Nature Talk: Osprey WU is a rare bird indeed

I have been a volunteer for various osprey-related groups for several years now.

WU just dropped off a fish at Al Flynn nest. The chicks are learning to tear the fish. Mother looks on from the left side. Photo by Ron Taube
WU just dropped off a fish at Al Flynn nest. The chicks are learning to tear the fish. Mother looks on from the left side. Photo by Ron Taube

I am currently a volunteer for the Osprey Project as part of Three Rivers Park district and it monitors nests all over the Twin Cities area.

Osprey are large raptors, only slightly smaller than bald eagles who get 99 percent of their food from fish. They often nest on man made platforms but can nest in trees or on top of power poles or even light poles.

The two nests that I am currently monitoring are about two miles apart as the osprey flies. One is atop a 125-foot power tower on the west side of the Coon Rapids Dam.

The second is on the east side of the Mississippi River atop a light fixture at Al Flynn Park in Coon Rapids.  I have several friends who monitor the nests with me and we keep each other posted as to what is going on.

One of the people in charge of the osprey project is Judy Voigt-England who has been with the project since it’s beginning in the 1980’s.

I contacted her for this article and she willingly shared what she knew of the rare bird that I am writing about.

Part of the Osprey Project’s goal is to band birds so that there movements can be monitored.

An osprey has both a state band and a federal band.  The state band typically has a letter and a number or two letters.

The bird I’m referring to in this article has the state band of WU, which was a male band and therefore born in Minnesota in 2006 and previous to our story was nesting on a nest in Plymouth until 2010 after which the nest was torn down for area construction.

In 2012 WU appeared at the nest at Al Flynn Park and he and his mate produced two chicks, both of whom fledged (or flew) Aug. 2 of last year.

The vast majority of ospreys are monogamous and can return each year to the same mate sometimes for many years. This story is an exception to that rule.

This is what has happened this year based on my notes over the season.

Due to the late spring there were few osprey sightings until the first week of April and no one seemed to be hanging around any of the nests that I was watching until April 6 when the banded male WU appeared on the nest above the light fixtures at Al Flynn Park.

He hung around the nest for two days then didn’t come back for some time. I didn’t know why for another week when I spotted him on the power tower at the Coon Rapids Dam mating with a female there.

On April 15 a female osprey arrived at Al Flynn Park and sat on the nest probably wondering where her male was. She seemed to match last year’s female that was with WU. She sits there day after day waiting and squawking.

Meanwhile, WU has set up housekeeping with another female at the tower at the Coon Rapids Dam.

There are several other osprey at various times trying to take over that nest but WU fights them all off.  Eagles come and he drives them off, too.

The female appears to be the female from last year. Her male was a banded male with the band 5D, but she has adjusted quite well to WU.

Meanwhile the female at Al Flynn Park waits.

A week later I get photos from a friend of mine taken at Al Flynn Park that shows the female there with a male.

I cannot understand it since I monitor the nest daily and haven’t seen a male there. I start checking more closely and it dawns on me that when I leave the dam, WU is often there, but there is no male at Al Flynn so maybe he might be the male at Al Flynn.

I wait at Al Flynn one day and see WU arrive and mate with her and all is honkey dory between the two of them. So he is with two females on two nests.

On April 29 I see that at the Coon Rapids Dam that the osprey are on eggs. WU and his female are taking turns incubating the eggs.

An hour later I go to Al Flynn Park and watch as WU appears and mates with the female and they are still getting along just fine.

As of Saturday, May 4 the nest at Al Flynn Park shows signs that they are also incubating eggs.  Osprey typically incubate from 35 to 40 days.

WU must provide food for both nests now as well as relieve both females from their incubating duties. He is needless to say a busy fellow.

Each nest in time produced three chicks. By mid-June three chicks have hatched at each nest and WU must feed them all.

The females can only leave the nests for a few minutes at a time.

While I did see females leave the nests on rare occasions and fish, WU was now essentially feeding nine birds including himself, several times a day.

Consequently he is rarely seen for any length of time on either nest.

I contacted Judy at Three Rivers and she tells me that there have been a few occasions when males have had two nests but never have both nests succeeded because one nest usually suffers from a lack of food and attention.

The period of growth between hatching and flying is usually around eight weeks.

On July 27 the first chick at the Coon Rapids Dam flew successfully and within the next three days the other two flew as well.

On Aug. 6 at Al Flynn Park one chick successfully flew and six days later the last one flew as well.

So now for the first time since the Osprey Project began a male osprey has produced and brought to adulthood three birds in each nest for a total of six altogether.

Judy Vogt-England wrote, “Yes, I believe it’s the only time both nests have fledged, and it is certainly the only time that I know of that one male has raised six chicks! (With the help of two very good females!)”

Now he must teach them all to fish. A very rare bird indeed.

Editor’s note: Ron Taube is a member of the Creative Writers Group at the Coon Rapids Senior Center.

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