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Encounters | An occasional feature

Ospreys put on a show for St. Petersburg shoppers

ST. PETERSBURG — Nancy Shepard was in a hurry that morning. She parked her 1998 Acura in the middle of the lot and hurried into the Sweetbay supermarket to buy her lettuce and tomatoes, coffee and low-fat milk.

She was on a roll. She had already gotten her car washed and it wasn't even noon.

She hustled back to her car and tossed the groceries into the trunk.

Suddenly, she stopped and gawked. It looked like someone had flung a big bucket of bird droppings all over her shiny car.

Craning her neck, she looked at the top of the light pole next to her car.

The famous parking lot ospreys of St. Petersburg had struck again.

• • •

Decades ago, shoppers could park their cars almost anywhere without a digestive system insult from an osprey. The huge birds seemed headed for extinction. The pesticide DDT, used for mosquito control, had contaminated the food chain. Pelicans, eagles and ospreys were the most dramatic casualties.

DDT was banned in 1972. Now pelicans are chamber-of-commerce pitchmen and plentiful bald eagles nest in cell phone towers. The brown-and-white ospreys are the true comeback kids, nesting anywhere near water.

Emphasis on "anywhere.'' In west-central Florida, ospreys often run short of trees. So they build homes on channel markers and soccer field light towers, interstate billboards and power-company equipment. But seldom do they nest in the middle of town in parking lots where motorists constantly come and go.

Apparently, they're getting over their shyness.

• • •

Anyone who watches cable television can get the impression that the world is falling apart. Yet many things continue to work. Birds sing, mate, raise young. In the Sweetbay lot the other day, at 955 62nd Ave. S, folks were happy to see their ospreys.

Nancy Ehrentraut watched from her Grand Marquis, Gladys Graham and David Perotte from the Walgreens sidewalk.

Nancy Shepard parked upwind from the nesting light pole and watched an osprey swoop in with a fish.

"Looks like the mother bird is ministering to something in the nest, doesn't it?'' Shepard asked.

The osprey was feeding its chicks. This year, as last year, the parent birds raised a pair.

"It's really a glorious thing,'' Eddie Allen said. He and his daughters, Asia and Amaria, stopped for a look. "I've been watching them for, I'd say, three months. Sometimes my wife and I just drive down here and watch.''

Ospreys, which mate for life and often use the same nest year after year, start courting in winter. Their eggs hatch in March. The chicks are fuzzy and helpless, but they grow quickly. Within a month they are as large as their parents, though still dependent. A dozen times a day one parent goes on a fishing trip and returns with a meal. Then it's the other parent's turn.

The cars come and go. Below the nest the pavement turns white from the droppings. Sticks fall to the ground. Observant motorists give the light pole a wide berth.

Joanne Clark, who has worked at the supermarket for 19 years, took her coffee break with colleague Brenda Ward. They had front row seats, the bench in front of Sweetbay. "It's entertainment for the whole neighborhood,'' Ward said. "We see people with binoculars and cameras.''

The show will end soon. The chicks are learning to fly. Someone saw them on the roof of the Dollar Tree the other day.

They'll most likely be gone by the Fourth of July, at least until next year. The rains will wash away the droppings, and at least some of the sticks from the nest will flow into the storm drains.

Nancy Shepard will park her Acura under the light pole without risk. But she will miss her ospreys.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

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Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they will play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of the news. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor Mike Wilson at mike@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2924.

Ospreys put on a show for St. Petersburg shoppers 06/15/08 [Last modified: Monday, July 28, 2008 3:51pm]
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