Paul Spitzer is entranced as he trains his binoculars on a series of nesting platforms along the Great Island salt marsh, where the Connecticut River flows into Long Island Sound in Old Lyme.
“Here comes an osprey,” he calls out to a group of about 20 people who had joined a Connecticut Audubon Society estuary field trip on a May morning.
“This is a male,” Spitzer tells us. “He’s headed out for fishing; the female is sitting on the nest. This is an osprey beehive out here!”
A minute later, he says, “Here’s your morning chorus: the pleasant shriek of the successful osprey with its catch.”
It wasn’t always this way for “these magnificent birds,” as Spitzer calls them. In the 1950s and ’60s, naturalist Roger Tory Peterson, in tandem with writer Rachel Carson, made the alarming observation that the osprey population was declining precipitously along the shore of Connecticut down to Maryland.
“Roger discovered that most of the nests were empty,” Spitzer recalls. “That was the beginning of the story. Roger and (his wife) Barbara moved to Connecticut partly to study the ospreys.”
Pointing out toward Great Island, Spitzer says, “This was one of the first places that the DDT problem was recognized. And it was because of Roger. He was one of the first to see it.”
Spitzer was too modest to tell the tour group about his own substantial contribution to saving the ospreys. His groundbreaking findings helped spur laws banning DDT, a pesticide used to control mosquito populations.
Spitzer first beheld the Great Island expanse in 1957, when he was 12. The man he accompanied on that formative outing was Peterson, already legendary for his writing about birds. The boy and his mentor conducted a Christmas bird count.
“It was a big thrill for me,” Spitzer recounts during an interview from a house he has rented in Lyme for the summer. (He spends most of his year in Maryland.) “Roger loved to share his perceptions on what was going on. He looked to open people’s eyes.”
A few years later, while Spitzer was studying biology at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Peterson encouraged him to help study the ospreys and try to come up with a definitive reason for their decline. Spitzer did so, continuing the project while doing graduate study at Cornell.
“DDT was the project’s focus,” he says. “From the 1950s and through the ’60s, there was an annual population decline for ospreys of up to 30 percent in Connecticut.”
“It was pitifully low. The Connecticut River was down to one nest. Statewide, there were just nine active nests in the early ’70s.”
Spitzer says he became part of “a chain of faith” that began with Carson and Peterson. “Rachel and Roger met while they were in Maryland; they were ahead of the curve. Enough bits and pieces were coming in to show DDT was having this consequence. Rachel put the pieces together and advanced the hypothesis. In 1962 her book Silent Spring was published. In 1964 she died. That left Roger and others to pick up the baton.”
Spitzer was one of those who grabbed that baton. He spent most of the late ’60s and ’70s measuring the ospreys’ annual breeding population. Spitzer kept finding thin-shelled, collapsing eggs. The shells were so thin that incubation was becoming impossible.
Spitzer had the idea of switching eggs from osprey nests in Connecticut with eggs from a relatively healthy population in Maryland.
Because Spitzer knew that not nearly as much DDT was being used in Maryland, he could employ the egg switching to isolate whether the problem was intrinsic to the eggs in Connecticut.
Spitzer watched closely as the Maryland eggs hatched healthy chicks in Connecticut, but not vice versa. Then he transferred young nestlings from Maryland to Connecticut; virtually all of the Maryland nestlings flourished here. And so the problem, clearly, was those eggs in Connecticut.
In recent years Spitzer has continued his work with ospreys. Now he is focused on our management of the ecosystem to ensure menhaden, a fish and the ospreys’ primary food source, remain abundant.
During his early May field tour, Spitzer tells us of the ospreys: “They come back every year to the same nest and the same mate. In the fall they go all the way to the tropics, a perilous journey. If one of them doesn’t make it back here, the surviving bird recruits a new mate.”
Spitzer says he admires “the sheer wonderful tenacity of ospreys. This is part of the reason for their success.”
You could say the same for Spitzer, although he claims to have mellowed. “I still love studying these birds but I don’t want to interfere with their lives and nesting habitats.” He quickly adds, “I never harmed them. I was always very careful in my egg switching and trapping. There is a spiritual correctness and connection to nature. It makes a better person of you.”
Spitzer is pleased to see younger generations picking up the cause. The Connecticut Audubon Society has created “Osprey Nation,” a network of volunteers watching over the nests.
In recent years, Spitzer says, the number of ospreys has “exploded on Long Island Sound and North America.” According to the Connecticut Audubon Society, the state now has 294 active nests, meaning there are at least 588 adult ospreys here.
“That’s one of the very happy environmental stories,” Spitzer says.
Randall Beach is the longtime columnist for the New Haven Register, where his column appears Fridays and Sundays. He enjoys his New Haven neighborhood, running through the city’s streets and parks and hanging out in its coffee shops. At home he plays his many 1960s and ’70s rock ‘n’ roll albums and CDs.