She was a determined mother, circling and circling Tuesday morning.
But Monday’s night storm took out her nest, and by the time the humans came to check on it, the babies that landed at the foot of the tree had been killed by predators.
Steve Shepherd, who reported on Facebook about an osprey nesting pair that he has been watching for years, heard the nest was destroyed by the storm that blew through.
He said his cousin, living on what is Shepard private property across Graveline Road from Shepard State Park in south Gautier, said he believed a waterspout might have come through during the rough weather.
Walking the property on Tuesday morning and cutting a downed tree, Shepard told the Sun Herald it didn’t touch down, but it took the tops out of some of the pines.
And it took the nest.
The male osprey was sitting on what was left of the nest, in the top of an old pine tree that was killed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and already was leaning.
The female, an older bird, was circling the area around the downed nest. She was relentless.
Shepard said friends had warned him not to touch any babies he might find. His cousin found a wildlife rescue group ready to take the babies, if he could locate them.
What he found broke his heart.
Two half-grown chicks, the size of chickens, that were sprouting feathers and had been well on their way to growing up were dead, likely killed on the ground by racoons or possums. They were half eaten.
Locating a home
The real tale is about the mother osprey and what he thinks is a lack of good nesting sites around the state park and the area of Lamotte Bayou.
“I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say she’s been around almost 20 years,” he said. Four times she has nested in the area.
Shepard’s family home is on the property and he visits it often.
For years after Katrina, the female fished the shallow waters around the Shepard property and ate, but didn’t nest, Shepard said.
(Osprey, known as fish hawks, are medium-sized, brown-and-white raptors that you see flapping to remain in one location in the air before they dive for a fish they’ve spotted near the shore of the Mississippi Sound or up river. They regularly patrol the beaches.)
As the tall pines died out after Katrina, they may have offered a more appropriate site for the osprey pair to nest, he guessed, “but all of a sudden they started building nests, for the last four years for sure.”
The reason he knows her so well is that she perched in front of his parent’s home.
“She is distinctive, a large bird,” he said. “She is aggressive with the young bald eagles. She drives them out. The immatures come here and she harasses them until they leave.”
He said she is about as big as the smallest bald eagle he has seen.
Shepard was worried about the tree the pair picked for the latest nest.
Osprey nests look like huge piles of limbs in the tops of dead trees, on cell towers, in stadium lights or on telephone poles. Ospreys prefer nest sites in open surroundings so they can easily approach them with food for the chick.
The tree is leaning over the marsh. It had been a beautiful old-growth loblolly pine, 60 to 80 feet tall. The bark is peeling and only the heart of the wood is left in spots, he said. The nest was in the very top.
“It seems like a fragile place to build a nest, but they chose it about three years ago and refused to give it up, even though the tree continued to get weaker and weaker,” he said.
It looked like she would succeed
“I’ve seen her completely raise at least two families,” he said.
The tree she had before that, nearby, completely failed during a storm that took the tree as well as the nest.
That was at least four years ago, and he found no babies then.
“The next year, she started on this tree,” he said about the leaning pine. “She’s had at least two chicks each year.
“This year, it looked like she was going to succeed again, until this blow came in.”
Shepard said you could see the osprey nest in the leaning pine from the Graveline Road fishing pier and the bridge over Lamotte Bayou on Graveline Road.
And he would keep tabs on the the nesting progress — watching them reworking the nest each year and raising the chicks — as he drove through that area. He was afraid that watching them from his mother’s porch would disturb the nesting, because it was so close.
“They have incredible eyesight,” he said.
“I’ve seen this mother get on that nest, spread her wings and shade those babies,” he said.
The tree leans over the marsh, but when the violent winds hit the nest, the baby birds fell on land at the edge of the marsh.
The nest was mostly oak limbs scattered in a large area, with the young osprey in the middle, he said.
They fell about 12 feet apart.
“It seemed like a twister came through, but high up,” he said looking at the storm debris left on the property, scattered in different directions.
“It’s sad to see this poor little fellow,” he said of one of the chicks, “on his back with his claws in the air.”