Nel flies free at Kokanee Creek Provincial Park on September 12

2014’s top stories No. 10: A story with wings

We watched via webcam the birth and development of a local osprey named Nel with a mix of joy and sorrow.

In May, Nelson Hydro and Columbia Wireless teamed up to give the public a look at the daily life of an osprey family. They installed a live streaming web camera to peek on a nest perched atop a pole just off Highway 3A at Grohman Narrows.

No one could have guessed the alternately tragic and heartwarming events that would follow.

The osprey cam was a huge hit, as people from around the area and the world watched an adult pair protect three eggs, which hatched within a few days of each other. A passionate online community congregated to follow their progress.

Then disaster struck.

On June 19, after delivering fresh fish to his newborns, the devoted and attentive father went missing. Nelson Hydro monitored the nest closely, but he never returned.

Employees wondered if there was a connection between his disappearance and a power outage. Online, people speculated he might have been shot, based on a loud bang they heard, but hydro staff quickly ruled this out. “Being power line people, we knew that 25 amp high voltage fuses blowing sounds very similar to a shotgun being fired,” said line manager Doug Pickard.

They discovered the electrocuted osprey’s body a few days later, still clutching a rainbow trout. His collision with a high-voltage line had indeed caused the outage.

Although some experts suggested letting nature take its course, Nelson Hydro, feeling responsible for the father’s death, decided to help the mother and chicks by providing them with fish until they were grown. A biologist confirmed the chicks would quickly become dehydrated unless fed, but their mother would be reluctant to leave the nest unprotected to hunt.

Hydro staff first used a bucket truck to deliver fish, then rigged a less invasive pulley system. The mother accepted the offer, and the chicks gobbled it up. Unfortunately, one of them died on June 24, followed by a second one on July 3, and the mother stopped feeding the third.

At that point, fearing for the remaining chick’s survival and the mother’s well being, Nelson Hydro decided to send it to the Orphaned Wildlife Rehabilitation Society in Delta. There Nel, as she became known, flourished. Another osprey acted as her foster mother, teaching her to eat, and in August, Nel pounced on her first fish. Soon after, she was moved to another enclosure and before month’s end, she took flight.

On September 12, bird care specialists accompanied Nel to Kokanee Creek Provincial Park — where she could feast on spawning salmon — and released her back into the wild.

About 25 of Nel’s fans, including representatives of Nelson Hydro, were on hand to witness her being set free. Her carrier was opened, the blanket covering her was raised, and she pointed her beak out to survey her surroundings.

After hesitating for about 20 seconds, she surged into the sky and soared away, joined in mid-air by another fledgling osprey. She eventually settled in a nearby tree, watching the humans below her.

Karen Wheatley and Mindy Dyck of OWL embraced and wept. “She’s saying goodbye,” said Dyck.

Nel was fitted with a tracking band so biologists can identify her if she returns. However, her flight south could take her as far as Chile, and she might not return for years, if ever.

Tammy Swan, a falconer from Salmo who helped retrieve Nel from her nest, felt the effort was worth it. “I’ve done this a number of times and every time it’s still like ‘wow.’ She’s gone from this tiny fluff ball to this mature animal, and then to see [her] go? It’s still amazing.”

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