Education takes flight with pair of ospreys who nest near school

Teacher Linda Reese has been photographing the returning ospreys for several years. Photo by Linda Reese

Teacher Linda Reese has been photographing the returning ospreys for several years. Photo by Linda Reese

By Marcy Stamper 

A pair of ospreys have shown remarkably faithful attendance at school, returning for the fourth year to raise a brood of chicks in a nest perched 40 feet above the athletic fields. The ospreys have three eggs this year, which are expected to hatch in early June.

Students at Methow Valley Elementary School, who regularly track the progress of the birds, voted this year to christen the female “Twilight” and the male “Midnight Thunder.”

The ospreys first arrived during spring break in 2011 and built a nest atop one of the lights at the tennis courts. While this may have been a prime spot from the perspective of the birds, it created difficulties for the school, since they could not turn on the lights all summer, according to fourth-grade teacher Linda Reese.

“Otherwise, they would have went ‘poof,’ and then—chicken dinner,” explained one of Reese’s students.

The following year the school district enlisted technicians with expertise in aerial projects from the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative and one of their bucket trucks. The crew helped build a new platform on a 40-foot power pole and installed it a few feet from the original light pole. They also took the opportunity to set up a camera so that staff and students could watch the birds as three chicks hatched and fledged, said Reese.

The birds’ activity has been integrated into classes at both the elementary and high schools. Reese, who has taken many close-up photos of the birds and their young, often streams the video during class. Last week they watched as the male brought a fish to the nest, but the female flew away and ate it elsewhere, according to Reese’s students, who have been avidly monitoring the birds for six weeks.

“We got to watch when she laid the eggs—she was flapping her wings for a couple of seconds,” said one girl in Reese’s class. The students get glimpses of the eggs when the two birds swap positions. “The female puts fuzzy stuff around the eggs before she sits down,” said another student.

Liberty Bell High School biology teacher Lisa Monahan plans to include the ospreys when her class studies animal classification later this year. They will learn about the similarities and differences between ospreys and other raptors in terms of physical and functional characteristics.

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Well-adapted

The birds apparently adapted well to their new home, since they have returned in early April the past two years and laid two or three eggs each year. The nest has expanded as the ospreys deck it out with more material.

Although both sexes collect materials for the nest, the female assembles most of the materials. Osprey nests are typically constructed of sticks and lined with softer materials, such as grasses and whatever else may be on hand, according to a website about animal diversity maintained by the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, which Monahan uses as a resource in her classes.

In fact, in many cases, nests built on artificial structures are more stable than those on trees and other natural structures, meaning that more young successfully fledge each season.

This year, the electric co-op helped install a new camera at the end of March, a few weeks before the birds arrived. The new camera has an infrared feature so that people can watch the birds’ activity at night, and many of Reese’s students said they check the web cam from home.

Live footage from the camera is transmitted wirelessly 24 hours a day to the high school, and then beamed around the world via the Ustream website. Paul Brown, the technology coordinator for the school district, put together the set-up—the web cam and a dedicated computer at the school—for about $250. Brown can pan and tilt the camera remotely to provide the best view of the ospreys.

The camera is mounted about three feet above the nest. While ospreys are not considered endangered, they are protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act, so any work on the camera or platform must be done after the birds have left and before they return the following year.

Viewers can post comments about the birds on the Ustream website. Current comments are from local observers and others who may even be in Central or South America, where the ospreys spend the winter. Observations include “papa just came by to help fluff up the nest” and “Twilight just got off her eggs for a few seconds.” The female can be identified by her darker plumage and a more defined “necklace” of mottled brown spots.

The young fledge when they are between 48 and 76 days old. Last year they took their first flights out of the nest around the first of August, said Reese. Students and staff will be able to watch the adults and fledglings flying to and from the nest when school starts again in the fall.

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Sam Wottlin, left, and Dean Pfitzer hold one of the posters their fourth-grade class made to promote the osprey-naming contest. Photo by Marcy Stamper

Sam Wottlin, left, and Dean Pfitzer hold one of the posters their fourth-grade class made to promote the osprey-naming contest. Photo by Marcy Stamper

Osprey adaptations

Among the features Monahan’s class will study are ospreys’ adaptations, such as extra-long legs and a reversible outer toe, to help the birds grip slippery fish, which make up almost all of the birds’ diet.

Ospreys will eat any type of fish that is easily accessible, although they do have some preferences—they generally start eating at the head and work toward the tail, according to the University of Michigan website.

Ospreys are generally monogamous and both the male and female care for the young. The male delivers three to 10 fish per day once the chicks hatch, and usually eats at least part of the fish before delivering the rest to the female and the chicks. The parents continue to feed the young for two to eight weeks even after they fledge.

Because ospreys are a relatively long-lived species (the oldest documented individuals in North America were well into their third decade, although it is rare for them to survive that long), the school may host a regular breeding pair for years to come. And since the nests are used by the same pair for many years, the birds vigorously defend them against intruders, according to the University of Michigan website.

Nevertheless, the nest at the school may also come in handy for other species. Smaller birds, including starlings, swallows and sparrows, often build nests within osprey nests, and larger species may use the nest during the spring until the ospreys return. 

The web cam can be accessed from the school district’s home page at methow.org. Click on “osprey cam!” at the bottom of the list of quick links on the right side of the home page. It will take you to Ustream, where you can watch the birds and offer comments; however, some older web browsers are not compatible with Ustream. The web cam can also be accessed directly here.