Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Saturday, April 23, 2016

Dancing With Osprey

They are back! The vacation is over. Our Union Bay Osprey have returned.

I have started thinking of them as Chester and Lacey. Do you notice any distinguishing features? Can you tell which is which?

From a relaxation perspective, it may be unfair to call a self-propelled, round-trip flight to Central or South America a vacation. They travel thousands of miles over a constantly changing landscape, through a wide variation of weather, while incessantly searching for food - almost always fish. 

Unlike eagles, who only pick up fish from the water's surface, osprey will hover a hundred feet above the water and then dive headfirst. At the last moment, their feet flash forward and with their head between their legs, they hit the water. In spite of the impact, they can end up as much as 3 feet below the surface. Their fishing efficiency is unsurpassed.

While their migrations are hard work, their winter sojourns are a vacation from familial responsibilities. When they leave in the fall the young do not travel with the parents. In addition, the adult pair do not spend their winters together. They go their separate ways. In the spring they head north, reunite and begin the the nesting process. Oddly, osprey pair-bonds may keep the birds together for multiple years, but only during the months centered around summer time and reproduction. 

By the way, Chester has the pure white chest, which is common for a male osprey, while Lacey is the one who appears to be trying to hide her speckled necklace of brown spots, which are strung across her white breast.

You may be wondering why I believe these are the same two osprey that visited Union Bay last summer. In addition to their pair bond, they are once again fixated on the same light pole on the southwest corner of the University of Washington soccer field. It seems almost fitting, since soccer may be the most universal sport in the world and osprey may be the most universally distributed raptor on the planet. 

Last year, the osprey were never able to get their branches to balance on the rounded, metallic surfaces of the lights. Without a nest, they were frustrated and unable to reproduce.

This year, after only a few days they are already way ahead of last year. (Maybe they spent the winter practicing on light poles above Brazilian soccer fields.)

Last Sunday as the sun was setting, Chester even carried a piece of sod up to the nest. Sod helps to form a secure cup for holding eggs and nestlings.

The osprey's apparent success cuts two ways. On the positive side, they appear ready and able to become parents. Which means that over the summer we should get to watch their young learn to feed, fly and fish-for-themselves. To my knowledge, osprey reproduction has not happened on Union Bay for at least five years.

On the negative side, the osprey have ignored the nesting platform which was generously constructed last year. (Harassment from red-winged blackbirds may have contributed to the osprey's reluctance.) The University of Washington Athletic department graciously funded the platform and pole, the Union Bay Natural Area (UBNA) happily provided the site and Jim Kaiser, from Osprey Solutions, provided the expertise and guidance.

The UBNA seemed like an optimal location for a number of reasons. The osprey would have been closer to the water where they fish. The location would have provided local birders with another exciting opportunity when visiting the natural area. Plus, the University of Washington would not have had to worry about fish entrails, osprey excrement and large sticks endangering their students or fans. 

Unfortunately, the light pole, which the osprey like best, is almost directly above the entrance to the new Husky Baseball Field. During the next few weeks there is a small window of opportunity for the nest to be relocated. With special permission and great care, it may be possible to relocate the nest before Lacey lays eggs.

To increase the odds of success, Jim is suggesting a three-part approach. The first step is to install a nesting platform, away from the blackbirds and closer to the snags along the lower portion of Ravenna Creek, which is often referred to as University Slough. The snags provide the dead branches that the osprey use in their nest building. The second step is to move the branches from their soccer field site, onto the new platform. The final step would be to install a deflector on the light pole above the soccer field that will stop the osprey from nesting on that pole.

There are no guarantees that this approach will be successful. Harmony with nature requires work, investment and persistence. Wild creatures have freewill and are driven by urges and desires we do not fully understand. Finding a mutual solution is almost like a dance. Both parties make moves which ultimately determine their combined trajectory.

Chester and Lacey are fortunate to have chosen the most prestigious university in the state as the site for their nest. According to the Board of Regents, the primary mission of the University of Washington is, "...the preservation, advancement and dissemination of knowledge.."  Finding a solution, which protects the health of the students and also enables our Union Bay osprey to reproduce, will demonstrate patience, persistence and wisdom, while also providing the ultimate teaching moment.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where osprey choose to nest in the city!



  1. Here's hoping that the nest can be relocated. I can't see success atop the light pole!

    1. I am afraid, even if it was left in place, the lights could start the nest on fire.

  2. I like all the thought process and alternatives to persuade the birds to change location.

    1. Thank you. It really does feel like it is a dance that requires lots of patience and empathy for all involved.