SANTA FE – Badly tangled in fishing line, the female osprey dangled upside down – perhaps for a couple of days – while her mate fretted and called from their nest and the air above.
An outdoorsman getting ready for a canoe outing with friends down the Rio Chama on Sunday happened to spot her and – talk about luck – he and a friend on the trip happened to be wildlife biologists with an expertise in raptors.
There’s no way they were going to leave her there.
“I thought she was dead,” said Dale Stahlecker, who has a business in Santa Fe. But then he saw her move.
Hustling back to the canoe put-in site, Stahlecker told his fellow canoeists they had to do a rescue.
“I thought maybe someone fell in the river,” said Bob Murphy, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque, who does a lot of raptor work in his free time.
Instead of launching canoes, the friends launched a four-hour effort that brought together helpers ranging from an electric company linesman to personnel at Heron Lake State Park, where the trapped osprey was dangling about 60 feet up a Ponderosa pine.
“It really was a big group effort,” Murphy said. “People from completely different walks of life were coming together.”
The first issue was how the heck to get her down.
Stahlecker called some friends in the area, who in turn called around to other people they knew.
State park personnel brought a ladder, but it reached only halfway to the first branches on the towering pine. A linesman with the local electric utility offered a 50-foot expandable pole, thinking they could use it to cut the fishing line holding the bird, while others gathered tarps to catch her if she fell.
But the pole was about 10 feet too short.
And the area was too steep for a bucket truck.
It was time for Murphy to climb the tree.
In a telephone interview, you could almost hear him verbally shrug. “I’ve climbed a lot of trees to raptor nests,” he said.
The linesman provided Murphy with “pole irons,” a metal iron strapped on the lower leg with a spike just beyond the heel that sticks into the tree and helps support a climber. State park workers provided a sturdy rope, and canoeists came up with carabiners, which combined to provide a harness, along with safety and belaying lines that provided security for Murphy’s ascent.
“If you fall, it’s only a foot or so,” he said of the system, adding that it took only about 15 minutes up the tree and five minutes down. “The worst thing is the ants crawling on the tree and biting your arms.”
While the osprey was obviously disturbed by his presence and started flapping, Murphy said he was able to grab her feet, pull her close, use a knife to cut the monofilament that was coiled around her feet and up to her shoulder and neck, then carefully place her into a backpack for the trip back down.
“On one of her toes, there was a lot of scraping from the monofilament, but the bottoms of her feet looked good. … Her eyes were bright,” he said.
In the darkness of the backpack, “she never moved,” he added.
The rescuers took the osprey to The Wildlife Center in Española, where “we think that she’s going to be OK,” development director Cheryl Bell said with some caution Tuesday.
The ability to use their feet to snag fish for food is crucial for ospreys, Stahlecker said. Without the ability to grip, this osprey couldn’t be released back into the wild.
If all goes well, the bird will be released in a week, Bell said. Circulation appears to be coming back to the toe that was most strangled by the line, she said. The osprey also has neurological problems from dangling upside down for so long. “She kind of shakes and does funny gripping things with her foot,” Bell said.
“But she’s improving. We’re feeding her with a tube down her throat. … She is getting amino acids and supplements and today bits of salmon,” she said. The bird likely got dehydrated and malnourished by not feeding for a couple of days, Bell said, noting that tube feeding is needed because ospreys generally won’t eat fish they didn’t pull live out of the water themselves.
Ospreys, which typically weigh 3 to 4 pounds and have a wingspan of 63 inches, showed up at Heron Lake in 1989, Stahlecker said, likely as spinoffs from a population that grew around Durango, Colo. Now, they have at least 19 territories around that body of water, he said.
“They were really affected by DDT,” Murphy said of that pesticide. “Their population crashed, but they made a tremendous recovery.”
This isn’t the first bird The Wildlife Center has seen tangled in fishing line, Bell said.
“We had one with the line wrapped so tightly around the leg, the leg fell off,” she said. “Every time I walk around that lake, I’m picking up fishing line.”
“We’ve got to get the message home to people that they can’t be messy,” Stahlecker said, explaining that the bird saw fishing line as good nest material, and it ended up “terribly tangled” around her.
While the Mother’s Day rescue may have saved the osprey’s life, it may have ruined her chances to raise any young this year. Although Murphy was unable to see if the nest in the Ponderosa pine held any eggs, the biologists said her time off the nest would have killed any embryos.