2013 Year in Review: Dr. Kelli Knight, Certified Wildlife Rehabilitator

It’s time to look back on 2013! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2013 from the staff, students, and volunteers of the Wildlife Center.

It was a surreal moment ... was I really standing on the top of a cherry picker, 30 feet up in the air overlooking beautiful Smith Mountain Lake, with an Osprey in my hands? Just a few minutes prior, I was questioning my decision to volunteer to re-nest two young Ospreys on what seemed like the hottest day of the year. Suddenly, in the cherry picker, I forgot that my clothes were stuck to me and I had just driven two hours in a non air-conditioned Subaru that felt like a sauna. As I lifted the young Osprey over my head and placed it back in its nest, I knew that this was a moment to cherish and remember.

July 7th was a typical busy summer day at WCV and I was the wildlife rehabilitator on duty that Sunday. We got a call that two Ospreys were coming in after falling out of their nest at Smith Mountain Lake. There was much abuzz about their admission because they were born on the State Park’s “Osprey Cam”. When viewers noticed the nest was empty, park staff initiated a search and found two chicks on the ground [the third bird was never located]. Theories were plentiful about why these babies prematurely left the nest. Did one fledge and the other two follow? Did the Fourth of July fireworks scare them? No one will ever know but, as fate would have it, there were now two Osprey fledglings at WCV in need of rehabilitation.

The initial examination of both chicks showed no major injuries from the fall, so both birds were deemed healthy young birds. I’ve successfully raised and released many different raptor species during my career but these were my first baby Ospreys. Unfortunately, this species comes with a reputation for being very high stress, unwilling to eat, and difficult to raise in captivity, so I knew we had our hands full. I started by learning as much as I could about their natural history to best formulate a plan for their housing and nutrition.

In order to minimize their contact with humans, one of our outdoor C-pens was set up for them with a jungle gym of low perches and platforms. These Ospreys were close to fledging but couldn’t fly yet, so they needed to be able to hop and flutter from perch to perch. An allometric food calculator was used to determine their daily caloric need based on their body weights at admission (1.21 kg and 1.29 kg). Ospreys are unusual among raptors for being piscivores, meaning their diet consists almost exclusively of fish. Taking into count the kcal/gram for the types of fish we had on hand -- silversides, herring, and menhaden -- we calculated that 180 grams of fish should be offered each day. The fish meal was prepared, and we offered the chicks some whole-food items as well as chopped pieces of fish; some fish pieces were placed on a plate on the ground and others in a shallow tub of water in their enclosure. Despite the smorgasbord, the Osprey chicks didn’t eat anything during their first 24 hours at WCV. This wasn’t surprising considering their parents were still feeding them in the nest, so tease-feeding was attempted (offering the fish pieces to the Osprey from tongs) but the babies still wouldn’t eat.

At Monday morning rounds, we discussed the two Ospreys. Everyone was concerned about trying to raise these chicks at the Center. Luckily, State Park officials had remained in close communication and reported that the parents were still circling the nest. Considering the nest was in a known location, the parents were close by, and these babies were healthy, we decided the Osprey chicks' best chance for survival was to return them to the nest. No small feat, considering the nest was 30 feet up in the air! State Park officials were willing to clear the area to get access to the nest and rent a tow behind a boom lift that would reach the nest. WCV staff would be responsible for transporting and handling the Ospreys in order to place them back into the nest safely. We formulated a plan to drive the chicks back to Smith Mountain Lake the next morning, since time was of the essence. I eagerly volunteered for what sounded like an exciting adventure.

Bright and early on a sweltering Tuesday morning, the Ospreys were packed up, along with a car full of people from the Wildlife Center, including Kristin, our new vet intern; Becca, one of my rehab externs; Jess, a vet tech extern; and me. We all had the day off from work and couldn’t think of a better way to spend it. We quickly realized that the air conditioning was broken in the Center’s Subaru, but good company made for a fun trip despite the heat. During the drive we discussed all the “what ifs?” What if they jump again when we put them back in the nest, what if the parents don’t come back, what if ... ?

We arrived around 11 am and the State Park officials already had the cherry picker in place. Kristin and I each grabbed an Osprey out of their crates and got into the lift. As we got higher and higher the view of the lake was unbelievable and I realized these Ospreys had some prime real estate. A bag of fish that we brought along was dumped into the nest which would hopefully entice mom and dad to come back. It was the moment of truth. We lifted the babies over our heads into the nest and quickly ducked down so they would not see us at nest level. I held my breath and time seemed to stand still. Moments passed and the Osprey stayed put. I peeked up and saw them start preening and began to hear vocalizations. Even though I had no idea what the chicks were saying, I had read that researchers have identified up to five different Osprey calls and I was hoping this one was “Mom!”. I also noticed their demeanor and body language had completely changed from when they were in our C-pens. As we slowly descended down in the lift back to ground level, I remember thinking that they seemed happy. I was happy as well to have been a part of this unforgettable moment.

We quickly left the nest area, all smiles and feeling satisfied that part one of our re-nesting was triumphant. I immediately sent out an email to all the employees at WCV with just one word “SUCCESS”! I could practically hear the collective roar at the Center from two hours away sharing in our delight. Now we would have to wait to see if the parents would come back. Luckily they didn’t make us wait long. Within 30 minutes, mom Osprey was back in the nest reunited with her babies and enjoying the fish buffet we left behind. I can only imagine her anger after her chicks went missing, and her joy and relief at their return. This is wildlife rehabilitation at its best because no one can raise an animal better than its natural parents.

The Osprey re-nesting at Smith Mountain Lake was captured on State Park’s “Osprey Cam”:

-Dr. Kelli

Keep checking the Wildlife Center's blog for more year-end posts this week!

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