BILLINGS – The geese were already there for the celebration, about 50 of them scattered across the snowy field, emitting an occasional festive, brass-horn honk.
Then two bald eagles winged past, the avian answer to a low-elevation fighter jet flyover.
But the celebrities of the day, a mating pair of ospreys, weren’t in attendance, even though the four men toiling in the spring muck Wednesday to erect a nesting platform atop an old power pole were working on their behalf.
“The first week in April, they’ll start showing up along the Yellowstone River,” said Deb Regele, of the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society.
And this spring when they finally do arrive, the fish hawks will have two new platforms about three miles apart upon which to nest. The sites are south of the Yellowstone River between Duck Creek Bridge and the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone.
Osprey successfully nested at each location last year, but they did so atop power poles, and that caused problems. So the old nests were removed and the new platforms were erected. Guards will be placed on the old poles to discourage more nest building.
“Getting a safe nesting structure is beneficial all around,” Regele said.
Regele was one of the people involved in organizing the power pole raising on Wednesday. Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative agreed to do the work of erecting the pole and platform at no cost, although in the past, Audubon has shared the expense. And 15-year-old Sean Ellis, a Boy Scout working toward his Eagle rank, helped build the platforms and will take part in monitoring one of the new nesting sites.
“This is really exciting this year to get a Scout interested in it,” Regele said.
Jerry Ellis, Sean’s father and the operations and engineering manager for YVEC, said it’s actually cheaper for the utility company to pay to erect the nesting platforms than to dispatch folks to repair a line after an outage caused by an osprey nest sagging onto a live electrical line. Grass fires caused by a nest that catches fire are another concern.
Regele said there are almost 100 osprey nests that her group knows of between Gardiner and Miles City along the Yellowstone River, a distance of about 315 miles by highway.
Ospreys typically mate for life and will return to the same nest for years.
Jerry Ellis said if crews see the hawks building a nest they can knock down the structures and the birds will move on. But once the nest is built and the eggs are laid, YVEC has to wait until the chicks fledge to remove a nest, unless it’s causing a problem.
“Ospreys are pretty selective about where they nest,” Jerry Ellis said. “They like poles because they are out in the open. They don’t like to be close to trees.”
Regele explained that’s because great horned owls are the osprey’s most common predator. Staying away from trees and owl habitat makes the nesting sites easier for the hawks to protect.
Sean Ellis said his fellow Troop 7 Scouts at First Methodist Church helped build the platforms out of the ends of old wire spools, leaving bolts and twigs attached to secure a nest. The platforms weigh about 200 pounds and were bolted onto 45-foot tall power poles weighing about 1,200 pounds that were buried around 8 feet deep.
Sean had to earn 21 merit badges to qualify for his Eagle Scout rank, including in emergency preparedness, cooking and wilderness survival. His favorite, though, was his craftsman badge, which he earned by building a large model of a wooden match that can be used as a fire starter.
Not the first time
The utility company and Audubon chapter have worked together in the past to replace problem nests on power poles with free-standing poles and platforms, such as the site south of Laurel on Highway 212 called the Osprey Outpost and at Duck Creek fishing access site, Regele said.
The group also monitors ospreys by banding the chicks so that their travels can be followed. For instance, Regele said two Yellowstone birds showed up in Texas this winter. That’s not unusual since young birds fly south for about three years before returning to near their birth area to nest.
Ospreys have also been the subject of a three-year-study by the Yellowstone River Research Center at Rocky Mountain College. That study is examining blood drawn from the birds to determine if pollutants in the Yellowstone River are showing up in the birds via their main food source – fish.
Like the more well-known bald eagle, ospreys nearly became extinct because of widespread use of the pesticide DDT between 1950 and 1970. Since the chemical was banned in 1972, both birds have rebounded. The bald eagle, once listed as an endangered species in the lower 48 states, was announced recovered in 2007.