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‘Diamond of the island’ caught one birders eye

By Staff | Jan 6, 2016

A part-time resident who fell in love with what he refers to as the “diamond of the island” spends countless hours watching osprey to better understand the raptor species that call Sanibel and Captiva their home.

Jim Griffith, president of the International Osprey Foundation and the Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Society, was influenced by his grandmother, who was a big birder in New England. As he grew older, he became fascinated by hawks because they really had to work for their food.

From there, his love for birds and helping various species only grew.

While working in Georgia as an engineer, he helped the peregrine falcon, which feeds on other birds. The population began to dwindle after the DDT era. He said through the company he worked for, Georgia Power Company, they were able to build a box, which was placed on a roof, because the peregrine like to nest on tall structures.

“It took off with a lot of big cities in 1989,” he said. “Those falcons still nest in Atlanta.”

After spotting the “diamond of the island,” Griffith became very involved in observing, counting and helping the osprey.

“It’s part of the joys of living on Sanibel. You start noticing the birds,” he said.

Over the years Griffith has built more than 200 platforms for osprey on the island to ensure they have a safe nesting area. Now he receives an average of five or six requests a year from residents who would like a platform in their back, or front yard.

“I am so grateful I see them. I enjoy doing it,” Griffith said.

He said after Hurricane Charley struck the island in 2004, two-thirds of the osprey nests were destroyed. Unfortunately, the hurricane impacted the island when osprey began returning for nesting season.

“We found years ago that the survival rate is better with a platform,” he said, because predators cannot sneak up on the osprey.

The platforms, which are typically on a 35-foot pole that Lee County Electric Cooperative provides, are far away from other trees.

A nesting platform, which has been standing for 33 years, was damaged during Hurricane Charley on Coconut Drive. Griffith replaced it with the help of LCEC because it’s in an ideal location right next to Blind Pass. He said the nest, with last year being the exception, has had successful fledges in all the years it has been there.

Griffith visits the nest regularly and has noticed that the osprey pair have been going back and forth from the platform to a Norfolk pine nearby for nesting. The osprey oftentimes nest in a Norfolk pine because of its height. He said after observing the pair for some time, he believes the osprey decided to create their nest on the platform again because a palm tree is too close to the Norfolk pine leaving them in harms way of predators.

Another nesting platform that Griffith was excited to see go up is located on the outskirts of Blind Pass, near the Blind Pass Bridge. He said a woman decided to give the platform a chance by agreeing for it to be installed.

“A lot of people get something out of it,” he said of its location. We can “literally show the world how our osprey are doing.”

Since osprey like to glide into their landing, a platform offers a perfect flat space for them to build a nest. Griffith said the platforms are a 40-inch square with chain link fencing underneath. The chain link helps the osprey when bringing sticks back to the nest because they do not fall through.

Once an osprey finds a mate, they typically mate at the same place every year with the same partner.

In early November, the osprey begin adding sticks to their nest before mating takes place from late December through middle to late January.

When the pair of osprey begin preparing their nest, Griffith said the male will oftentimes bring back branches that the female does not like. He said he has witnessed the female dropping the stick after the male flies away. In addition to the sticks, the osprey also finds soft material, such as Spanish moss, to line the nest for the eggs.

On average, 35 days after the eggs are laid, they hatch. Seven weeks later the osprey are ready to fledge.

“Most of them will lay three eggs,” Griffith said. “Normally one or two will survive.”

The male osprey stays and teaches the young how to fish.

“I love hearing them, it’s a symphony for me,” he said of the osprey’s call.

Over time, the male osprey will start spreading the time he brings fish back to the nest further apart, to start teaching its young.

“It probably takes them a year to learn how to fish,” he said.

The osprey adjusts its flight down to the water by tilting its body on an angle to compensate for where the fish were spotted. The osprey, Griffith said, has four talons, two of which are used when catching the fish.

More than 400 osprey are calling the island its home. Approximately 40 to 50 people monitor the various nests on the island to keep track of what is going on with osprey.

Out of all the nests, Griffith said on average 90 to 100 fledges have survived in the past. That number has dropped to 62 before climbing to 72 last year.

“This year will be a telling year,” he said.

The decline in the number of fledges can be the result of many things, one of which Griffith believes may be the availability of fish. He said if the osprey are experiencing a shortage of food, they will feed the most aggressive offspring.

Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.