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baltimoresun.com

Ospreys accept state's relocation offer

Persistent fish hawks give up nesting in front of Bay Bridge traffic cameras, settle on platform built for them nearby

By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

8:07 PM EDT, April 24, 2014

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The battle between birds and bureaucrats is over — and both sides won.

With a helping hand from a state carpenter, an osprey couple finally got a home with a view of the water on the eastern end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

And the Maryland Transportation Authority, which manages the toll facility, finally got the pesky birds to stop nesting in front of cameras that keep an eye on traffic on busy U.S. 50 below.

It's a happy ending to a story that has gone viral over the last several days, generating buzz on social media and even attracting the attention of CNN and Fox News.

Since late last week, the bridge's keepers have been engaged in a test of wills with the fish hawks, which seemed oddly drawn to settle down in full view of the video cameras mounted on a steel gantry over the highway. Three times, the mating pair began piling branches and twigs in front of a camera monitoring eastbound traffic, and three times bridge workers removed the nascent nest.

An authority spokesman said the nest had to go because the camera is needed to keep tabs on traffic conditions. The agency also said it was worried that sticks or chicks — if the birds got that far — might fall onto the highway below, possibly causing an accident.

Ospreys like to nest in high places close to the water, according to biologists, and they can be very persistent, especially if they've nested successfully in that spot before.

John Sales, an authority spokesman, said bridge workers remember ospreys nesting on the gantry last year, too, just not in front of the cameras.

The ospreys' situation captivated the public and got picked up by many media outlets, including The Baltimore Sun. People peppered the authority's Facebook and Twitter pages with appeals to leave the birds alone. Some suggested the agency simply move the cameras.

After the third eviction on Tuesday, with no indication that the birds were giving up, the authority called in an expert. Craig Koppie, a raptor specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, suggested the birds could be persuaded to relocate if they were offered a platform nearby on which to build their nest. Sales said authority officials were looking into it and likely would follow the biologist's suggestion by the end of the week.

But the ospreys forced the state's hand. On Wednesday, the birds shifted their nest building from the camera over eastbound U.S. 50 to the one on the other side of the highway watching westbound traffic. So a carpenter with the authority set to work that day, fashioning a shallow box four feet by four feet, with sides a few inches high. The box was to go up Thursday morning.

Not a moment too soon; the birds began building their fourth nest with a vengeance early Thursday morning, before the new platform could go up. Through the morning rush hours, the birds showed up repeatedly in the live camera feed, piling branches higher.

Workers moved in once commuter traffic eased and placed the box atop the gantry, securing it with metal straps. Then it was moving time —the branches the birds had assembled by the camera were shifted to the new box atop the platform.

The federal biologist had said he was sure the ospreys would be happy with their new home, especially if it was baited with some of the branches the birds had collected. Within minutes of the nest's relocation, one of the ospreys landed on the new platform. They departed, only to return with more nesting material.

By late morning, one of the birds settled down in the box for about 30 minutes, while the other circled overhead briefly before flying off. And the authority, with its traffic monitors now free of obstruction, turned one of its cameras periodically on the new nest.

"Everything is going great," proclaimed Tamory Winfield, another authority spokesman.

The birds could not be reached for comment.

While it's unlikely the birds really were seeking publicity by squatting in front of the lens, the authority has promised to give a hungry public the chance to check in on the nest at lunchtime on most weekdays. From noon to 12:15 p.m. Monday through Thursday, the near traffic camera will be turned on the osprey nest, Winfield said.

The "osprey cam" can be viewed at chart.state.md.us/travinfo/trafficcams.php#

The camera with the nest is WPL C-501 AT GANTRY N-1 in the Annapolis area.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com