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Ospreys immobilize Polk mine machine

A pair of ospreys have idled a $20-million mining machine and now hold one of the world's largest phosphate mining companies at bay. Officials at IMC Fertilizer Inc. are waiting for the pair's two chicks to learn to fly before they can get their earth-moving dragline back into operation.

"We've certainly learned to respect the birds. You don't go messing with them," IMC spokeswoman Ginny Germond said.

The birds, protected by state and federal law, built their shaggy nest of sticks and assorted trash about six weeks ago on top of a dragline parked at the company's Haynsworth Mine in southwestern Polk County.

No one at the company noticed until another machine was shut down for repairs and they wanted to start up the idle machine, company spokeswoman Janet Roth said.

Draglines look like huge industrial cranes designed to move across the landscape scooping one-car garage-sized shovelfuls of earth and phosphate rock.

Rising straight up from the machine is a tower of gridwork resembling a metal bridge support. Its purpose is to support the cables for the shovel, but the structure also is an ideal site for ospreys to nest.

By the time the nest was discovered, the fish-eating birds had hatched two chicks. The mottled, tan and brown nestlings are now about 6 weeks old, and about two weeks from flying on their own, said Nancy Joiner, wildlife biologist with the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission in Lakeland.

Friday, Joiner crawled down the end of the boom to peer into the nest. She confirmed that the chicks were there, and that the dragline wasn't going anywhere soon.

"Once it's active, it's protected," she said. "The birds snuck up on them."

Once the chicks are gone, it's a fairly simple matter to get a state permit to move the nest onto another tall structure, she said. Ospreys return to the same nest each year, and the majority of the birds nest on artificial structures, she said.

Joiner said companies can "osprey-proof" equipment, power poles and other structures by putting domes over flat surfaces or removing the sticks before the nest is completed.

The brown and white birds sometimes nest on power lines, navigational equipment and safety lighting on antennas, according to Vic Heller, assistant director of the Division of Wildlife.

IMC officials are eager to get back to work _ the company's other 16 machines already are mining _ but Germond said the company will wait out the chicks.

"Hopefully our schedules will match," Germond said.