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A big welcome home for osprey chick

WEEKI WACHEE — The 25-ton white bucket truck rumbled around the last narrow bend on Tropical Drive, then rolled to a stop. A sagging, yellow "OVERSIZE LOAD" sign hung from its front bumper. Two men, their faces tanned and leathered, stepped out of the cab.

Rocky France, cloaked in a bright orange safety vest, climbed down from the passenger seat. Beneath a wide-brimmed hard hat, he sported a salt-and-pepper beard and a crooked smile.

Bill Foster, the driver, wore a button-down shirt, blue jeans and weathered work boots. He had a shaved head and a thin, gray goatee. With purpose, he walked around the front of the truck and looked up at a withering old cypress tree. He crossed his arms and stared through his dark sunglasses at a bird nest perched on a limb 60 feet above. He shook his head.

"How you going to get up there?" asked Dave Fulton, the man who owned the home by which the cypress stood.

"I don't know," Bill said.

Bill and Rocky and their truck, equipped with a bucket that can stretch 125 feet into the air, had traveled more than 70 miles Thursday afternoon from St. Petersburg on a mission: to put a 1-ounce, week-old osprey chick back into its nest.

Three days earlier, on Monday, two chicks had fallen out of the tree. One died. The other, a racquetball-sized mass of gray and charcoal fluff, lived. But it lay helpless and squirming in the grass. Dave and his wife, Janice, had known the chicks' parents for a decade. They were noisy, but friendly neighbors.

When Dave noticed the chick covered in flies and maggots, he brought it inside and cleaned it. He purchased a wicker basket and an eyedrop dispenser to give it water. With chopsticks and his wife's tweezers, Dave fed it slivers of sliced mullet. The bird, whose eyes could barely open, drifted between deep sleep and fits of hunger. It was a talker, but didn't chirp so much as squeak.

Its name?

"The Beast," Dave suggested, smiling. Or, maybe "Eats-A-Lot" because, well, it eats a lot.

In the basket, the Fultons wrapped a blue dish towel around the bird. It slept inside a cage in the laundry room Monday night so their cat, Baby, wouldn't eat it.

The next day, Wendy Meehan, a volunteer for the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores, drove the chick from Hernando to Pinellas County, where the organization's staff nursed it to health.

Barb Walker, another volunteer, called Seffner-based Power­Town Line Construction. The company has worked with her before to relocate osprey nests or build new ones.

But this was an emergency.

"It's very remarkable that an osprey chick fell that far and survived," Barb said. "That part alone is a miracle."

The longer the chick was without its parents, she said, the less chance it had to survive.

Bill, a power line worker for 40 years, didn't hesitate to help.

The job wasn't simple, though. Power lines and jagged branches obstructed his path to the nest.

He strapped on tattered work gloves and a safety harness, then climbed into the truck's bucket. Rocky handed him the basket, and the chick squirmed inside. Bill flipped a lever, and the bucket ascended skyward. The machine's hulking metal arms unfolded like a giant pair of scissors.

Rocky stayed on the ground and watched. A small American flag was imprinted on one side of his hard hat; a pair of American Indian feathers were drawn onto the back. A year ago, he moved from Indiana to Florida for work. He had never before helped put a baby bird back into its nest, but he seemed to like the idea. His frequent grins revealed a row of five teeth missing from his lower jaw.

"Fighting," he proudly explained.

At the top of the tree, Bill spotted the problem. Half of the nest had collapsed. Then, another surprise: an egg teetered inches from falling off the edge.

It was tense down below. An elderly neighbor stared up and covered her mouth with one hand. Another woman held herself. Wendy took a deep breath. Anxiously, they waited.

Bill made a pile of moss and, with his thumb and index finger, moved the egg. Then came the chick's turn. The mother osprey screamed in the distance.

"She is not happy," he said.

Bill held the bird, still wrapped in the towel. Wind whipping around him, he leaned out to the nest. The bird rolled out, laid still for a few seconds, then flopped over and squeaked.

Back on the ground, a dozen neighbors applauded as Bill stepped off the truck. He walked to the cab, glancing back up at the tree.

"I hope they make it," he said.

Moments later, the chick's mom and dad swooped back down to the nest. They chirped and flapped and bounced from branch to branch.

Their kid had come home.

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or jcox@tampabay.com.

A big welcome home for osprey chick 03/16/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 16, 2012 10:44pm]
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