Bill Froehlich, a Maine resident who has spent his summers...

Bill Froehlich, a Maine resident who has spent his summers in Oak Beach for years, stands with the utility pole and the since-removed osprey nest that caught fire in the background. Credit: Morgan Campbell

PSEG Long Island removed an osprey nest from a utility pole in Oak Beach after the twigs caught fire a few days earlier. 

Residents of a home in the neighborhood alerted the Babylon Fire Department and Suffolk County Police Department.

PSEG Long Island next got the call, setting in motion a time-tested task force aimed at balancing the nesting needs of the fish-loving osprey with community concerns over potential fire hazards and also, the birds' well-being.

Since 2022, PSEG Long Island has identified close to 200 utility poles Islandwide, that, like the one in Oak Beach, can prove hazardous for the birds, which can mistake them for trees. And ospreys often return year after year, often to the same nest. Over time, wildlife experts say, the nests can grow to several feet high — ample kindling for a power-pole spark.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Since 2022, PSEG Long Island has identified close to 200 utility poles Islandwide considered hazardous to ospreys.
  • A study on the osprey population by a Long Island nonprofit group in 2023 counted more than 350 active nesting pairs and more than 500 fledglings on the Island's eastern region.
  • A task force comprising PSEG and Long Island environmental and nature experts responds when an osprey nest poses a fire danger or is destroyed in a blaze.

Improving population

For those on the task force, the osprey's improving population and annual nesting near Long Island's shorelines show that efforts to protect the raptors have paid off, even amid urban sprawl and bird and human sometimes choosing the same neighborhood.

"This fish hawk is an iconic part of Long Island's natural history," said Bob DeLuca, president of The Group for the East End, a Southold-based environmental nonprofit that helped PSEG Long Island start the task force.

"It's something that people have helped bring back," DeLuca added. "And now we just want to make sure that we find a way to live in harmony with these birds now that they're back as part of the resident population."

PSEG Long Island has relocated more than two dozen osprey nests and worked to make an additional eight nests safe in their existing location, according to the utility's website. Webcams at two of the relocated nests in Oyster Bay and Patchogue operate 24 hours a day in hopes of educating the public about ospreys and the bird's role in the region's environmental life.

Crews have installed v-guards, which cover electrified lines and equipment, on about 100 utility poles so far, said PSEG Long Island spokesperson Elizabeth Flagler.

"Mitigation measures vary between poles due to a variety of factors and installations are determined on a case-by-case basis," Flagler said.

Deterrence working

Deterrence efforts on Long Island and nationwide have worked "really well," DeLuca said.

The population across the United States "has rebounded substantially" since the birds' decline in the 20th century, DeLuca said, "partially from the reduction in pesticides, partially from the efforts of renesting," and partially because catches of "their principal food, which is menhaden or bunker ... have been restricted to some extent."

In the case of the Oak Beach osprey nest that ignited about two weeks ago, "I saw what appeared to be little sparks coming from the beginnings of this nest that was being built,” said Bill Froehlich, 55, who was staying in a family home in the beachside community.

“Sure enough," said Froehlich, a Maine resident who has visited Oak Beach since childhood, "within about 20 minutes or half an hour of seeing these little sparks, the whole top of the pole was engulfed in flames."

By the time police and firefighters arrived, the fire was out, so they notified PSEG Long Island. Environmental specialists determined that the twigs weren’t “a full nest but most likely a practice nest that adolescent birds use to practice for future breeding seasons,” Flagler said.

Changing status

A crew removed the partial nest from the pole last Monday, Flagler added, and the utility plans to place “v-guards on the wires to protect against the nest being rebuilt” and endangering the electric system. 

The osprey's status in New York, which was listed as "endangered" in 1976, was downgraded to "threatened" in 1983 and again to "special concern" in 1999, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

In New York, along with on Long Island, there are breeding populations in the Adirondack Mountains, according to the DEC.

Ospreys usually nest at the top of dead trees, if not nesting platforms or other manmade structures, and occasionally nest on the ground as well. 

DeLuca said a study on the population by group, released in early 2023, counted more than 350 active nesting pairs and more than 500 fledglings in the eastern region of Long Island.

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