCB and she’s working closely with other scientists and members of the public to gather vital information about ospreys who live along the Rappahannock River. Because ospreys eat so many fish and migrate south each winter, they help scientists monitor concerns such as climate change, the health of a fishery and the existence of environmental contaminants.

OspreyWatch is a worldwide program, with more than 1,300 volunteers monitoring more than 4,000 nests in places like the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Europe, Australia and the Caribbean. Locally, Mojica works closely with fellow scientists at the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge and volunteers in places like Peedee Creek and Sharps on the Northern Neck and Saluda and Deltaville on the Middle Peninsula.

“Most of our monitoring sites along the Rappahannock are in the area of the refuge, near Tappahannock, and at the mouth of the river,” said Mojica. “But the full length of the Rappahannock is osprey habitat. We really would like to have additional data coming in from throughout the Rappahannock drainage.”

Lauren Billodeaux is a wildlife
biologist at the refuge. This will be her second summer partnering with OspreyWatch. Currently she
monitors 60 nests in the refuge area, and has banded about two dozen chicks to help monitor migration trends.

“Our goal is to improve the consistency of the data we have for the Rappahannock,” she said. “We want our data to be as detailed as the information that is available on some other rivers in Virginia, like the James and the York. Volunteers can really help us make that happen.”

OspreyWatch volunteers identify a nest they want to monitor, then register online and begin reporting important happenings. It can be a new nest or one that is already being observed.

“For example, we want to know the date when they first see the adults back on the nest in spring,” said Mojica, “and when they see the pair incubating eggs and start feeding the young. We want to know when the birds leave for winter. All of this is important
information.”

It doesn’t require fancy equipment to do the job, she added. Simple observation, aided by binoculars, is enough to get the job done accurately. “Ospreys are so visible, so vocal,” she said, “it’s usually pretty easy to find a nest and begin determining activity.”

It’s OK if more than one volunteer reports on the same nest, because that ensures more
detailed reporting. Volunteers can provide a GPS point for a nest, if they have that
technology available, or use the Google Map function on the OspreyWatch website.

“Volunteers can really help our efforts at the refuge,” said Billodeaux, “even if it’s a nest we’re already monitoring. Their reports can help me be more efficient in deciding which nests to visit when we do things like banding.”

To register as an OspreyWatch volunteer, log onto the FOR website at www.riverfriends.org and click on the OspreyWatch icon. Volunteers interested in helping with nests on the refuge can contact Wildlife Biologist Lauren Billodeaux at lauren_billodeaux@fws.gov

By Woodie Walker, FOR Membership and Volunteer Coordinator

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