2010-07-22 / Outdoors

Sergej and the Osprey

Story and photos by Thomas Reznich

DEFT HAND Sergej Postupalsky, 75, checks the ears of an osprey chick for parasites after the bird had been brought down from a nest on a cell phone tower near Nellsville Road for banding last week. In his 49th year of studying the birds, Postupalsky has watched them make a comeback, and is now monitoring 115 nesting pairs in the Lower Peninsula. DEFT HAND Sergej Postupalsky, 75, checks the ears of an osprey chick for parasites after the bird had been brought down from a nest on a cell phone tower near Nellsville Road for banding last week. In his 49th year of studying the birds, Postupalsky has watched them make a comeback, and is now monitoring 115 nesting pairs in the Lower Peninsula. In 1959, ornithologist Sergej Postupalsky, then 24 years old, visited the Conservation School (now the Ralph A. MacMullan Conference Center) at Higgins Lake as part of a group from the National Audubon Society. It was his first trip to the area and his introduction to the Deadstream Swamp, the vast wetland west of Houghton Lake which held myriad species of wildlife, including two raptors which held special interest for him, the bald eagle and the osprey.

Two years later, after initially working on eagle research, Postupalsky started his work with the osprey in the Deadstream, a project which he continues 49 years later.

READY TO GRAB FISH (Above, middle) Postupalsky crimps a metal tag on the leg of an osprey to mark it as an individual in his study. He said that at just under four weeks, the bird’s talons, which are specially adapted to grasp fish, are already fully developed.  READY TO GRAB FISH (Above, middle) Postupalsky crimps a metal tag on the leg of an osprey to mark it as an individual in his study. He said that at just under four weeks, the bird’s talons, which are specially adapted to grasp fish, are already fully developed. Postupalsky, now 75, said one of the reasons he decided to begin studying ospreys was that their nests were relatively close to the ground “and my climbing expertise ends with the length of the ladder.”

For 49 years, Postupalsky, who got his bachelors degree from Wayne State University, his masters from the University of Michigan and did everything but a dissertation at the University of Wisconsin toward a doctorate, has spent his time from late March through August in the field, monitoring the osprey population in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, principally in the Houghton Lake area and at Fletcher Pond in Alpena and Montmorency counties.

NEST VIEW (Above, right) A four-week-old osprey chick poses reluctantly for uninvited visitor Matt Sigsby in a nest atop a 174-foot cell phone tower near Nellsville Road last week. The nest site provides a commanding view of the lakes, streams and marshes where the adult birds fish. The bird’s younger brother was on the ground being banded when the photo was taken. NEST VIEW (Above, right) A four-week-old osprey chick poses reluctantly for uninvited visitor Matt Sigsby in a nest atop a 174-foot cell phone tower near Nellsville Road last week. The nest site provides a commanding view of the lakes, streams and marshes where the adult birds fish. The bird’s younger brother was on the ground being banded when the photo was taken. His field work includes banding, through which he has been able to follow the lives of individual birds, some for as long as 25 years. Most of the work has been conducted using a ladder and a 10-foot rowboat.

He said the rest of his time is spent at home in Prairie du Sac, WI, “trying to make sense of it all.”

“He has reams of data that has never seen the light of day,” said retired Department of Natural Resources Biologist Jerry Weinrich, who began working with Postupalsky on eagle and osprey surveys in 1975, “it is probably the longest lasting survey in the field that has ever been done.”

TENSE TIME ON THE TOWER (Bottom) Sigsby receives attention from a disgruntled osprey parent as he moves toward the nest on top of a cell phone tower. Although the adult birds were distraught, they never struck the climber as he handled the two chicks, sending them to the ground and back in a canvas bag. TENSE TIME ON THE TOWER (Bottom) Sigsby receives attention from a disgruntled osprey parent as he moves toward the nest on top of a cell phone tower. Although the adult birds were distraught, they never struck the climber as he handled the two chicks, sending them to the ground and back in a canvas bag. Weinrich said the survey and monitoring aspects of Postupalsky’s work are only two facets of a project that has made a real difference in the successful comeback of the osprey as a species. He said he has also made people more aware of the osprey through extensive outreach work, including many lectures, presentations and papers on the subject.

Weinrich also lauded Postupalsky’s work with the Department of Natural Resources (now Department of Natural Resources and Environment) which included erecting nesting platforms in many of the marshes to help with the nest (and young) loss problem that arises from the osprey’s propensity to build nests in dead trees. The sturdy nest platforms, which were designed and are monitored by Postupalsky, are much more stable, and have been very successful in helping to increase the number of chicks that are successfully fledged.

DOWN THE LAW Postupalsky gives an osprey chick a tongue-in-cheek talking to before he begins to band the bird. “Some are so well behaved,” he said, “and the others make up for it.” Along with sharp talons and beak, the young birds also register their displeasure with explosive blasts from their tail ends. DOWN THE LAW Postupalsky gives an osprey chick a tongue-in-cheek talking to before he begins to band the bird. “Some are so well behaved,” he said, “and the others make up for it.” Along with sharp talons and beak, the young birds also register their displeasure with explosive blasts from their tail ends. According to Weinrich, half the 115 known nests in the Lower Peninsula are built on the man-made nesting platforms.

OLD SCHOOL DATA COLLECTION Postupalsky records data on one of the birds in the same type of pocket notebook he’s been using for the last 49 years of his study. He said he began using a computer in 1999, and has been engaged in the task of transferring data from his notebooks since then. “I’m in the 20th century now,” he said, “too bad it’s the 21st.” OLD SCHOOL DATA COLLECTION Postupalsky records data on one of the birds in the same type of pocket notebook he’s been using for the last 49 years of his study. He said he began using a computer in 1999, and has been engaged in the task of transferring data from his notebooks since then. “I’m in the 20th century now,” he said, “too bad it’s the 21st.” Postupalsky’s decades of work with ospreys has made him the foremost expert in the field, and he is always ready to share what he knows. “He’s so knowledgeable,” said Weinrich, “and he’s so good about explaining things to you. That’s what makes him fun to work with.”

Over the last 10 years, Postupalsky’s work has also included expanding the osprey’s nesting range by transferring birds to marshes in Southern Michigan. He said that the program, which has moved 50 birds, has taken hold, and that there are now nesting pairs in areas south of Muskegon where 12 years ago there were none.

Postupalsky’s work has been funded over the years by the Audubon Society as well as contracts with the Michigan DNR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service. The DNR’s funding ended in 2000, but the department still provides a base for his work at its Porter Ranch Experiment Station and still maintains many of the nesting platforms.

Postupalsky said that osprey research “has been put on the back burner” since the state de-listed them and the bald eagle, classifying them instead as “species of concern.” He said he plans to continue his field work next year, making it an even 50 years, and then to spend his time at home writing papers from the data he has collected. “I’m a little in arrears in that department,” he said.

GOING UP Hydaker-Wheatley Foreman David Bradley sends the first chick back up to the nest in a canvas bag on a rope. The crew was one of several approved by tower owner American Tower of Boston, MA, to climb in support of avian research projects. American Tower spokesperson Jenna Metznik said state and federal licensing agreements require the comLAYING pany to provide support. GOING UP Hydaker-Wheatley Foreman David Bradley sends the first chick back up to the nest in a canvas bag on a rope. The crew was one of several approved by tower owner American Tower of Boston, MA, to climb in support of avian research projects. American Tower spokesperson Jenna Metznik said state and federal licensing agreements require the comLAYING pany to provide support. Weinrich said he doesn’t see Postupalsky ever retiring from field work. “That is his life,” he said.
LISTENING TO EXPERIENCE Matt Sigsby (left) of Hydaker-Wheatlake Company listens to Postupalsky as he relates tips on how to safely handle osprey chicks before Sigsby climbed the 174-foot tower where the nest was located. The climbing crew, which donated their time and expertise to help Postupalsky’s banding effort, was working in conjunction with tower owner American Tower’s Bird Site program. LISTENING TO EXPERIENCE Matt Sigsby (left) of Hydaker-Wheatlake Company listens to Postupalsky as he relates tips on how to safely handle osprey chicks before Sigsby climbed the 174-foot tower where the nest was located. The climbing crew, which donated their time and expertise to help Postupalsky’s banding effort, was working in conjunction with tower owner American Tower’s Bird Site program.

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