Sign up for The Daily Reach, and get all the news that’s fit for your inbox.

Rob Michaelson is a retired Air Force physician and amateur wildlife photographer who enjoys capturing the birds that pass through San Antonio. One of his favorite spots is Braunig Lake, a CPS Energy power plant cooling lake on the city’s South Side, where it’s hard to miss the ospreys diving into the water to fish.

A brown and white bird of prey whose population has rebounded after a steep decline in the early 20th century, ospreys are often found along lakes, rivers, and coasts across North America. Michaelson likes to snap photos when the birds fly low over the lake, dipping their talons to wash away fish guts.

“You get this huge spray coming back off of the talons,” said Michaelson

An osprey pierces the lake’s surface as it flies. Credit: Courtesy / Robert S. Michaelson

In November, Michaelson spotted something unusual on one osprey: a green metal band on its right leg. Examining one of his photos, he saw the band was labeled 81M. Michaelson submitted the information to the U.S. Geological Survey’s online bird band tracking tool.

That’s how he learned 81M’s life story. The female osprey hatched last year along the Yellowstone River in central Montana. She’s one of 590 ospreys that raptor biologist Marco Restani has banded over the past nine years as part of the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society’s Osprey Project. The project involves around 40 volunteers who help Restani keep watch on nests along the river between Gardiner and Miles City.

Restani, who lives in Montana, got a notice about Michaelson’s query from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and got in touch.

“I emailed him, and I said, ‘Hey, did you happen to get any pictures of it?’” Restani said in a phone interview this week.

The two struck up a correspondence. Michaelson now regularly emails Restani updates and photos of 81M.

“It’s awesome,” Michaelson said. “It’s like this Dr. Restani and I are now connected, and we’re watching over this bird. It’s like our kid.”

Michaelson was impressed by the 1,200-mile journey 81M undertook in her first year of life. A human being stuck at home because of the coronavirus pandemic might feel a little sedentary by comparison.

“The dang thing couldn’t fly in July, and by November it’s down here?” Michaelson said. “And here I can’t even get to the gym!”

The osprey known as 81M keeps a recently caught fish in place with her talons and banded right leg. Credit: Courtesy / Robert S. Michaelson

Restani was impressed with Michaelson’s photography skills. It’s not the first time he’s gotten photos an amateur photographer who found an osprey he banded thousands of miles from Montana. He’s heard from people from South Carolina, along the Gulf Coast, in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and as far south as Costa Rica.

Restani is a biologist with 30 years experience studying birds of prey. He did his master’s thesis on hawks, his doctoral study on bald eagles, and later work studying peregrine falcons in Greenland. He took over leadership of the Osprey Project in 2012, when he was working as a professor in Minnesota. He later became conservation director of Montana Audubon, the state chapter of the national wildlife group.

Restani said ospreys make a great species for amateur naturalists to sink their intellectual talons into. First of all, there’s the aerial acrobatics.

“There’s nothing like seeing an osprey completely submerge in a dive going after a fish, and then rise out of the water with a fish,” Restani said. “It’s just a pretty spectacular animal.”

Amateurs also have an easy time finding them, especially in recent years. A pesticide called DDT wreaked havoc on ospreys and other bird species in the 1940s and 1960s when the chemical led to the thinning of their egg shells. The Environmental Protection Agency banned DDT in 1972, paving the way for the birds’ recovery.

“They’re super common now,” Restani said. “They make a really big nest that’s easy to find. They’re tolerant of human activity.”

Even with boaters, anglers, and CPS Energy’s Braunig gas steam plant on its shores, Braunig Lake is pure tranquility compared to some of the places the Yellowstone River ospreys have turned up. Restani described one nest built atop a light pole over a dirt bike track at the local motorcycle club in Billings, Montana.

“Those guys have dirt bike races at night, so the lights are on, the dirt bikes are loud and racing around this osprey nest, and [the ospreys] have used it now for three years,” he said. “They don’t seem to have a problem with it.”

The osprey’s tolerance for humans and their infrastructure can cause problems for both species. Traditionally, ospreys seek out standing dead trees with bare, broken crowns. A power pole, with its exposed wood and two cross-arms, looks like a good nesting site to an osprey.

“Obviously, they get electrocuted, cause power outages, start fires, and things like that,” Restani said.

That’s why power companies have taken to erecting artificial platforms as alternate nesting sites. Nearly all of the roughly 100 nests that volunteers are tracking through the Osprey Project are built on platforms for birds that once nested on poles with wires coursing with electricity.

Restani no longer works for a university or a conservation organization, but as a lead bird biologist for NorthWestern Energy, a private power company in Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska. Five different power companies have signed on support the Osprey Project, Restani said.

The electrical line workers even assist in Restani’s bird banding by raising him up to the osprey platforms in their bucket trucks, he said.

“They lift me up to the nest, I band the birds, then I drive off to the next nest and do the same thing,” he said.

Restani described the satisfaction of forming a partnership between the “strange bedfellows” of a conservation group and the power industry.

“It’s been great because we’ve been able to educate [the] industry about the birds and what they need, and the [conservation group] has a better appreciation of what the power companies have to put up with in terms of potential conflicts with the birds,” he said.

Ospreys typically take two years after their first migration south to return north to breed, Restani said. If all goes well, that means 81M might return to her birthplace along the Yellowstone River by 2023.

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the San Antonio Report's environment and energy reporter.