940 miles: Langley ospreys find new home

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
  • 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs
It was cold - as mornings usually are at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, when an E-3 Sentry carrying 24 Airmen took off from the runway, Sept. 22, 1995. They would never been seen alive again.

Less than two minutes after takeoff, the plane bearing the call sign Yukla 27 reported an in-flight emergency.

"Elmendorf tower, Yukla two seven heavy has an emergency," crackled the voice of Capt. Bradley W. Paakola, Yukla 27 co-pilot. "Lost ah number two engine, we've taken some birds."

A flock of Canadian geese had violently collided with Yukla 27's number one and two engines - destroying the fan blades. As power levels plummeted, the crewmembers on the flight deck desperately tried to make an emergency landing. The plane executed a slow left-turning climb before uncontrollably pitching toward the ground.

Tom Olexa, 1st Fighter Wing's Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard Team manager and the U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist, removes a fledgling osprey from its nest on Langley Air Force Base, Va., July 22, 2013. Olexa routinely surveys the waters of Langley to monitor and track the ospreys - using a process called banding. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton/Released)
"We're going down," were the last words heard from Yukla 27 - spoken by Capt. Glenn Rogers Jr, aircraft commander, nearly 18 years ago.

Today, across the country, Thomas Olexa, 1st Fighter Wing's Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard [BASH] Team manager and U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist, said Langley Air Force Base, Va., has been taking proactive steps to ensure it does not encounter a Yukla 27 disaster.

According to a report, co-authored by Olexa in 2011, "to reduce the BASH threat potential and simultaneously promote their conservation, Langley Air Force Base began translocating nestling ospreys in 2001."

Olexa said translocation is inherently beneficial for Langley. Nesting so close to an active airfield, ospreys pose a significant safety and economic concern to military flight operations. Between 1995 and 2006, the U.S. Air Force Safety Center documented 25 aircraft strikes by ospreys, which resulted in more than $1.3 million in damage. In 2001, an F-15 Eagle at Langley collided with an osprey, killing the bird and causing $750,000 worth of damage. Fortunately, the pilot was able to make a successful emergency landing.

Since that time, more than 150 nestlings were hand-collected, transported, acclimated and released at various "hack" sites, or nests created by research teams, throughout Ohio, Indiana and now Illinois.

"Translocation has to happen before an osprey can fly," said Olexa, who coordinated the most recent move of ospreys from Langley to Illinois. "If they take flight then they imprint on that area and will return to it after migrating."

A fledgling osprey's eyes adjust to the light as the door to its hack site cage opens at Anderson Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area, Ill., July 29, 2013. Wildlife experts from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources hoped the raptor would take its first flight at the lake, thus imprinting on the area. (Courtesy photo by Shannon O'Brien/Released)
Nearly three weeks have passed since five ospreys, or "fish hawks," were relocated 940 miles from the waters of Langley to the expansive shores and dense forests of Anderson Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area, Ill.

After a period of observation and acclimation, the ospreys were ready to take their first flight and explore the new surroundings. Reaching for the lock on the hack site's cage, the researchers hoped this transition would go smoothly.

With a slight creak, the wooden cage door opened and a white talon cautiously extended, grasping the artificial perches set around the box. Slowly, a beak and head emerged as the young osprey's eyes adjusted to the change in light.

Finding the padded perch sturdy enough to support its weight, the eight-week-old bird stretched its newly-developed flight feathers as its orange eyes scanned the landscape. As the osprey began flapping its wings, wildlife experts from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources watched - hoping this first major milestone in the translocation process would be reached without incident.

Tom Olexa, 1st Fighter Wing's Bird/Wildlife Aircraft Strike Hazard Team manager and the U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife biologist, attaches a metal band to the leg of a fledgling osprey at Langley Air Force Base, Va., July 22, 2013. Once the osprey learns to fly, the band will allow researchers to monitor its health and track its location. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton/Released)
A young osprey watches as a metal band is attached to its leg at Langley Air Force Base, Va., July 22, 2013. Recently, five fledgling ospreys were translocated from Langley to Illinois, as part of an effort to reintroduce the bird into the state. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton/Released)
"This is the first year I've done this type of work," said Patrick McDonald, a wildlife biometrician with the Illinois DNR. "It's been a new experience for me all around."

The entire translocation project began September 2012, when the Illinois DNR contacted Langley and expressed an interest in becoming a donor state for ospreys. Due the effects of the pesticide DDT [dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane], which causes egg shell thinning and poor reproduction, the osprey has been an endangered species in Illinois since 1977.

With roughly 24 nests to choose from, and a steady migration and breeding cycle, Langley seemed the perfect choice to collect healthy, young ospreys.

"It's better for the birds, and it's better for the aircraft," said McDonald. "We've seen it successfully work in several other states with low osprey populations. The osprey is released into a suitable habitat with plenty of fish for it to hunt."

McDonald said Illinois provides the perfect environment, as the dense foliage and abundant waters offer ideal areas where ospreys can expand their range.

Eagerly, the fledgling bird began flapping its wings harder - hopping from one perch to the next, each time staying airborne a few seconds longer. Undaunted by difficulty, the osprey ruffled its feathers and set itself up for another attempt.

"Once they fledge near the hack site they will learn to fly and hunt in that area," said Olexa. "When they migrate in September, if everything goes well, they should return to the same place."

Every September, ospreys migrate as far as South America - with the fledglings remaining there for two years before returning to their imprint site with a mate. Both Langley and the Illinois DNR are able to track this journey using banding - a technique for studying the movement, survival and behavior of birds. Since 2004, Langley has worked with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Canadian Wildlife Service to maintain and update the North American Bird Banding Program registry.

"It's a way for the base to participate in ongoing osprey research," Olexa said. "We want to monitor their health and identify where fledgling ospreys re-nest. Through banding, we can find out specific geographic information - where it was seen and when."

An osprey soars through the skies over Langley Air Force Base, Va, July 22, 2013. According to the U.S. Air Force Safety Center, between 1995 and 2006 there have been 25 osprey aircraft strikes, resulting in more than $1.3 million of damages. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton/Released)
A memorial for the crew of Yukla 27 remains at the crash site. Family and squadron members held a memorial for the crew Sept. 21. A six-foot cross has been placed to mark the site. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Keith Brown)
That tag has a unique identification code that provides researchers with a history of the bird - an invaluable tool for Illinois DNR researchers. Before the translocated ospreys were released into the wild, the researchers at the hack site ensured they were banded and tagged with radio transponders.

"The success of this program relies primarily on how many males released from the hack site return to the area after migration," said McDonald. "Banding allows us to keep detailed records on their progress."

Back at the hack site, the metal band on the osprey's leg clanged against the wood of the cage door as it moved to a new perch atop the hack site. Ready to try again, the bird furiously beat its wings and hopped from the supportive outcropping. For a few brief seconds, the young osprey defied gravity before softly landing back on the nest.

For the birdwatchers who report sightings on banded ospreys, the information they provide the registry directly gauges how successful translocation programs are. Additionally, it gives the avian enthusiasts an opportunity to witness a unique bird in the wild.

"It's pretty amazing to watch them hunt," Olexa said. "Ospreys and owls are the only birds of prey able to move their back talon in all different directions. It allows them to better catch fish."

Although the ospreys translocated from Langley were too young to fly and fend for themselves, the Illinois DNR team ensured they were hand-fed a steady diet of fish. After initially acclimating to their new home, the ospreys were presented fish in their nest - giving them an opportunity to develop their hunting skills. Once fully acclimated, the ospreys will be able to fly and hunt on their own.

"That's the beauty of wildlife - especially ospreys," said Olexa. "They can condition themselves to almost any environment."

With one final look at its temporary nest, the osprey spread its wings fully and, without hesitation, dove from the hack site toward the unforgiving ground below. Just as it seemed the attempt would fail, the osprey shifted its wings and, in defiance of gravity, leveled out, gliding across the landscape for a few moments before soaring skyward - to explore its new home, 18 years after a tragic disaster in Alaska alerted the U.S. Air Force to just how dangerous a bird strike to an aircraft can be.

More than 3,000 miles from the shores of Anderson Lake, a six-foot white cross now marks the site at Elmendorf where the entire crew of Yukla 27 lost their lives - a silent monument to those who are gone, but not forgotten. Their memory will be forever etched in the minds of those who work to avert such tragedies, who pin their hopes on the wings of an amber-eyed raptor soaring above a sprawling Illinois vista.