October 31, 2011

Saco Does What Ospreys Do

By Iain MacLeod

Saco, the young New Hampshire Osprey that was outfitted with a satellite backpack in July is now well on her way to South America. The last blog I wrote about her described her August 22 departure from the Ayers Island Dam nest (where she was born in early June), to her arrival on the Virginia coast on August 28.

Here is an update of her progress since then:

She hung out on the Rappahannock River just south of Tappahannock until 9:00 a.m. on the 29th working her way along the tidal edge (fishing), but by 10 a.m. she was on the move again and crossing the Mattaponi River near King William. By 4:00 p.m. she was at Big Island along the James River having traveled 168 miles point to point. On the 30th she kept heading west up and over the George Washington National Forest ending the day along the Greenbrier River near Buckeye in Pocahontas County, WV. By noon on the 31st she was on the move again and by the late afternoon she had reached the Elk River near Sutton in Buxton County, WV (another 109 miles under her belt/wing). No surprise, she was hunting just below a large dam (just like home). Her point-to-point total distance since leaving the nest was about 926 miles.

Saco then decided to take a break – an extended break -- and stayed in Sutton along the Elk River for more than a month. It was a relief that she found somewhere safe and familiar. The spill way and impoundment of the Sutton Dam, must have looked a lot like home in New Hampton where she learned to fish. As I reviewed the data of her journey in Google Earth it was really interesting to see how she seemed to deliberately choose dams along rivers as fishing stopovers. She obviously sought out the familiar as she explored this strange new world.

On October 5th Saco finally decided to leave the Elk River and the town of Sutton and follow the urge to head south again. At 11 am, she was hunting along the river for the last time. By noon she was heading due south and by the end of the day she was 129 miles away in West Virginia. She roosted hear Buffalo Mtn. in southern Floyd County. On the 6th she moved another 207 miles all the way through North Carolina, passing just east of Charlotte. She roosted just south of High Island near Wateree in Sumter County, South Carolina. On October 7 she continued south through South Carolina, past Savannah and ended the day roosting along the Altamaha River in McIntosh County in Georgia. Since leaving Elk River she had travelled over 500 miles in two and half days. Her overall, migration route since leaving Ayers Island (excluding most of her month of back forth along the Elk River) is just over 1,500 miles.

On October 8 she left Georgia and headed south through Florida, ending the day roosting just north of Gainesville, FL (Alachua County). From roost to roost she travelled 120 miles. On the 9th she continued her southward journey, going another 85 miles to end the day roosting next to Rt. 98/50 near Brooksville in Hernando County. On the 10th she was on her way between 9 and 10 am. She continued her southern push through Florida, ending the day near Peace River (after a little fishing) just north of Arcadia in DeSoto County -- another 90 miles under her belt. On the 11th she pushed on in a more south-easterly route over Labelle and the Big Cypress National Preserve, ending the day in the middle of the Everglades about 35 miles west of Miami (127 miles from her previous night's roost). By 1 pm on the 12th she was 54 miles south near Plantation Key; 13 miles from Key Largo. By 3 p.m. she had started out over the Caribbean Sea just south of Vaca Key and made the 100 mile water crossing over to Cuba in 6 hours. She landed near Varadero in a very swanky looking resort area.

After roosting near Varadero, she was on her way by 10 a.m. on the 13th. By noon, she was passing Jovellanos and ended the day in a remote swampy area east of El Jiqui (another 73 miles). On the 14th she was on her way by 10 a.m. After passing El Rincon, she jogged east again and hit the southern Cuba coast at 1 p.m. east of Guasasa. She stopped off to fish along the south shore of Behia de Cienfuegos. She spent the night here and was fishing near the same area as the previous day, but was on her way again shortly after noon. By 9 p.m. on the 15th she was just east of Trinidad, Cuba having logged another 35 miles.

She was now in what is known in the tracking world as the “Osprey Highway.” Thousands of North American east coast Ospreys travel through the Caribbean, island hopping from Cuba to Haiti and the Dominican Republic before crossing the open Ocean to Venezuela or Colombia. I’m sure that Saco was not alone on her journey and was seeing lots of other Ospreys making their way south. Hopefully, she is following experienced adult Ospreys who have made this journey before and will avoid rooky mistakes that can cost a life. So far, so good for Saco, but many dangers lie ahead, including fish farms where Ospreys are shot, severe weather and a last major water crossing to reach South America.

She was still present at her previous night's roost site just east of Trinidad at noon on October 16, but by 1 p.m. she was on her way again. At 3 p.m. she had hit the southern coast again at Bahia de San Pedro. She stopped off for a couple of hours on an island in a small tidal lagoon, then spent the night on a wooded hilltop a couple miles inland and about 2.5 miles from the town of San Pedro. She was still there at 9 a.m. on the 17th but by 10 a.m. was heading south-east again looping around some heavily farmed land and paralleling the coast about 2 miles inland. She stopped briefly at 2 p.m. on a wooded ridge in the midst of heavily farmed land, but continued east ending the day about 18 miles west of Florida, Cuba, about 8 miles inland. On the 18th she was on the road by 9 a.m. She passed just south of the city of Camaguey. By 4 p.m. she had found a nice little lake just east of El Jobo where she did some fishing. She spent the night and the following morning here (about 60 miles from the previous night's roost) and then doubled back by 4 miles to another nice looking lake west of El Jobo where she was fishing at 3 p.m. on the 19th.

She spent the night of the 19th near those lakes near El Jobo. She spent all the next two days there too -- must have been good fishing, or perhaps the northern edge of hurricane Rina kept her grounded. She was on her way again between noon and 1 p.m. on the 22nd and headed east-south-east less than 50 miles before stopping for the night south-east of Ramirez. By 9 a.m. on the 23rd she was 3 miles to the north of her roost over a small wetland (breakfast?). She continued for a short way on a north-east route and then was heading east again. She logged another 91 miles at a good pace and at times over 3,000 feet up (to clear the mountains). She ended the day just east of Biran near Parque Nacional la Mensura. By 9 a.m. on the 24th she on her way again and gliding at 3,300 feet up and averaging 30 km/hr and heading east. She left the south-east tip of Cuba somewhere between Rio Seco and Jauco shortly after 3 p.m. and flew to Ile de la Gonave, an island just off the west coast of Haiti.

After reaching Ile de la Gonave on the late evening of the 24th, she spent the night close to the north edge of the island. By 10am on the 25th she was well on her way heading east-south-east. By noon she had reached the main island of Haiti and was 20 miles west of Port-au-Prince. She ended the day roosting near Oviedo on the southern most tip of Haiti about 140 miles from her previous night's stop. By 2 pm on the 26th she was more than 100 miles to the south out over the Caribbean. By 7pm she was another hundred miles to the south-south-west about half way to Venezuela. Then she started veering south-west rather than south. Weather data shows that she hit terrible weather with storms sweeping in from the east. She kept flying (she has to) and by 10am on the 27th she was 308 miles from the 7 pm point (!) still out over the middle of the Caribbean Sea. By 11am she had slowed down and was heading west (wrong direction) further away from South America. By noon she was heading north-west. She was still more than 1,000 feet up and moving at 28kph. By 5pm she was still moving west, still more than 300 feet up and going at 27kph, but made a course correction and started heading south-west again but her speed and altitude were dropping. At 6pm, having flown continuously for more than 30 hours and covering 640 miles non-stop, she suddenly slowed to a crawl and her next hourly point was just 2 miles to the north (!). Her next two points were over a span of just 3 miles, drifting north; the last point being at 9pm on 28th. She was about as far from land as she could possibly be (300 miles of open ocean in all directions!!). Rob thinks she hitched a ride on a north-bound ship for the last three hours of data (which is the best case scenario) but I fear she might be down and floating in the water. Now I have to wait for three days for another update, but I fear the worst.

Right from the start of this project, I have known that only 50% of young Ospreys survive their first migration, and at each step of her epic journey I have braced myself for disaster to befall her. Having watched her via webcam since the first day she emerged from an egg last June, having held her in my hands; felt her heart beating; looked into her eye, having watched her take her first flights, and now after vicariously migrating with her for more than 3,600 miles over the last two months, her loss will be gut wrenching. Maybe she got lucky and found a boat to rest on, maybe when I check the satellite data this week, I’ll see a miraculous continuation of her points back on track and heading for land, or . . . such is science. I’ll update her map page as soon as I know her fate.

Rob Bierregaard, who I worked with to tag Saco is tracking several other Ospreys using the same satellite technology. As of October 16, two of those birds had already safely reached Colombia. Henrietta, a juvenile tagged at a nest on Lake Tashmoo on Martha's Vineyard, and Sr. Bones, an adult male from Nantucket. Katbird, an adult male from Martha's Vineyard, is in the Dominican Republic, as are Buck (SC sub-adult from 2009), and Snowy (Martha’s Vineyard youngster). North Fork Bob (a Long Island adult) is in Cuba. Sanford, an adult male from the Westport River in Rhode Island gets Rob’s "last one out, turn off the lights" award for this year. He didn’t leave RI until October 12th.

To follow their journeys for yourself, go to: http://www.nhnature.org/osprey_project/maps.html

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