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Southern Michigan osprey population soars!


The Return Of The Osprey...


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A banded adult osprey flies with a fish firmly grasped in her talons. James Ridley photo

August 01, 2012
Osprey once nested throughout the Great Lakes Region. That was before the era of DDT. DDT and other pesticides thinned the egg shells of this fish-eating raptor, decimating their population and all but stopping reproduction. By 1999 there was only one active nest left in southern Michigan. Wildlife biologists and ornithologists recognized the survival of those long distant flyers that migrated from Michigan to Central and South America every autumn had reached a critical crossroads. The outlook was bleak, but the Michigan DNR had hope and a plan.

A collaborate effort between the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Huron Clinton Metroparks and the Detroit Zoological Society with assistance from DTE Energy gave birth to The Osprey Reintroduction Project of Southern Michigan. Their mission: "Enhance, restore and conserve the State's osprey population, natural communities and ecosystems for the benefit of Michigan's citizens, visitors and future generations."

Today we can say with assurance, pride and truth, "mission accomplished!"

The Return of the Osprey:

Wildlife biologist Sergej Postupalsky, something of the osprey guru of Michigan was consulted and fueled by his passion, knowledge and dedication a scientific hacking program was initiated. Chicks were carefully removed from wild nests in northern areas with established populations and good reproduction and transported to Kensington and Stony Creek Metroparks in SE Michigan as well as the Maple River State Game Area to jump start the re-establishment of osprey populations. Postupalsky sexed the chicks to document and remove predominantly male chicks since males return to the area from where they fledged and then seek out female migrants when they reach adulthood.

Those relocated birds were placed in special elevated structures known as hacking boxes at good lake habitat were they were fed bullhead and other rough fish by DNR personal and looked over by cadre of trained volunteers until they were old enough to fly and hunt on their own. Over a ten year period DNR wildlife biologists moved up to a dozen chicks a year in an effort to jump start natural reproduction through hacking in their former habitats, habitat now free from DDT and safe from most human disturbance.

Volunteer osprey coordinator Barb Jenson emphasized that the objective back in the beginning was to "Establish a wild population of 30 nesting pairs by the year 2020 in the southern portion of the Lower Peninsula." In 2010, ten years ahead of schedule; that goal was reached, proof that given a chance nature finds her way, even if it is with a little help from friends.

Last month, at the invitation of Michigan DNR Wildlife Biologist Julie Oakes, a non game specialist, I headed out to Kensington Metropark shortly after sunrise to meet a DNR tagging team with my wildlife conservation education writer friend Amanda Nimke to document the banding of three chicks at Kensington Metropark and gather the latest statistics on the osprey project.

Amanda and I arrived early and went to view the osprey nest in the northern section of Kent Lake from a roadside vantage point before the team arrived. What happened next was heart-stopping, and about as exciting as it can get when the wilds of nature thrive at the edge of one of the busiest parks in all of Michigan. And it served as a reminder to me that nature is full of surprise. Just as I raised my hand held camera to zoom in on the female osprey that was hunkered down over her chicks I heard shrill calls. Suddenly an 'intruder' male osprey swooped in low and fast perhaps in an attempt to establish himself as a worthy competitor for her affections in a territory that was not his.

The one image I captured showed his swooping dive was not a welcomed gesture. I later discovered that the shrill chirps rising in intensity I heard seconds before the two ospreys met talon to talon and beak to beak was an alarm call.

An hour later Biologist Oakes, Wildlife Assistant Jim Pulling and Volunteer Coordinator Jensen were in a small boat heading out across calm waters in a bay of Kent Lake towards the not so distant osprey nesting platform. We paddled our kayaks alongside to document the project.

With the DNR boat tied up to the nesting platform and the mom circling restlessly overhead and at times vocalizing to her chicks Pulling made three carefully climbs to retrieve the three five week old osprey chicks. Each one of the girls was examined, banded and then returned with extreme care to the nest. Spectators from shore and a pair of restless osprey spectators flying overhead watched every move of the team.

As she worked on vital statistics and the banding of each bird to keep track of their travels and origins biologist Julie Oakes emphasized that the DNR osprey reintroduction program has been an outstanding wildlife success story and relocating is no longer needed. Ospreys are finding mates, breeding successfully and are increasingly common sights in all of southern Michigan including some waters very near urban areas.

Osprey volunteer coordinator Barb Jensen held one bird firmly as a band was attached on the leg above the powerful talons and commented, "Osprey are unique among North American raptors for their diet of live fish and ability to dive into water to catch them." An osprey on the hunt is a dramatic image of concentration, diving into the water with feet outstretched and yellow eyes focused straight along their talons until the moment of impact.

Ospreys are also stand outs among the hawks in having a reversible outer toe that allows them to grasp prey with two toes in the front and two in the back creating a vice like grip. And to insure the catch stays caught their pads on the soles of the feet are barbed, perfect for holding a slippery fish. These graceful aerial anglers have even 'learned' to carry fish back to the nest head first to lessen wind resistance an event captured by photographers with fast film---- and patience.

The DNR banding project at the Kensington nest also confirmed the three osprey chicks born this spring on that manmade nesting platform are robust and in good health. Oakes smiled as the last chick, sporting her first leg band, was carefully placed by wildlife assistant Pulling back in the lofty nest of twigs as the adult female circled overhead and vocalized loudly before retreating to the shoreline where her mate joined her once more. She smiled and whispered, "Every year since 2004 this osprey mom has successfully raised chicks right here in one of the busiest parks in Michigan. I think she knows us now." Five minutes later the perfect mother, bearing Federal band 788-50746 was back on her nest. The osprey fell silent. We paddled back smiling, mostly in silence, for it seemed like the right thing to do.

On shore Amanda and I decided that perhaps what is most amazing in this wildlife success story is the ability of osprey to adapt to our ways more quickly than we humans learned about their ways. Thirty six active nests are now found in SE Michigan in Genesee, Oakland, Lapeer, Livingston, Washtenaw, Wayne, Monroe, Lenawee, Gratiot and Hillsdale Counties. Four are on man-made nesting platforms.

The other thirty-two nests?

High up on cell towers! Perhaps osprey look at these lofty and secure sites as five-star hotels in a changing world where wildlands are vanishing but instinct tells them to nest.

Note: Michigan DNR will continue to monitor the progress of osprey in southern Michigan, a species protected by State and Federal laws including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

Jonathan Schechter is paramedic/naturalist in Brandon Township and a member of the Wilderness Medical Society. He usually writes on Outdoor Safety and First Aid. Email: oaknature@aol.com

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