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'The Green Room' Return Of The Osprey: A Southern Michigan Success Story

Sep 26, 2014

DDT wiped out Osprey from Southern Michigan, but a reintroduction program has resulted in over fifty breeding pairs in the region.  It is reason to celebrate, but several challenges remain. Listen for more in the September edition of WEMU’s “The Green Room”. 

Osprey Chick in nest at Kensington Metro Park
Credit Barbara Lucas / 89.1 WEMU

     


It's been 100-years since the past Passenger Pigeon died. Obviously, nature doesn't always bounce back. But, in the case of the Osprey, there's hope! 50-years ago DDT had wiped out these magnificent raptors from Michigan's  southern Lower Peninsula. Thanks to a Department of Natural Resources reintroduction program, there are now more than 50 nesting pairs. 

Barbara Lucas: I’m in a rowboat with staff from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Detroit Zoo, approaching an enormous nest overflowing a manmade tripod platform.  I can see an osprey chick peering warily at us, over the sticks.  Lucky for me, this guy is only six weeks old, because he’s joining us onboard.  If fully grown, those flapping wings could span six feet across, and his piercing beak and curving talons could do serious damage.  Perfectly evolved for catching fish, osprey can dive from 200 feet up, hitting the water at 40 miles an hour.

DNR and Zoo staff:  Wait, wait, double-check that band—do we have 302?  Yes, OK, here…  

Barbara Lucas: On shore, a crowd of photographers excitedly documents our every move.  I’m told they’re here daily, recording the life of this osprey family, the result of the DNRs reintroduction program. Now that they’re here, new worries arise:  When the young fledge the nest, where will they go on their migration, and will they survive to return?

Staff:  Do you want him standing up?  Washburn:  Yes, that would be good…

Barbara Lucas: Back on shore, on a Kensington Metropark picnic table...   

Brian Washburn: Now we are going to put on the satellite transmitter. 

Barbara Lucas: That’s Brian Washburn from the USDA Wildlife Services in Ohio.  He has a tiny device attached to a backpack that he will fit onto the osprey chick.

Washburn:  This transmitter is solar powered so it has these solar panels on the back so that will recharge the battery when it is up in the sun. There’s a GPS unit in it akin to a Garmin or what you might have in your car. And that means we can track the bird anywhere in the world.

Barbara Lucas: The male ospreys migrate to Central and South America, staying there for several years before returning home to find a mate and raise a family.

Staff:  Hey, hey, don’t bite the handler!

Barbara Lucas: Only about 30% of ospreys make it back here, so everyone is rooting for this guy. 

Barb Jensen:  He should be able to keep carry this transmitter for two and a half or three years.  B.L.:  Hopefully long enough to track him back here? Jensen:  Yes, exactly!

Barbara Lucas: Barb Jensen is the founder of the Osprey Watch of Southeast Michigan, at OWSEM.org.  She’s worked hard to secure funding for the radio transmitters, to learn more about the challenges they face on their migration.  For instance, some countries still use DDT, which was banned in the U.S. in 1972. 

Jensen:  There was a real issue in the 50s, 60s, and early part of the 70s with DDT. These birds are 99% fish eaters so through bioaccumulation of the DDT that was in the water, it got into the fish, and then the birds got the fish, and then the eggshells were thin because they were unable to put the calcium into the eggshells.  Same thing that happened with the bald eagle.

Barbara Lucas: Jensen says being on top of the food chain, they act as canaries in a coalmine.  Research finds they can bioaccumulate dioxins, flame retardants, prescription drugs, mercury, and more...  She wonders if all these toxins could affect their brain.  Will they migrate successfully?

Staff:  You are going to be ready to go very soon!  Washburn:  He's good to go! Staff:  Did he get your finger? Washburn:  I think he took a nip or two…

Barbara Lucas: The dozen or so hobby photographers documenting this event call themselves the “Osprey Paparazzi,” and they’ve named this bird Daniel.  Some drive an hour each way, several times a week, to watch this family. In light of the occasion, it’s decided a group shot is in order.  One of the photographers is Walter Chavers of Ypsilanti.  He works the nightshift at the nearby General Motors proving grounds. After he clocks out each morning, he “clocks in” at Kensington Metropark, for about two hours of osprey-watching.  Last spring he witnessed the courtship of Daniel’s parents. 

Walter Chavers:  The male was being pushed out of the nest by the female. Every time he landed on the nest, she would push him out, push him out.  So he went into the water came up with a pike.  He’s got this big Pike in his talons. He's doing the hovering up-and-down, and he's just screaming.  He finally lands in a tree and eats part of it—part of the fish—and takes the rest to her.  After that they were a couple.

Barbara Lucas: Like the other paparazzi here, his interest has moved beyond just getting a great photo, and he avidly reads about ospreys and watches their nests online, via various webcam websites.  But this, this is real life!

Chavers:  He’s coming into the nest.  Other photographers:  Hey! Oh my gosh!  Chavers:  He’s coming into the nest!   Wow!

Barbara Lucas: He is enthralled with the “bird’s eye view” Kensington’s nest platform affords.

Chavers:  They haven't been something that you could actually see! They’ve been something you’ve read about and seen a picture in a book! And now we have them right here where you can see them, on a day-to-day basis.  And this is unique right here. Usually they're up on a cell tower and you can't really see them very well up on the cell tower.

Barbara Lucas: With a good camera and lots of patience, the paparazzi get great shots of osprey family life, which can be viewed on Flickr or Michigan Osprey’s Facebook page.

Chavers: He comes in with this big stick across the water, and it’s dragging the water, leaving a wake—he gets it up into the nest and it stays in there a total of maybe two, two and a half minutes before Mom threw it out into the water.  So it didn’t last long. It's almost like a guy bringing home a couch off the street corner and his wife throwing it out.

Barbara Lucas: Perhaps home decorating is not his forte, but Chavers says the father IS a good provider.

Chavers: I personally took a picture of him and he had a fish in both feet—coming in. He's a great fisherman!

Barbara Lucas: He’s relieved when the fledglings finally learn to fish, and when they leave on migration, he’s like a nervous parent, the first time their young teen drives off in a car.

Chavers:  It's a perilous journey! They have to contend with being inexperienced, they have to contend with predators.  B.L. What are the predators? Chavers: Great horned owls, for one.

Barbara Lucas: Humans are also predators, especially if the osprey find an aquaculture operation, where farm-raised tilapia is a tasty treat. (Shotgun blast)  And if they survive to return, they may try to nest in the wrong place.  (Electric voltage)

Chavers:  Some are in dangerous electric towers where the voltage is... if they hit the wrong wire or anything, is very….  (Osprey calling)  She’s calling, she’s calling for some food. 

Barbara Lucas: I’m back at Kensington MetroPark, about a month after the satellite transmitter was put on.  While his sister is still here, young Daniel has departed, off on his grand journey.  Chavers shows me on his cell phone.

Chavers: Here's the tracking, ours is Daniel.  See that orange line? That's Daniel heading south.

Barbara Lucas: He’s made it all the way to the Indianapolis area already—it’s exciting!  A teacher’s curriculum guide is available at MichiganOsprey.org, so students can learn as they follow the birds’ travels. Having exceeded the original goal of 30 nesting pairs in Southern Michigan, efforts now focus on outreach:  to preserve their habitat, prevent pollution, and encourage folks of all ages to appreciate the magnificent osprey.  Chavers says when he describes osprey antics to those who aren’t familiar…

Chavers:  More than once they’ve said, “You spent too much time out here!” And I'm like, “Well, you don't spend enough, that's what it is!”

To watch the progress of Daniel on his migration, go to Michiganosprey.org.