published Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Rescued osprey released, but without her mate

Alix Parks holds a female Osprey at Soddy Lake park. The bird was rescued from inside of a cell phone tower last week. Alix spent the past six days rehabilitating both a male and female raptor but only the female survived.
Staff Photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press
Alix Parks holds a female Osprey at Soddy Lake park. The bird was rescued from inside of a cell phone tower last week. Alix spent the past six days rehabilitating both a male and female raptor but only the female survived. Staff Photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press

OSPREY STATS

Length: 21.3 to 22.8 inches

Wingspan: 59.1 to 70.9 inches

Weight: 49.4 to 70.5 ounces

* Osprey live near shallow water where they can hunt large fish.

*After their numbers dwindled rapidly because of DDT use, osprey have largely recovered and are not considered endangered or threatened.

*The birds live on every continent except Antarctica

Source: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

As she glided just above the surface of Chickamauga Lake Tuesday morning, it was difficult to imagine the newly released osprey scurrying around the bottom of the cellphone tower that was almost her grave.

When the bird was tossed into the air by the man who found her — tower worker Jeremy Oran — he and the group around him watched nervously to see if she would make it. The flapping of her wings could almost be heard as she skimmed along the lake’s surface.

But when she finally swooped high up into the air, the group cheered.

“It just felt great,” Oran said. “I’d seen it go through what it went through, and I was real happy to see it fly.”

The bird and her mate were found starving at the bottom of the hollow, 150-foot tower overlooking an offshoot of the lake just north of Soddy-Daisy. Sticks and small branches of what used to be their nest were stuck between the tower’s cables and inner walls.

Rescuers assume the pair lived on top of the tower — a perfect perch above the tree line. When April’s tornadoes ripped through the region, winds likely sent the two crashing to the ground where they lay trapped but uninjured, slowly starving until May 12.

The two weeks the osprey and her partner spent without food and water proved too much for the mate — he succumbed to starvation the day after he was rescued — but thanks to Oran, one member of the once-threatened species made it.

“I’m just an animal lover,” he said. “I couldn’t have slept knowing those two were in there.”

During the release Tuesday, Oran looked nervous as he was handed the bird. Nearby geese and ducks waddled away as John Stokes and Alix Parks took the osprey from her cage. She squawked and flapped her wings at first, but when she was fully removed and held against Parks’ chest, she was calm and quiet.

Trapped and starving

On May 12, Oran arrived to work on the tower. As he went about his job, he heard a scratching noise coming from two 3-by-1-foot oval holes at the tower’s base. Then he saw a small white head and yellow beak poking out.

He did his best to free the birds on his own, but the sharp-clawed predators cried out and nipped at his hand.

So Oran made a few calls and bird expert Stokes, who has more than 30 years’ experience handling the animals, brought his gear and helped net the birds.

As soon as Stokes saw the starving male bird, he knew the animal wouldn’t likely soar into the sky or plunge into the lake for fish again.

“His eyes looked a little different,” he said. “They weren’t clear. They had a glazed look.”

When the bird got to a Signal Mountain rehabilitation center, it was clear that Stokes was right. Even after getting some food and water, the male bird couldn’t muster enough energy to perch on low-to-the-ground stumps. The next evening he died.

“He just couldn’t hold on,” rehab specialist Parks said. “It was so sad.”

Males can be up to 15 percent smaller than females and, though osprey are able to go weeks without food or water, males are more susceptible to starvation, he said.

For the female, rehab was touch and go. She had to be force-fed at first, but soon started to build strength, downing more than a pound of fish a day.

Parks was happy to see the bird she nurtured for six days fly free once more. She said that’s the best part of the job.

But Tuesday’s happiness was a bit tempered.

“It was bittersweet,” she said. “I was looking forward to releasing them together.”

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