ST. PETERSBURG — A fire destroyed an osprey nest atop a 40-foot light pole Wednesday night at Derby Lane Greyhound Track. Three eggs plummeted to the ground and broke as the bird that inhabited the nest circled overhead and dove through the flames, officials and witnesses said.
Heat from a set of lights on the pole, which sits on the north side of the track parking lot, was believed to have ignited the nest, authorities said. It was engulfed by flames by the time firefighters arrived.
A crowd of stunned onlookers watched as flames up to 10 feet high danced atop the pole, devouring the dry sticks as the circling osprey swooped down through a shower of glowing red embers.
Emergency dispatchers received several calls from people who saw the flames and smoke just after 7 p.m., officials said. Once the fire was reported, Derby Lane workers shut off power to the light pole.
The sight sickened Doug Davidson, a wildlife enthusiast who has lived in the Brighton Bay subdivision, across Gandy Boulevard from Derby Lane, for about 10 years. Davidson's wife called to tell him about the fire as he drove home Wednesday night. He soon joined the crowd and snapped photos of the inferno.
"This particular nest has been here as long as I can remember," Davidson said.
It was one of several osprey nests that sit atop poles and other structures on the grounds of the Derby Lane track. Some of the massive nests sit close to high-intensity lights, which were identified as having sparked Wednesday night's blaze, said St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue spokesman Lt. Joel Granata.
Firefighters arrived minutes after the 911 calls and doused the fire, leaving the nest "smoldering like a campfire," Davidson said.
"Derby Lane is very aware that those nests are on their property," Davidson said. "This is just disgusting that (they) didn't do much to prevent it."
But it might not be that simple. Ospreys are protected by state law and the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Disturbing the birds can result in hefty fines and jail time.
The law restricts people from interfering with the birds or their nests. For that reason, it is difficult to prevent such accidents from taking place.
"Our plant superintendent told me that they are not allowed to touch these osprey nests," said Vera Rasnake, a Derby Lane spokeswoman. "There's very strict laws about what you can and can't do. If they have nested, you're not supposed to touch their stuff."
Barbara Walker, a board member of the Clearwater Audubon Society, said representatives from the group will look at the damage Thursday to assess what went wrong.
"We don't want this to happen again," Walker said. "We will have to see what we can do."
There are ways to prevent such accidents, Walker said. And some people have permits to work around osprey nests and can even try to relocate them. But such measures are difficult because the birds tend to return to the same places.
"I'm sure if there is something we can to do prevent it, we will definitely do it," Rasnake said. "But I'm not sure that it is preventable."
Dan Sullivan can be reached at (727) 893-8321 or firstname.lastname@example.org.