Jackson County

The osprey nest in Gautier is like watching a soap opera ... with a happy ending

Osprey family starts anew after storm

Steve Shepard of the Mississippi Sierra club has been watching an osprey family nesting for the last several years on his family’s land in Gautier. This year, the family’s nest was destroyed by a storm, killing two babies, but they have rebuilt an
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Steve Shepard of the Mississippi Sierra club has been watching an osprey family nesting for the last several years on his family’s land in Gautier. This year, the family’s nest was destroyed by a storm, killing two babies, but they have rebuilt an

Well, it looks like a chick survived.

But what else is going on at the osprey nest near Shepard State Park in Gautier is a mystery.

What we do know is that on Friday, Steve Shepard saw a juvenile osprey on a limb near the nest and the mother feeding it. The young bird was about the age and size to have been a nestling at the end of May, when a storm blew through and a water spout toppled the nest on Steve’s family compound, across Graveline Road from the state park.

Early the next morning, Steve Shepard arrived on the ground below the nest and found two mostly grown chicks dead. It looked like they fell from the nest and were killed by ground predators. They were headless with their huge feet and claws in the air.

Nature can be gruesome.

That morning in late May, he watched the mother relentlessly circling the area of the torn up nest. The male was sitting on what was left of the nest, with the dead chicks below.

Shepard knew this pair often had three chicks, but didn’t think anything of it at the time.

Then in the following days, something surprising happened. The veteran osprey pair began hastily repairing the nest.

He said that in a weekend’s time they had put it back together, and he was hearing sounds of what might be a young osprey, a third chick.

He reported on Facebook that he believed maybe the oldest chick had clung to a branch or something in or near the nest and survived the storm. That might have been why the adults were in such a hurry to make repairs.

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 chicks. Osprey are the brown and white fish hawks that you see flapping hard to stay in one spot before they dive into the Mississippi Sound or along the bayous. They eat fish almost exclusively.

The little bird obviously can fly, but is not agile enough to catch its own fish.

Steve Shepard, who has been watching the nest

Then he saw the surviving baby on Friday.

He saw the mother bring the youngster a fish on a pine limb about 50 feet from the nest.

“The little bird obviously can fly, but is not agile enough to catch its own fish,” he posted over the weekend. “It flapped its wings excitedly and squawked and screamed as the mother settled uneasily beside it on the limb.”

He said the young one looked scruffy and awkward beside its elegant older mother bird. Shepard thought he had heard a third osprey around the nest, but hadn’t seen it, until Friday.

Shepard said, however, there seems to be more going on at the nest.

The way the parents have been behaving — she staying on the nest some and he bringing her fish — it’s almost as if they have laid another set of eggs.

That’s the mystery.

Mark LaSalle, with the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, and Benny McCoy, who has observed osprey on the river for decades with McCoy Swamp Tours, both said that when a breeding pair of osprey lose their chicks early enough in the season, they often start over.

Losing a nest to the weather or losing chicks to hawks or even snakes happens a lot more than you would think, McCoy said, and now would certainly not be too late to start over.

“I’ve seen them all the way into the fall trying to get babies out of the nest,” McCoy said. The process is relatively fast — 38 days for the eggs to hatch and five weeks for the juveniles to fly.

“That’s God’s way of getting them up and going,” he said. “It’s amazing to watch.”

I’ve seen them all the way into the fall trying to get babies out of the nest.

Benny McCoy, McCoy’s Swamp Tour

But the Gautier pair still has a fledgling around to care for.

Both LaSalle and McCoy say it would be very unusual, highly unlikely, for a pair to mate and lay new eggs with a fledgling still around to tend to.

“It takes a lot to keep an osprey fed,” McCoy said, even a young one.

And, LaSalle said, raptor parents have the extra duty of teaching their young to hunt and fish.

What isn’t a mystery is that Shepard happened to drive up two weeks ago and see the adult pair mating in a tree, the female’s favorite perch, near the nest.

Shepard can’t see into the nest from the porch that wraps around his family’s home, which is elevated 16 feet or more since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. However, the behavior at the nest is like a nesting pair, he thinks.

On Sunday, he said they spent four hours in and around the nest, even though Shepard said he could hear the juvenile off in the woods.

On Monday, the male came to the nest with a fish and the female followed him to the nest and stayed there for awhile, before she was spooked off the nest. The juvenile was nowhere to be seen.

Well, nothing about the Gautier pair seems typical this season. For one thing, McCoy said three chicks instead of two is unusual.

He said that if there are eggs in there, from what he’s observed, she’ll start sitting on it full time and rarely leave the nest. The male will feed her.

“I’d be surprised,” LaSalle said. “They raise usually one brood a year. If they lose one early, they may re-nest ... If they have a fledgling, they focus on it.

“But who knows,” he said. “You learn something every day.

“It’s worth watching.”

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