Sunday, July 28, 2013

Southern Michigan ospreys to be tracked by satellite

Few wildlife restoration programs have been more successful than Michigan’s effort to
A pair of young ospreys -- with the male, on the left, sporting a GPS transmitter -- look out from their nest on Kent Lake at Kensington Metropark
reintroduce osprey to southern Michigan. Starting in 1998, when some northern Michigan birds were moved to the Kensington Metropark in Livingston and Oakland counties, the DNR and a number of partner organizations have seen osprey numbers jump significantly across the southern third of the state.

“Our goal was to have 30 breeding pairs in southern Michigan by 2020,” said DNR wildlife biologist Julie Oakes. “We were over 50 as of this year. We’ve definitely been very successful.”

Now, the DNR and volunteers are taking the program a step further, installing GPS-tracking transmitters on young male ospreys to see where and how they migrate.

“A lot of our people were interested in where they go and what route they take,” Oakes said. “We know they go to Central or South America, but where they go exactly, we don’t know. And we don’t know if they go down the East Coast or down through Mexico.

“We’re going to get some good biological information out of this, no doubt, and that’ll be a blast for us, but I think the fun part of this is the outreach.”

Osprey enthusiasts are optimistic that the program, which will track the birds and display their whereabouts on the Internet, will engage young people who have become disconnected from the natural world.

A team of biologists and volunteers from Osprey Watch of Southeast Michigan recently installed a transmitter on three young male ospreys: one that was hatched at Kensington, one from Estral Beach near Monroe and another that hatched on a cell tower near Pinckney. Biologists track males because they will return to the area where they hatched. Females typical disperse after their initial migration.

Ospreys typically leave in the fall and remain in their wintering habitat for two years, returning north when they reach breeding age. Brian Washburn, a wildlife research biologist who works for the United States Department of Agriculture, came to Kensington from his office in Sandusky, Ohio, to help install a transmitter on a young osprey dubbed “Independence.”

Washburn, who has been working with osprey along the East Coast for a number of years, attached a “backpack” transmitter on Independence. The transmitter, about the size of a nine-volt battery with a 7-inch antenna, was placed in a harness created of tubular Kevlar ribbon attached to the transmitter, which was tied around the bird’s wings and under his breast. The ribbon will ideally last for a number of years before it breaks down and the transmitter drops off.

Ospreys, Washburn said, are ideal candidates for tracking with solar-powered transmitters because they stay out in the open – not under canopies – and winter in sunny climes that will continue to charge the battery.

The longest Washburn has tracked an osprey is about 2 ½ years, he said, though he has a bald eagle that’s had a transmitter on it for more than five. The ospreys he’s tracked, which were adults, were from the Chesapeake Bay area and went to Venezuela for two winters.

Independence was recently removed from his nest and fitted with a transmitter. While the crew did its work, Sarah Woodhouse, a veterinarian from the Detroit Zoo, gave the osprey the once-over. She checked his eyes, looked for parasites, listened to his respiratory system and, finally, took a blood sample to get DNA “just to make sure he’s really a boy.”

After the procedure, the osprey was returned to the nesting platform where he had hatched, in a shallow bay on Kent Lake.

Oakes gave kudos to Barb Jensen of Osprey Watch for her efforts to secure funding for the transmitters.

“Without Barb, none of this would have happened,” Oakes said. “She initiated it. She’s the one who got the funding for the transmitters.”

A former school teacher, Jensen helped organized Osprey Watch, along with Eric Schmitt, in 2002, after the successful breeding of the trans-located ospreys. Jensen said she thought putting transmitters on the birds, which will send signals to a satellite, would be an excellent way to engage youth in the effort because of the computer and Internet applications.

Jensen spent a couple of years chasing funding. She approached American Tower Corporation – upon whose towers a number of birds nested – and they chipped in to fund two transmitters.

Then she attained funding for another transmitter from DTE Energy, which installs nesting
USDA biologist Brain Washburn fits a young osprey with a transmitter while DNR biologist Julie Oakes handles the bird.
platforms near areas where the birds nest on power-line towers. This year, a pair of birds nested on a DTE power pole near Pte. Mouillee State Game Area in Wayne and Monroe counties. DTE workers and volunteers successfully moved the birds to a nesting platform, built by Boy Scouts, on the game area.

“It’s been a wonderful cooperative venture by a number of groups.” Jensen said.

At any given time in the spring and summer, a group of osprey enthusiasts can be found watching and photographing the birds as they reproduce. The volunteers keep the DNR informed about the birds’ whereabouts and breeding progress.

Deidre Smith of Highland is one such volunteer.

A young male osprey, dubbed "Independence," shows off his new backpack transmitter.

“I saw an osprey on a tower near my home and I got on the Internet and got involved,” Smith said. “Someone asked me if I got paid for my effort. I say, ‘My grandchildren will be able to see these birds. That’s my pay.’ ”
DNR biologist Julie Oakes hands an osprey, newly fitted with a GPS transmitter, to DNR technician Jim Pulley to be returned to the nest.

For more information on Osprey Watch of southeast Michigan, visit

To learn more about the DNR's efforts to conserve and manage Michigan's nongame species, supported by the Nongame Wildlife Fund, visit