What’s up with ospreys at Station 55?

The removal of a platform and unoccupied osprey nest atop caught some islanders by surprise.

The ongoing saga of a pair of resident ospreys who have long nested on the grounds of Vashon Island Fire & Rescue’s Station 55 on Bank Road has a new twist.

On Dec. 13, the district oversaw a permitted removal of a platform and unoccupied osprey nest atop a 91-foot tall pole that had been erected at the station in 2022.

Last year, three chicks had hatched in the nest, during the ospreys’ April to September sojourn on the island following their annual migration from Southern Mexico or Central America.

The removal of the platform caught some islanders by surprise, including local nature photographer Jim Diers, who over the years has documented the comings and goings of the osprey pair from the fire station.

Diers, posting on social media last week, expressed outrage at the disappearance of the platform, saying that the district had not consulted with the local Audubon Society before the nest’s removal — leading some other local osprey fans to pile on, demanding an explanation from the district.

By Sunday, the district had posted on its own Facebook page, saying the platform’s removal was a temporary move necessitated by an upcoming renovation of the fire station.

“During our permit review we were notified that we would be unable to proceed with permitting or construction with an active osprey nest and platform within 245 feet of the fire station,” the statement said. “We then hired a wildlife biologist and consultant to develop a plan which included obtaining the necessary permit and temporarily removing the osprey platform through construction as it is within 245 feet of our renovation project.”

Fire Chief Matt Vinci, reached by phone, further explained the decision.

The renovation of the station — a major project that has been in the planning stages since 2021, under the administration of former fire chief Charles Krimmert — is now slated to start in early September, with a total estimated cost of $3.2 million.

The project will add 950 square feet of living space to the residential area of the station, new bathrooms, a kitchen, a patient exam room to better serve those who drive or walk into the station to receive aid, and a decontamination room to clean firefighting gear of carcinogens following firefights.

“The renovation is being done for the health and safety of our staff, volunteers and community,” Vinci said, adding that he had inherited the project and that the location of the osprey nest would have needed to be addressed in any case.

Vinci had discussed the plans for the platform’s removal at the district’s October and December board meetings, detailing his conversations with the county and the district’s consultation with Bud Anderson, a retired raptor biologist who advised the district on the permitting issue and nest removal.

Following his interview with The Beachcomber, Vinci also shared a letter to the district from Camille Beasley, an environmental scientist in King County’s permitting division, which detailed permitting requirements within a 245-foot radius of an active nest.

In the letter, Beasley additionally wrote that construction could not take place within 660 feet of a nest during the breeding season of April 30 and Sept. 30.

As required by state law, the nest removal — along with the removal of additional nesting materials from a communications tower on the station’s grounds where the birds had also nested — was permitted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), and overseen by Anderson, Vinci said.

An “excluder” device placed atop the cell tower that had failed to discourage the birds from nesting there has now been replaced with a differently configured device, he added.

A tale of two nests

The nest on the station’s new 91-foot pole was not the first home for the osprey pair at the fire station.

For many years before that, they had nested atop the communications tower maintained by AT&T and T-Mobile on the fire district property. Workers from those companies had routinely removed nesting materials to maintain the tower, but the birds always came back.

But when workers who were contracted to repair the communication tower destroyed the nest in 2022, Fire Chief Charles Krimmert proposed providing the birds with a new home.

To do this, he worked with Jim Kaiser, of the Seattle-based firm, Osprey Solutions, to plan the installation of a pole and platform, complete with a starter nest that was constructed by Kaiser.

Costs for the effort to move the ospreys from the tower to the pole were just over $26,000, according to the fire district. (Telecom and T-Mobile paid all of the costs of the district’s recent efforts to remove the platform and place the new “excluder” devise on the cell tower, the district said.)

Attending the erection of the the pole in 2022 were Sarah Van Fleet, president of Vashon’s Land Trust, and Sarah Driggs, of Vashon Audubon.

The first year after the pole was installed, the ospreys did not nest there, said Diers, who is married to Driggs.

But on July 4, 2023, Diers joyously posted photos of three babies in a nest atop the pole.

Last week, both Diers and Driggs met with Vinci to discuss the removal of the platform and nest.

Driggs, in a phone call, said that she is hopeful a solution can be reached soon.

“I don’t think we’re going to figure out what should be done in the next few days,” she said, “but we’ll explore and learn more but hopefully we’ll have something in place by April 1.”

For his part, Diers said in an email that he’d like to see construction for the station’s renovation project delayed by one month so that the ospreys can continue to nest there in 2024.

“I’d also like to see the construction staged so that the external work can be completed before April of 2025, enabling the ospreys to continue to use the nesting platform while the internal construction begins,” he said.

He described the osprey nest at the fire station as an iconic and beloved part of Vashon.

“The ospreys have connected people in town to nature,” he said. “It is really special to be in a town where you have ospreys.”

When asked, Vinci said that Diers’ suggestion to delay or stage construction would cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more.

Osprey experts weigh in

Bud Anderson, the retired raptor biologist who consulted with the fire district, as well as AT&T and T-Mobile about the osprey nests at the fire station, said that the nesting habits of ospreys have changed nationwide since the advent of cellular communications towers in the 1990s.

Before that time, ospreys nested in snags of tall trees. Now, Anderson said, ospreys find cell towers to be superior sites for their nests all over the county.

“[Cell towers] are very high and stable, and [not accessible] to ground predators,” he said, adding that, unlike tree snags, they remain in place year after year, so that ospreys can easily come back to the same nesting site year after year.

However, Anderson also cautioned that osprey nests — weighing up to 1,000 pounds and woven together with large sticks and branches — can pose real hazards when built on cellular towers.

Because active nests are protected by state and federal laws, communications workers are not able to service towers with active nests during the breeding season, sometimes leading to long disruptions in service.

Moreover, he said, at public places such as Vashon’s fire station, the birds pose health and safety concerns as they soil the area with their feces, and are capable of carrying seven-foot branches to their nest.

“They were potentially a danger to your firemen,” Anderson said. “Those [birds] can carry seven-foot sticks to their nest which may fall from the tower. You can imagine what that would do to someone.”

Active nests on cell towers and other man-made structures are also at risk of catching fire, he said.

Such was the case in 2012, when an osprey nest built atop a microwave tower at 204th Street and Vashon Highway caught fire. The blaze killed two chicks as both parents flew overhead and looked on.

Anderson now consults on behalf of a company, Cell Tower Osprey Management, which works to relocate ospreys off of cell towers nationwide.

“In many cases, especially this one, they don’t belong on cell towers, especially for the safety of the firemen,” he said. “The beautiful thing is that they’ll find another place to nest. They have evolved the behaviors to relocate to another nest site when their natural snags fall down. They always do.”

Anderson said he understood the point of view of islanders who have enjoyed watching the birds at the fire station over the years and were upset to see the removal of the nesting platform.

“That’s a great thing,” he said. “It says they really care about ospreys.”

Jim Kaiser, of Osprey Solutions, who worked with Chief Krimmert to install the osprey pole on the fire station, detailed some of the difficulties the district might encounter in relocating the pole and platform.

In his work for the district in 2022, he said in an email, he had scouted a location on an open field 150-300 feet west of the fire station, which was deemed feasible only “with landowner permission, dry/firm soil conditions in summer, and construction mats for heavy truck access.”

Permitting for that location would take time, and locating the pole there would not be recommended if the ospreys had already departed the fire station for a new location, he said.

He said if the ospreys do return to Station 55 and find the platform nesting area removed, they would likely attempt to re-build on the cell tower. But he predicted if that attempt was unsuccessful, they would try to find a suitable nest site on either outdoor lights at a nearby athletic field, another cell tower without nest deterrents, a radio or transmission tower, or a tall power pole. Nesting on power poles, he said, is dangerous for ospreys, due to energized conductors on the poles, and can cause power outages.

But Kaiser had another idea for the birds, saying his company had developed a habitat improvement technique that departs from the former forestry practice of topping a tree to create a snag for wildlife.

Another company, Canopy Conservation, successfully used this technique to relocate ospreys from a light pole at Vashon High School in 2019, he said.

“Perhaps there is a suitable dominant conifer tree nearby with good branch structure in [its] crown to consider for [this technique] as a potentially safe, future home for the fire district osprey pair,” he said.

Anderson, on the other hand, said he believed it was most likely that the birds would safely re-nest on another cell tower, as these towers are now the preferred home for ospreys nationwide.

“We’ve seen this happen several times,” he said.

Chase Gunnell, a spokesperson for WDFW, detailed WDFW’s responsibility to issue permits related to osprey nest modifications.

“While the location and specifics of each osprey nest can vary widely — and often warrant review by WDFW biologists — this is a fairly routine permit commonly requested by utilities, municipalities, and other government and commercial applicants,” he said.

He added that in the case of the pole and cell tower at Station 55, the nests had resulted in property damage, safety, maintenance, and/or cell tower upgrade needs.

The osprey population in Washington is numerous and considered stable, having rebounded after declines in the mid-1900s due to pesticide use, he added.

“Osprey pairs are adept at building nests in a wide variety of structures and habitats, and will readily find a new nesting site and build a new nest when they return in the spring,” he said.

A statement from King County wildlife biologist Chris Anderson underscored Gunnell’s assertion.

“Osprey are a cosmopolitan species of bird – found in many, many places throughout the world,” Anderson said. “They have adapted living … in the vicinity around humans very well for hundreds of years, and are quite adaptable to the ever-changing dynamic that our urban environs pose to them.”