TAMPA — With two wary ospreys circling above, a marine contractor Tuesday ordered three eggs removed from their nest atop his crane that had kept a salvage crew idle for a week.
If all goes well, the eggs will be hatched at a bird sanctuary and the chicks will be raised by foster osprey parents — not the ones who built the nest.
The decision by crane owner Jani Salonen is expected to bring him a $500 fine. But it caps an ordeal that kept him and his crew from work, involved members of Congress and government regulators, and caused Salonen to doubt whether he should have tried to do right by the federally protected birds in the first place.
"I put my guys ahead of a bird any day," he said.
His business, Salonen Marine based near Jacksonville, was hired to excavate an old barge near MacDill Air Force Base. But when the crew showed up at his boat and crane last week at the Port of Tampa to get to work, they discovered ospreys had built a nest on the crane.
That set off a quest to obtain permission from state and federal agencies to move the nest. As that grew more complicated, though, the National Audubon Society, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and Gov. Rick Scott became involved.
In the end, the solution Salonen decided on was to violate the law — but save the birds.
"My heart would be broken at this point if one of the birds die," he said as a plan took shape.
For days, Salonen and Audubon Society volunteers sought permission to move the nest. One possibility being considered was to move the nest from the crane to a platform built for it nearby.
By Tuesday, it became clear government officials wouldn't sign off on that since the nest wasn't damaging property or disturbing anything other than Salonen's business.
So Salonen, after talking with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, decided to take the matter into his own hands.
He estimated the ordeal had cost him about $38,000, including paying 12 workers who were idle for up to a week and renting a barge he couldn't move.
The Tampa Port Authority was the final hurdle to the plan. Phillip Steadham, the port's environmental director, initially would not authorize the illegal activity.
But a backup plan to swing the crane over the bay and bring down the nest over the water was even riskier, Salonen told him.
Steadham eventually agreed, but only after being assured that Salonen was solely responsible.
Emmett Rawls, the captain of Salonen's tugboat, operated a bucket lift that hoisted him and bird rescue volunteer Sarah Holcombe up to the nest.
Inside, she discovered three brown speckled eggs, instead of baby chicks as earlier thought.
The adult ospreys circled, but didn't attack.
"They clearly are upset," said Nancy Murrah of the Audubon Society. "They know we have taken their young."
The Audubon Society called off the idea to relocate the nest to the platform and instead took the eggs, kept warm, to the Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland.
There, they will be incubated and hatched. One was preparing to hatch Tuesday night and the heartbeats of the others could be heard through the shells.
Once the baby chicks are old enough, they would be returned to Tampa and placed into the nests of a foster osprey who would raise them as their own.
After the eggs had been whisked away from his crane, Salonen said he was satisfied with the outcome.
The birds were safe and his crew would finally arrive at MacDill Air Force Base for the salvage job.
But before the eggs were removed, Salonen said he wished he had never reported it to environmental regulators.
"It's probably one of the bigger mistakes I've made," he said.
He wondered if his highly publicized ordeal might thwart other business owners from doing the right thing if they find nests on their equipment.
As Rawls brought down the big nest of sticks, grass, mud and trash, an osprey circled around the now-bare crane.
Steadham walked up to Salonen and joked that he had overstayed his welcome.
"Don't take it personal," he said, "but get the heck out of here."
Times staff writer Robbyn Mitchell and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Tia Mitchell can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3405.