ANAPOLIS, Md. – Fresh seafood is special this summer at the Westfield Annapolis Mall.
As many shoppers and diners have noted in recent weeks, an osprey is raising a chick on a lighting fixture outside the former Macaroni Grill, near the intersection of Generals Highway and Bestgate Road.
You don’t have to be an ornithologist to know that ospreys usually nest near water, and a parking lot seems like a ridiculous choice for birds that rely on fresh fish for food. But Dave Brinker, a regional ecologist with the Maryland Heritage Wildlife Program, a division of the Department of Natural Resources, says the breeding ground represents progress, population growth and a previously endangered species that has survived by becoming more adaptable.
“We’ve reached the carrying capacity for natural nesting sites,” Brinker says, noting that the birds nested on dead trees in the past. When he started working for the state in 1989, ospreys were still recovering from poisoning by DDT, a pesticide that thinned eggshells and decimated populations of American birds of prey — another term for raptors — until it was banned in 1972. In 1996 a comprehensive study found more than 3,500 breeding pairs breeding on 427 tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, with 1,492 pairs in Maryland.
Twenty-five years later, Brinker says, “We’re up to our armpits in the osprey.”
But still. Why a parking lot at a shopping center? “These ospreys are doing what nature programs them to do: looking for alternatives,” Brinker said. “To an osprey who thinks outside the box, a light pole in a parking lot looks a lot like a dead tree surrounded by water. Instead of the sea of the Chesapeake, it is a sea of asphalt and humanity.”
While he’s not sure, there’s a good chance these two lovebirds were raised in an unnatural breeding ground, such as a communications tower. When it was time to breed, the mall’s birds of prey went looking for something man-made, not for a tree, like a large, tall mall lighting fixture.
“We have ospreys everywhere, in all kinds of strange locations,” Brinker said.
The 1996 Chesapeake Bay osprey study found that 50% of mating pairs nested on channel markers, but the Coast Guard has since redesigned the markers to make them less hospitable and installed alternative nesting platforms in some cases. Utilities have tried to move empty nests when ospreys disrupt transmission lines, through programs such as Baltimore Gas and Electric’s “Osprey Watch.”
In other words, well-meaning people have convinced several generations of ospreys that they can nest anywhere, as long as they are near water where there are many fish. Westfield Mall is less than a mile from Weems Creek, and as Brinker said, “They don’t mind commuting to the grocery store.”
Ospreys usually start breeding around age 3, mate for life and can reach age 30, although seven to 10 years is a more likely average. The winter range for ospreys on the east coast extends from Florida to Argentina, and they prefer to return to the same nesting site each spring if they successfully raised chicks there the previous year.
Curtis Dingle, a facilities manager for Westfield Annapolis, said the mall initially called pest control when the osprey arrived several years ago, but has since chosen to leave the birds alone. Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, it is illegal to disturb osprey nests once the eggs are laid and until after the chicks have fledged. No buyers have complained about the nest, Dingle said.
Brinker said humans and ospreys from the mid-Atlantic have learned to coexist, and the birds of Westfield Mall seem particularly well-adapted or they would never have built a nest in the mall. The main human threat now is discarded plastic. Ospreys like to line their perch nests with softer materials, not realizing that things like plastic bags can strangle their chicks. Example: Several sheets of plastic packaging appear to be dangling from the nest in the mall. “They’re not slobs,” Brinker said, defending the birds.
There’s only one thing shoppers should be wary of, and that’s leftover ospreys that end up on your car. “Pieces of fish can get into the vent, and you won’t notice it until it really starts to smell,” he said with a laugh. “Those are the crazy things that happen once in a while.”
His overarching advice, besides checking your car’s hood if you’re parking near an osprey nest, is to “have fun watching and appreciate that osprey populations have greatly recovered.”
Rebecca Ritzel of The Associated Press wrote this story.
Social Security Increase 2023: How Many Checks Can Be Paid After Historic Increase?
Top food retailers in downtown Pa.: Is it Sheetz, Target, Walmart or Giant?