ILWACO, Wash. — It was easy to lift the large dog cage from the car and carry it down to a small field near the Ilwaco High School football field on Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula.
It was easy for Liz Todd, a volunteer with the Wildlife Center of the North Coast, to carefully pull back the towels covering the cage door. It was easy to see the two osprey chicks inside staring at her through startled, orange eyes.
But then it was hard, and had been hard ever since Todd and her partner, fellow volunteer Bill Elliott, looked for the chicks’ parents earlier that morning and saw nothing.
The adult birds had been agitated for days, calling for the chicks. The volunteers thought this would make for an easy release: Anxious parents in the trees would see or hear their young and the family would be reunited. Happy ending. But now they weren’t there.
Josh Saranpaa, the wildlife center’s director, needed to make a decision. The chicks, found on the ground near this field two weeks before, had only just started flying and didn’t know how to hunt for their own food yet. Should he release the birds now and hope the parents showed up? Once they were out there would be no getting them back into the cage.
Or should he take them back to the center, release them several weeks later — by which time the parents would have migrated but the chicks would be stronger fliers — and hope they somehow learned to hunt on their own?
He had already been extraordinarily lucky with these chicks. He wondered how far he could press his luck. He told Todd to open the cage door.
The Wildlife Center of the North Coast, a nonprofit bird rehabilitation organization based just outside Astoria, sees at least one gull a week — sometimes more — and between six and 13 bald eagles a year. Last week, a handful of pelicans clustered in the corner of one enclosure. Birds come to the center malnourished, stranded, abandoned, injured. In the nine years Saranpaa has been there, he has only seen a dozen osprey.
People found the two chicks a day apart near Ilwaco High School. If they hadn’t been found, they would have starved or died from exposure, Saranpaa said.
Osprey are a conservation success story, rebounding from population crashes in the 1950s and 1970s linked to the use of pesticides like DDT. There are a number of nests around Ilwaco High School. Nearby Black Lake, stocked regularly with fish, the fields and the surrounding woods are attractive habitat to these birds known for their long wings and exquisite dives for fish.
Osprey are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. It is illegal to remove a nest if it contains eggs or chicks. However, if a nest is empty, people are allowed remove it.
An Ocean Beach School District maintenance crew had removed one osprey nest from a set of stadium lights the day the first chick was found, said Superintendent Jenny Risner. Before they removed the nest, they had watched it for several weeks to make sure it was empty, she said.
Osprey often build their large nests on man-made structures like the Ilwaco football stadium lights. They’ve also been known to build nests on communication towers and distribution poles. Most of the time, people can wait until the nesting season is over and remove the nest after the osprey have left. But, if a nest’s location threatens human safety or the birds’ safety, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Rylan Suehisa said the agency can issue a depredation permit. Rehabilitation groups will take the birds to raise and release them and crews will remove the nest.
At Ilwaco High School, the two young birds, so eager to get out of the cage earlier, now eyed the field suspiciously. They settled down at the back of the cage and refused to budge.
Todd took out binoculars and scanned the treetops. Saranpaa jiggled the cage gently. The osprey chicks just hunched their shoulders.
Saranpaa reached in and slowly, carefully pulled one chick out. The chick sprawled on the grass, cocking its head to glare at the volunteers. Then, in a blink, it was off, flying low over the ground and then soaring above the field. Saranpaa reached in for the second bird.
Soon both osprey were circling the field, still a little clumsy on their newfound wings. One of them emitted a piercing baby bird’s cry. Saranpaa and the volunteers watched, happy to see the birds fly but nervous about their chances of survival if the parents were gone.
Then suddenly two adult osprey appeared above the trees. One carried a small fish in its talons. They cried at the younger birds and soared around them. Soon, all four osprey were gone, heading in the direction of the lake.
“That was a good one,” Saranpaa said, visibly relived as he carried the dog cage back to his car. “That’s what we were hoping for.”
Several days later, Todd reported that she and Elliott watched four osprey — two adults and two juveniles — fly around Black Lake. One of the young birds had just caught a fish.