Nesting ospreys are beginning to return to the Lowcountry, and a pair that typically nestles over Battery Creek, near the Russell Bell Bridge and the entrance to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, will arrive to enjoy the fruit of Duncan O'Quinn's home-improvement project.
Earlier this winter, O'Quinn, president of O'Quinn Marine Construction Inc., replaced the teetering piling supporting a nest that has likely accommodated at least four generations of ospreys. Had he done the work for a customer, it would have run about $1,500. However, O'Quinn did it for free for one reason: "It was the Christian thing to do," he said.
Actually, appreciation for the raptors probably figured into the decision, as well. They are a familiar sight in the Lowcountry, and O'Quinn, a Beaufort native, has become well-acquainted with the birds through his work with the family business that his grandfather started in 1969.
When the Bell Bridge was built in the early 1990s, an osprey nest was moved from the old Battery Creek swing span that the new bridge replaced to a platform constructed on an old utility pole. O'Quinn watched the birds there as a boy, and as an adult, he crosses that bridge at least twice a day. In September, he noticed the pole was leaning more than usual. He stopped for a closer look and noticed it was cracked.
Fearing the pole could topple at any time, he wanted to replace the pole immediately, however, there were still chicks in the nest. O'Quinn called Al Segars of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and asked permission to replace the pole when the hatchlings fledged.
He got both permission and gratitude.
"(I) really appreciate Duncan doing this, as I know of no other money to do this," Segars wrote in an email to The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet. "This is a site enjoyed by many people!"
O'Quinn watched and waited until the chicks finally cleared out. In December, he took a crew for a three-hour job to set a new, 50-foot piling; transfer as much of the nesting material to an improved platform; and remove the old piling.
Already, a lone osprey has taken up residence, although O'Quinn predicts the bird will not be there for long. It appears to be a young osprey, likely hatched in that nest in recent years. When mom and dad come home, they'll run him off: "It will be funny to watch when it happens. I've seen it before, and it will last three or four five days," O'Quinn said.
Artificial stands and man-made structures -- such as the light poles on athletics field -- have all but replaced natural nesting sites in some areas, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. Quite a few still nest in trees here, but O'Quinn said he often installs stands for customers and has also seen ospreys take up housekeeping on boat lifts and the roofs of covered docks.
Ospreys typically nest near bodies of water. They make conspicuous stick nests in the open, on poles, channel markers and dead trees, the Cornell website states.
The Cornell website also says ospreys nest, on average, 50 to 55 days:
The male usually fetches most of the nesting material -- sometimes breaking dead sticks off nearby trees as he flies past -- and the female arranges it. Nests on artificial platforms, especially in a pair's first season, are relatively small -- less than 2.5 feet in diameter and 3-6 inches deep. After generations of adding to the nest year after year, Ospreys can end up with nests 10-13 feet deep and 3-6 feet in diameter -- easily big enough for a human to sit in.
Ospreys require nest sites in open surroundings for easy approach, with a wide, sturdy base and safety from ground predators (such as raccoons). Nests are usually built on snags, treetops, or crotches between large branches and trunks; on cliffs or human-built platforms. Usually the male finds the site before the female arrives.
The ospreys' winter return is part of the ebb and flow of the Lowcountry, O'Quinn said.
"They are beautiful birds, and being a fourth-generation (Beaufort resident) they are a part of our life."