It’s an age-old story. Boy meets girl. Boy likes girl. They decide to nest together, build a family, and go fishing.
This is the story of Ethel and Allen, a young couple in love.
Ethel was a bird. Which is perfect, because Allyn was too. This young couple met and began their relationship on the Allyn Cox Reservation in Essex, where they found themselves a nest and started their life together.
Soon, the happy couple gave birth to a chick. They named him named Eben. And the three of them — Ethel, Allyn, and Eben (above) — became the reservation’s first osprey family. A year later, they became YouTube stars. Naturally.
But even before the world tuned in, Ethel and Allyn were doing what many New England couples do: making a home, traveling south for the winter, starting a family.
By the time they went live on the internet, they were seasoned parents who had, like many, dealt with their share of drama and heartache.
. . . . .
Ospreys are one of the most widely distributed raptors in the world. They breed on every continent except Antarctica.
In North America, Osprey occur in all 50 states, but populations decreased dramatically between 1950 – 1970 due to unregulated use of pesticides, which weakened osprey eggshells and caused nesting failure and poor productivity.
In the 1970s, new US laws regulated pesticide use and osprey numbers slowly began to rebound across North America.
In Essex county, from as far back as the 1850s and through the 1970s, osprey were only observed as migrants in the county, despite well-established breeding populations to the north and the south. But in the 1980s, the first confirmed pair of nesting ospreys was observed on a man-made platform located on open salt marsh in Essex.
Over the ensuing years, nesting pairs of osprey have gradually increased in numbers on different man-made structures including nesting platforms, duck blinds, transmission towers and coastal navigational markers.
In 2007, Greenbelt (the Essex County Land Trust) began a program to monitor osprey nesting activity in northeastern Massachusetts more comprehensively and realized that the lack of suitable nesting sites might be limiting osprey breeding success.
As a result, Greenbelt has installed 19 new platforms while also maintaining existing platforms and assisting private landowners, towns and others wishing to install their own nesting platforms.
. . . . .
In 2013, the organization premiered OspreyCam. Greenbelt registered more than 6,000 hits on their live streaming video as people tuned in to watch, to rejoice, and to mourn as Ethel and Allyn nested, produced their first eggs, and lost a chick.
In 2014 the program really took flight.
The site registered more than 75,000 views, with visitors from all over the world logging in to watch birds-of-prey doing what birds-of-prey do, live on the internet.
That year, Ethel and Allyn did a remarkable thing.
After producing a trio of eggs, which is quite normal, a fourth egg appeared. According to the Osprey Blog, the fourth egg was “both awesome and unusual,” proving what their audience had already suspected: Ethel and Allyn were very special birds.
The future dad busied himself with lining the nest, choosing softer items as the days passed, and delivering freshly caught fish to his bride, who seemed to have a craving for herring.
Like most pregnancies, Ethel’s had its moments of stress. A longer-than-normal incubation period had watchers alarmed. And then, sadly, one of the eggs simply vanished. Another never hatched.
But in early June, a chick was spotted. Allyn snagged a striped bass, and the family enjoyed a celebratory meal.
By all accounts, he was a handsome, if odd, fellow who liked to lie on his side with one leg extended, just to freak out his anxious fans.
The days passed and the youngster could be seen doing his bird calisthenics, strengthening his wings in preparation for flight.
At 48 days old, alert spectators witnessed his first foray from the nest. A growing boy who was truly “testing his wings,” the young raptor could be seen coming and going at regular intervals, pausing only to demand his next meal from his long-suffering parents.
Greenbelt solicited suggestions for a name. The winner? “Flow.”
Apparently, a witty member thought Flow was an excellent choice to follow on the so-called heels of the 2012 fledgling, Eben. (Who doesn’t love a little ornithology humor?)
On August 26, 2014, Ethel and Allyn vacated the nest and it was assumed that the new family had headed south for the winter. As the fall set in, all the viewers could do was patiently wait for next season.
Upon returning in early April 2015, Ethel and Allyn set themselves to housekeeping — rebuilding their nest — and then, well, doing what young birds in love will do.
Then Allyn disappeared.
. . . . .
A “Missing” poster described him: “Almost pure white chest, black forehead patch that extends back across top of head. Mate to Ethel, who has speckles on her chest, with a black forehead patch, and all white on top.”
What happened to Allyn? Did he meet someone new?
According to Osprey Program director David Rimmer, “once mated, ospreys tend to stay together. Therefore, it is more likely that Allyn perished.”
Is this wishful thinking? While we don’t wish him dead, we don’t want him to be a deadbeat dad either. But we will never know.
After Allyn disappeared, Ethel stuck around, but never produced more eggs. There were some sightings of a new male on the scene, but he didn’t stick around long enough to even earn a name.
Ethel continued to visit the nest sporadically through the rest of the season and again early in 2016, acting out her denial as her internet friends silently willed her to move on, despite not wanting to let her go.
This year, the nest that housed Ethel and Allyn and saw the first flights of Eben and Flow has been mostly vacant, the webcam quiet.
. . . . .
Thank goodness for Flow.
Like all teenagers today, Flow has grown up in the digital age — the product of modern technology. In collaboration with raptor biologist Richard Bierregaard, Greenbelt has funded the tagging and tracking of four of Flow’s fellow juvenile ospreys. Thanks to solar-powered satellite transmitters, the routes taken by these teenaged birds are available for the world to see.
Sadly, Flow is the only osprey of the four that has survived. Statistics show that up to 50 percent of young ospreys will not survive their first year.
When Flow left Essex for Cuba, he took the long way.
Two months after his departure, Flow arrived in Cuba, where he spent a blissful 18 months, filling his belly and exploring his new surroundings — and finding himself.
True to his destiny, he headed back north in the spring, meandering along the scenic route that included numerous “layovers” on the route to Massachusetts.
Upon his return to Essex county, according to Rimmer, Flow opted for low-hanging fruit — hunting in freshwater lakes and ponds rather than the more challenging fishing grounds of the coast.
In 2016, Flow snapped out of his slacker period and boogied to Cuba, making the nearly 2,000-mile migration in just 10 days.
In a recent Greenbelt blog post, a die-hard fan commented: “Just checked in on Flow ... He’s HOME!!! Up in Newburyport, Mass., 4-22-17!!”
Indeed, Flow has been spending his spring and summer looking at homes on the Merrimac River.
Just like all good reality shows, the OspreyCam and tracker provide unscripted glimpses into the lives of others. But now America wants answers to the burning questions: Will Flow find a mate? Will he start nesting? Will he make it?
We don’t know.
And therein lies the allure. We’ll have to sit tight and wait, hoping the empty nest fills and the camera keeps working.
. . . . .
Ospreys are a fascinating combination of habit and resourcefulness and seem to have a appetite for adventure.
They are fish hawks that live near water — fresh or salt — where fish are plentiful. After migrating south, ospreys return each year to the origin of their birth. Early spring is the time for courtship and nest building. Their courtship rituals include tandem aerial circling, with the male showing off his diving-with-fish-or-stick skills. They begin mating around 3 years of age and tend to keep the same mate for life. That’s where Flow is now.
Not all osprey nests are neat and tidy human-produced nesting platforms (although those are many and well-attended) — the list of current osprey nesting sites include the MBTA rail yard in East Boston, the Wheelabrator Smokestack in Saugus, a utility pole in Lynn, the Salem Harbor channel marker, and various duck blinds in Ipswich.
Nests are usually reused, with annual residents adding new material each year.
One of Greenbelt’s bloggers, Mary Williamson, had this to share about Ethel and Allyn’s nest in 2012: “The plastic in the nest was brought in by the male, who builds the nest of sticks, and lines it with found objects along with bark, sod, grasses, vines, and algae. The nest grows with each generation, and after many years, can end up 10–13 feet deep and 3–6 feet in diameter — big enough for a human hatchling.”
It is in nests such as this that eggs (creamy white, blotched with brown), usually numbering three, are laid sometime during mid-April to late May and are incubated — sat upon mostly by mom — for about 40 days. In June, the eggs hatch and are fed by their parents (mostly dad), whom they emulate as they grow. And interestingly, their eyes turn from orange to yellow as they age.
Almost two months after hatching, nestlings become fledglings (the stage of baby bird life between hatching and flying). Then begin to fly.
They stay together as a family unit through July and learn how to fish.
Finally, by October, the osprey of Essex county head south, and it becomes every bird for himself.
The following March they’ll return and begin the cycle again.
▸ Greenbelt, the Essex County Land Trust, helps landowners, farmers, cities, towns and organizations in Essex County realize their land conservation vision. They have protected nearly 17,000 acres of land in Essex County. For more information, including becoming a member, click here.
Catherine McNiff is a writer/editor-turned-educator who was born in Gloucester. She thoroughly enjoyed living around the country with her Navy husband but couldn’t stay away. She and her family live, work, and play in Rockport.