The Biscayne Times

Jan 23rd
Osprey Without a Map PDF Print E-mail
Written by Margaret Griffis, BT Contributor   
January 2018

Tale of a rescue, a long way from home

SOsprey_1tanding sentinel on a post overlooking the water, the western osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is a year-round fixture in South Florida. Its large size and contrasting white and brown feathers make it identifiable even to novice birders.

The “bandit mask” on its face is the telltale giveaway. You’ll often find this bird, talons outstretched, plucking fish from the ocean and then flying off to a tall tree or pole to devour the meal.

Like many “snowbirds,” most ospreys migrate, and their numbers surge across South Florida during winter. One osprey’s remarkable journey, however, was particularly intriguing.

On Veteran’s Day, November 11, Miami Beach Police Officer Traci Sierra was dispatched to Muss Park in Mid-Beach to check on a reported “bald eagle” in distress (ospreys can resemble juvenile bald eagles). She arrived at the park to find an osprey flopping around on the ground, unable to fly away, even when approached. The incapacitated bird was easily captured with just a T-shirt and taken to Pelican Harbor Seabird Station, which has a long-term rescue relationship with the police department.

Osprey_2According to Yaritza Acosta, rehabilitation manager at the seabird station, the osprey was dehydrated and displayed an inability to stand but was otherwise alert and active. No obvious injuries were discovered during a thorough examination, and a simple case of exhaustion remains the prevailing theory of its distress. Staff began supportive care, which included hydration, force feedings, and physical therapy to try to get it perching again.

The staff at Pelican Harbor also noticed that the osprey was wearing identification bands around its legs, so they researched the ID numbers and, to their surprise, discovered that this osprey had made a grueling trip of more than 2000 miles from a nest located along the Yellowstone River in Billings, Montana.

Although the mileage isn’t that unusual for an osprey, the direction of the flight was. Most Montana ospreys travel south to Texas, Mexico, Central America, and even into South America, according to Marco Restani, a wildlife ecology professor and researcher with the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society. This trip marks the first time one of his birds was known to have headed to the Atlantic Ocean.

Restani himself banded the osprey in July 2016, while the bird was still a nestling. The osprey then migrated southeast sometime before April 3 of this year, when it was photographed on a small island near Miami. So “19/E” (the identifying code on its green band) spent much of the last year in South Florida. Whatever made it ill happened here.

Determining the cause of 19/E’s debilitation is impossible, Restani tells Biscayne Times. The mortality rate in fledged ospreys younger than three years of age (when they reach sexual maturity) is a fairly high 70 percent, he says. Often they starve or succumb to accidents. The bird’s inexperience as a hunter could also be to blame.

Osprey_3But 19/E’s medical adventure didn’t end at the station in North Bay Village. Pelican Harbor doesn’t have a cage large enough for the “flight conditioning” of a bird this size -- osprey wingspan can exceed 70 inches. Fortunately, an appropriate pen was located at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Sanctuary. As soon as 19/E tried to fly, about two weeks after its arrival at Pelican Harbor, it was moved into the care of rehabilitation manager Shylyn Pierce down in Tavernier.

Pierce noted that 19/E was clearly happy in a larger space with less intrusive treatment. Ospreys are fairly timid birds, she says, and easily stressed by human interactions. “[Pelican Harbor] handled all the force feedings, the fluids, all the triage, and we just got to do the fun [physical therapy] with him in the flight cage,” she adds. Basically, the osprey needed to relearn how to fly in a safe environment. That process took another two weeks before 19/E was strong enough for release.

Why go through all this trouble for one bird? Christopher Boykin, executive director of Pelican Harbor Seabird Station, says he feels it is our responsibility “as stewards of the Earth to provide care to the sick, injured, and voiceless native birds and wildlife impacted as a result of our daily actions and inactions.” With that mission, the station has served more than 30,000 birds since 1980. Boykin adds, “We are hopeful that our collective efforts to save 19/E will culminate in the bird making the long journey back to the Yellowstone area to begin a family of its own next summer.”

Osprey_4The osprey also reminds us of our own vulnerability to disturbances in the natural order. Ospreys are one of the species -- along with pelicans, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and condors -- identified in the 1960s as being particularly vulnerable to human-engineered extinction. Scientists warned that the insecticide DDT was entering the food chain and thinning eggshells, causing a large reduction in raptor numbers and, possibly, affecting human health in a negative way.

The late marine biologist Rachel Carson, who wrote the best-selling Silent Spring in 1962, brought public attention to these impacts and was instrumental in advancing the environmental movement that we know today. By 1972, DDT was banned in this country owing to the ecological effects, potential risks to human reproductive health, and reduced effectiveness. As heralds of potential disaster, the ospreys have helped humans gain a cleaner environment.

Returning that favor, Officer Sierra released 19/E back to the wilds and Biscayne Bay on December 14 during a ceremony at Maurice Gibb Park on Miami Beach. Afterward, she expressed her delight in seeing the bird recuperated. “This is amazing for me,” she said. “I’m happy to see nothing has happened to it, and it’s going to live on and have a happy life.”

The release itself was a quick affair. It took only a moment for the osprey to realize it could make its escape from Sierra’s arms. It flew off south toward the towering condos of Belle Isle, bypassing a school of tasty mullet in its quest for freedom. The bird is expected to winter here for another year or possibly two before returning north to find a mate and, we hope, return in the future with a new generation of osprey.


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