The osprey is a fish-eating hawk that is found on nearly every continent. Earlier this month, bird watchers in Bethel spotted some ospreys building a nest atop an electrical utility pole in Bethel. A few weeks later, the nest was gone. Bethel birders demanded answers. The utility company said that the nest was removed to prevent a bigger tragedy.
For many years, Bethel birder Fred Broerman has seen ospreys nesting in trees along the Kuskokwim River. But in the last few years, some birds decided to give urban living a try. Broerman said that he spotted ospreys building a nest atop utility poles in Bethel between Blueberry Subdivision and H-Marker Lake.
“This happens all over,” Broerman said. “It's not, you know, something new or odd.”
A former biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Broerman said that ospreys are an opportunistic bird, and are commonly known to nest on utility poles. Ospreys are migratory, and a few weeks ago they returned to the same utility pole and started building a large nest. Then, on May 21, the nest disappeared. Joe Joe Prince, another birder, was the first to notice it missing.
“When I seen that nest down, that got me angry,” Prince said. “And I have a bird group on Facebook that we post pictures in there. And that got everybody upset about that, because they’re nesting.”
Birders soon learned what had happened: Alaska Village Electric Co-op (AVEC), the utility that owns the pole, had knocked it down because it was a safety concern.
“I definitely don't want to disrupt any nesting birds. It's one of those things that you have to do to keep power on and keep the rest of the town safe,” said Lenny Welch, Bethel Operations Manager for AVEC. He said that he had to remove the nest when he saw smoke coming from it. The nest was making contact with the power lines, and causing the utility pole to burn as well.
“It was only a matter of time before the birds ended up cooking themselves up there and the tundra catch on fire, pole line fall down,” Welch said.
With the nest right next to lines carrying 7,200 volts of electricity, Welch said that AVEC workers had no way of inspecting the nest before knocking it down. When it dropped to the ground on May 24, they saw how huge it was: almost 50 pounds of sticks. In that pile, workers discovered a casualty: the remnants of two osprey eggs.
“I was there and it doesn't feel good. You don't like that at all,” Welch said.
Danny Nelson, another Bethel birder, was also disturbed to hear the news. He said that the utility company’s action might have been illegal.
“If there are eggs in it and it is an active nest, then they definitely need to talk to [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife and get the proper permit to remove it. They can't just knock it down,” Nelson said.
Osprey population numbers are not threatened according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but they are federally protected under the Migratory Birds Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website shows that a permit is required to destroy or relocate an active migratory bird nest. An active nest is defined as having one or more eggs in it. There are specific permits issued to utility companies in cases where the safety of the birds are at risk, or there is a threat to human safety or the risk of a power outage.
Welch said that he did not have time to get a permit with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before taking down the nest given that it is fire season.
“That was my fault. I had many things going on, trying to keep the pole from burning down,” Welch said. “But those birds, as you could see from the photo, they probably would never have made it to the hatching or maturity at the rate that pole was being burned.”
Welch said that the nest caused several thousand dollars in damage. And while workers replace those parts, the entire west side of Bethel, including the airport, Larson and Kasuyuli subdivisions, and all of Napakiak, will lose power. Welch said that the planned outage is scheduled for June 14 from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.
As for the ospreys, they haven’t given up on utility poles. Welch said that they began rebuilding their nest atop the utility pole again after the last one was removed, but AVEC has a plan.
Welch fashioned a homemade platform out of steel and wood, which was installed on a utility pole near the original nest away from power lines. The hope is that the birds will build their nest on this platform, preventing any future heartache, loss of life, or power.