Lansing at Large: Webcam provides intimate view of Lansing’s ospreys

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Orpheus the Osprey circled the nesting box atop a telephone pole set into the shale about 50 yards from the tip of Salt Point.


“That’s the 5:30 fish,” said Candace Cornell. “In about six weeks, when the babies are born, there will be a 6:30 fish too.”


Per the bench we were sitting on, Cornell lives “on osprey time” from when the male Orpheus and female Ophelia arrive in late March until they depart for South America in mid-September.


This year, anyone with a computer and an internet connection can join her through the webcam Cornell and the Friends of Salt Point have installed above the nest box.


Cornell has been following the pair since Orpheus showed up at the nest box five weeks after Paul Paradine of NYSE&G and Steve Colt from the Town of Lansing installed it in spring 2013.


“I saw their first date,” she joked.


A retired biologist from Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, she recognized Orpheus’ courtship of Ophelia.


“Orpheus sky danced, flying up hundreds of feet in the air, spreading his wings, with a fish in his talons, and screeching at the top of his lungs.”


Female ospreys do the choosing, according to Cornell, judging their potential mates on their ability to provide fish for her and her chicks for the five months between incubation of the eggs and the departure of the fledglings.


The pair will mate for life unless the female “divorces” the male for lack of sustenance.


“If the male doesn’t provide for her, she will divorce him and find a new mate,” Cornell said. “If she can’t find one, she will have to do all the fishing and incubating, leaving the nest dangerously unguarded. Climbing predators such as raccoons and snakes and other birds may steal the eggs. At night, Great Horned Owls prey on the chicks and are strong enough to carry off an incubating female. During the day, kleptoparasitic eagles will steal osprey chicks, as well as their fish.”


This is Orpheus and Ophelia’s seventh year together, and their relationship is solid.


“Ophelia is an excellent mother, each year raising three strong fledglings against many odds,” Cornell said. “Ophelia rips small pieces from the writhing fish with her razor-sharp beak and gently puts it into the gaping mouths of her chicks. These enormous birds tenderly walk around the nest with their talons curled shut as not to hurt the eggs or nestlings.”


This year, Orpheus showed up on March 15 and began clumsily building the nest. Ophelia arrived two weeks later to perfect it. Then, they spent three weeks courting, a behavior as practical as it is romantic.


To save weight, Ophelia’s ovaries shrink before her 4- to 6,000-mile migration. The courting behaviors release hormones that spur them to return to normal size and begin producing eggs. The pair mated for effect last week and, sometime this week, Ophelia will lay three or four eggs. Five weeks later, the eggs will hatch and the webcam entertainment will really begin.


“When the hatchlings first appear, they look like little dinosaurs, like the raptors from ‘Jurassic Park,’” Cornell said. “They are awkward, ugly, adorable. They spend weeks gaining strength and coordination so they can fly, flapping their wings and awkwardly ‘helicoptering’ above the nest, trying desperately to fly. It’s the best comedy show.”


A few years ago, Cornell named an especially awkward male fledgling “Stevie” in honor of Colt.


“Stevie would land with a thud. He came back to the nest with a fish stuck to his foot. His talon got lodged in its vertebra. The whole day, he had a fish on his foot. He tried shaking it, banging it, eating it like a lollipop. His siblings tried to eat it. The whole day.”


By July, the fledglings are flying and learning to fish. Orpheus leads them to the lake when it’s calm, to “George Isaac Bay” on the north side of the point when it’s windy, and to Salmon Creek when it rains. He circles 500 feet above the water searching for fish.


In mid-August, Ophelia will stir herself from the nest for the first time since the eggs were laid, stretch her wings, and fly alone to South America for the winter. Orpheus will remain with the fledglings until they are ready to make the trip on their own, probably sometime in mid-September, Cornell said. They will stay there a year before returning to the area, to eventually mate and nest themselves.


Cornell comes to sit on her osprey bench much of the day, in the mornings and afternoons.


“There is a family of beavers living in Salmon Creek that swim around the point at 6 a.m. There are also mink, red fox, deer, an array of gorgeous butterflies and dragonflies, and over a hundred species of birds.”


She recognizes the sweet refrain of a song sparrow and the bebop stylings of the Baltimore oriole and the ospreys.


“They live their whole lives in front of you – they don’t care.”


However, the webcam revealed a more intimate picture of the two birds.


“I didn’t know that she was so demonstrative,” Cornell said. “You can see her giving him dirty looks, swatting him, shoving him out of the nest.”


Ben Heller of Ithaca’s “Computer Room” configured the camera device and they used a bucket truck to put it on a riser above the nest. The camera records continuously and Cornell downloads the video each day, takes it home, and puts it up on YouTube (tinyurl.com/Salt-Point-Osprey-Cam). Soon, Cornell hopes to bring sound and wi-fi into the picture and have a live feed from the nest.


There are now more than 140 osprey nestboxes on utility poles, cell towers, grain elevators, water towers, athletic lights, and channel markers scattered around Cayuga Lake, including one in the meadow below All Saints Church. Follow the Cayuga Lake Osprey Trail (tinyurl.com/yczlpgfx) to visit them all.
But the one on Salt Point, starring Ophelia and Orpheus, is the only one you can watch from your couch.

In brief:

Suicide Prevention Chicken BBQ
The Lansing Rod and Gun Club and Hatfield Catering will present a chicken barbecue to benefit the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service May 4 at the Town ball fields. Dinners will be ready at about 10:30 a.m. in the usual arrangements.

Spaghetti Fundraiser
An “all you can eat” spaghetti dinner fundraiser to benefit services for the youth of Lansing will be held May 3 from 5 to 7 p.m. in the All Saints Church parish hall.


Meat or vegetarian dinners, with tossed salad, Italian bread, dessert, and a drink will be available at $8 for adults, $4 for children 14 and younger, and $20 for a family.

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