Tracking Ospreys Helps Youth Soar Higher

Earth Conservation Corps, an NWF affiliate, helps restore a river, its raptors and D.C. residents

  • Anne Bolen
  • Conservation
  • Jun 01, 2015

THE EARTH CONSERVATION CORPS (ECC) is proving that whether for urban youth or ospreys, the journey often matters more than the destination.

During the past two years, ECC—NWF’s Washington, D.C., affiliate—has shown thousands of area youth how to observe and record osprey behavior. They have followed the lives of two male ospreys that have been nesting near ECC’s environmental center on the Anacostia River via a nest cam and satellite transmitters attached to the birds.

For many of the participants, it’s their first time to see raptors in the wild and to get a taste of citizen science. “We are trying to give them a chance to do real science that might lead them to pursue careers in natural resources,” says conservationist and filmmaker Bob Nixon, who launched ECC in 1992. The youth are also getting lessons in life.

A Tale of Two Ospreys

This osprey monitoring began in 2013 after ECC raised more than $15,000 for two transmitters and a nest cam (left). The camera was placed on a nest used by a male osprey the team named Ron Harper (after the father of Washington National’s outfielder Bryce Harper). They named the second osprey Rodney after Rodney Stotts, who had worked with ECC as a youth then became an environmental educator and raptor rehabilitator. Stotts helped Drexel University researcher Rob Bierregaard, who has tracked 91 ospreys along the East Coast since 2000, capture the ospreys and fit them with transmitters.

ECC staff and youth then observed Ron and his mate on the nest cam, and watched the birds through binoculars, a telescope and by boat. Participants recorded the raptors’ behavior—such as hunting fish and feeding chicks—and tracked Ron and Rodney’s migrations by following their satellite transmissions on Bierregaards’ website (

Typically, North American ospreys begin to migrate to South America in late summer then return, often to the same nests, around late March. In the fall of 2013, Ron migrated to Brazil and Rodney to Venezuela, but neither returned to the Anacostia until April. By then they had lost their mates and nests to more prompt males, forcing them to live elsewhere in the area.

In fall of 2014, both birds should have begun to head south. Unfortunately, Rodney’s last transmission came in September from the shores of the Potomac River. His transmitter was recently retrieved from there, and he is presumed dead. Ron left on August 24. Inexplicably, he reversed course just before hitting Cuba and flew back to his nest in D.C. before again heading to Brazil on September 11. In Bierregaard’s experience, “no osprey has ever done this.”

In April this year, Ron made it back to D.C. after dallying at a tempting tilapia farm in Mexico. His tardiness has again cost him his nest, which another male has taken. “It is like our own reality show,” says ECC media specialist and educator Daryl Wallace, who has observed ospreys nesting along the Anacostia for more than a decade.

That any osprey now nests along the Anacostia River is cause for celebration. For decades, the river was too polluted to support the fish raptors need for survival. ECC youth, staff and volunteers have since picked up tons of trash from the river’s banks and restored native plants to its wetlands, which help  filter out pollution. Such efforts, including the city’s improved stormwater management and stream restorations, have reduced the pollution entering the river, improving its health. Enough fish returned to the river to support raptors. Between 1995 and 1998, the ECC helped reintroduce 16 bald eagles to the area. Today, at least six eagles and about 16 ospreys are known to nest near or on the Anacostia.

Inspiration on Wings

Cleaning up the river and working with the raptors has provided area youth with both work skills and hope. “The streets can take you under,” says Wallace. In fact, 12 of the eagles ECC introduced to D.C. were named in honor of murdered corps members. But when ECC staff take their students out on the river and show them the raptors, Wallace says, “it opens their minds up.” Robert West, a former corps youth and now ECC educator, echoes that idea. “The corps pulled me away from all the negative things I was doing and gave me a positive alternative,” he says. “These birds are a small sign that there is more to life out there.”

Stotts agrees. Founder of Wings Over America, he now rehabilitates raptors and uses nonreleasable birds to teach youth about the environment. This year, he’s showing raptors to incarcerated D.C. high school students, saying the birds inspire kids and give them hope to strive for better lives. “I’ve never felt like I’ve reached where I am going,” he says. “You should always stay hungry—and humble.”

To find out more and watch ospreys via a nest cam, go to

Anne Bolen is managing editor of National Wildlife magazine.

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