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By Donna Cipolloni

Tester staff writer

One thing the engineers at Atlantic Test Ranges (ATR) have learned is that ospreys are persistent.

Each year around mid-March, after spending the winter in South America, ospreys return to the Chesapeake Bay to nest in the area where they were hatched and raised. Experienced breeding pairs will return to the same nest year after year, while younger birds arrive seeking a mate and a new nesting site.

At Naval Air Station Patuxent River, ospreys have shown a particular fondness for the radar and tracking equipment utilized by ATR.

“Lots of our equipment is on towers or in high places, which is the perfect location for ospreys,” said Rob Vargo, associate director, ATR, Range Department, Naval Air Systems Command. “It has been an ongoing challenge to keep our equipment free of nests.”

Protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, osprey nests cannot be removed without a special permit, so the best thing to do is “prevent a nest from being built in the first place,” explained Kyle Rambo, Pax River’s conservation director.

For the past three years, a pair of ospreys has taken up residence on a piece of ATR equipment called a theodolite — a precision optical instrument used to track aircraft. The high-powered device, located on Cedar Point Road near the ATR building, rotates and also has a domed cover that opens and closes.

“If there’s a nest, we can’t operate the equipment and that’s a problem,” said ATR engineer Alan Perry. “Not to mention the [fallen] sticks, fish parts and droppings that make a mess of everything.”

In the past, to discourage the birds from constructing their nest, someone climbed the device on a daily basis to knock down whatever sticks had been put in place the day before; not the safest situation and still not foolproof.

“Last year, we kept up with them for four or five weeks until one long weekend when we weren’t here,” Perry said. “We came back to a nest and an egg, and we were done. All it took was that one weekend.”

Seeking a better solution this year, Perry and fellow engineer Jackson Wingate came up with the simple but effective idea of using an advertising inflatable — called an air dancer — to flap around and occasionally slap against the theodolite.

“Unlike static or repetitive deterrents, the erratic and random movement of the [air dancer] is something the birds won’t get acclimated to,” Rambo said. “It’s the unexpected motion that frightens them.”

In use for nearly three weeks, no ospreys have yet attempted to build on or near the theodolite being defended by the air dancer; so will this method catch on around the installation?

“The long-term solution to the problem would be to put up an artificial nesting structure adjacent to the equipment so the ospreys will nest on that instead,” Rambo said. “The nearby equipment is then included in their nesting territory and they won’t tolerate other osprey trying to move in; resulting in them becoming an ally, year after year, in keeping that equipment clear.”

But, for now, the air dancer appears to be serving its purpose during this nesting season; possibly even bringing a smile to those who drive past it.