Sergej and the Osprey
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.