Osprey reintroduction project continues in Clay County

Osprey reintroduction project continues in Clay County A young osprey stares back at the photographer from his temporary home. (Photo by Melissa Horton, WEI director) Clay County has a few new residents, but their presence here will not add to the school population or workforce. Instead, they have become a part of the Missouri River scenery just west of Vermillion.

Twenty six- and seven-week-old osprey arrived July 15 at the Yankton airport from Coeur d'Alene, ID. The birds are part of a project to re-introduce this fish-eating hawk along the Missouri River.

Idaho has an abundance of osprey, but they are listed as a state-threatened species in South Dakota.

After landing in Yankton, the osprey were transported by their caretakers to two separate release sites, placed into large boxes atop 16-foot towers, and then offered some food. One of the release sites is near the Clay County Lakeside Use Area.

South Dakota's Department of Game, Fish and Parks has contracted staff from Wildlife Experiences, Inc., based in Rapid City, to manage the release and care for the birds as they learn to fly and hunt on their own. Wildlife Experiences is a private, non-profit organization dedicated to helping people of all ages enjoy and learn about animals. WEI also operates a bird of prey rehabilitation program.

The birds were locked inside their "nest boxes" for about a week to 10 days. The boxes were then opened and the birds are now allowed to come and go as they please, although staff will continue to provide them with some food for a few more weeks.

Osprey are found all over the world, but in the 1970s, many of their North American populations declined, due primarily to the pesticide DDT. After the use of DDT was banned in the United States, several re-introduction projects began to re-establish affected populations of not only osprey, but also peregrine falcons and other species.

In South Dakota, osprey currently nest near Pactola Reservoir and one or two other west-river sites. However, no confirmed nest sites exist in the eastern portion of this state.

Research conducted in the mid-1990s indicated that southeastern South Dakota is the most suitable area to support osprey, based on nesting and fishing habitat, as well as other factors. The Missouri River is a natural environment for osprey to occupy, and the section of the river below Fort Randall Dam, which has been largely unchannelized, allows for suitable osprey (and bald eagle) habitat to remain.

This year, Wildlife Experiences staff built two towers with two release boxes each, one in Clay County, and one in Yankton County. The Clay County site is just west of Vermillion on public land and can be seen from a comfortable distance (for the birds) in the Clay County Lakeside Use Area parking lot. The other tower is on private land.

On July 21 four birds from the Clay County tower were fitted with "PTTs" (satellite transmitters) so that their movements can be followed for a year or more. The transmitters will provide valuable data about the birds' migration patterns and survival. All birds at both sites were also banded (USFWS bands) and color-marked for identification.

By July 22, when both boxes at the Clay County tower were opened, two birds took flight, but were retrieved and put back in the tower.

The following day, the young osprey continued to make flying attempts, mostly unsuccessful. They were retrieved and returned to the tower or a nearby perch each time they crash-landed in a dangerous or uncomfortable spot.

All birds at the Clay County tower were flapping, lifting off the platform a foot or more and preparing to fly on July 26. They have been going in and out of both boxes regularly and feeding well. The next day, one osprey made three attempts to catch fish, all unsuccessful, but he did chase off an adult bald eagle from near the tower! In the evening, another Clay County osprey began flying and returned to the tower.

By July 29 at the Clay County tower, six birds were flying. None have been seen catching their own food yet, but all are eating from the towers.

Once the osprey have learned to hunt successfully, the reintroduction project will come to an end here in southeastern South Dakota, according to Kyle Schumacher, projet supervisor.

"Most young osprey migrate to South America, where they will over-winter for two years," he said. "Once they are of breeding age and have found a mate, they usually come back to where they learned to fly and fish and will return every year thereafter."

He added that this week, one of the Clay County osprey was observed sitting on a perch eating a fish.

"We didn't see him catch it, but we assumed he did," Schumacher said.

Wildlife Experiences will continue to update the progress of the birds in Clay and Yankton counties on its Web site at www.wildlife-experiences.org.

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