Because Beaufort County is a popular place for ospreys to nest, the Lowcountry Institute is studying the birds of prey, which the local nonprofit believes to be indicators of the area's environmental health.
The institute works to protect water quality and marine resources of the Port Royal Sound. Ecologist David Bishop said the group will inventory the osprey population and monitor the success of this year's hatchlings. With the help of the Sea Island Fly Fishers of Beaufort, Bishop intends to conduct the study annually.
Bishop said ospreys, a federally protected species, can serve as an environmental indicator of the health of local waters because they primarily eat fish.
"We know the birds are sensitive to heavy metals like mercury," he said. "... If the birds stop nesting, we won't know it's mercury, but we will know it's a warning bell that maybe something's not quite right."
If their food source is over-fished or in poor health, the number of ospreys nesting and the number of hatchlings that survive likely would decrease, Bishop said.
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