Osprey, a bird of prey, is the only species of raptor that dives feet first into the water to catch its prey—mainly fish. It’s no surprise then that osprey typically nest in and around bodies of water like rivers, lakes and on the coasts of North America. In Kansas, it’s not uncommon to see these majestic birds as they pass through the Midwest as part of their migratory habits. However, osprey have not historically bred in this area of the country. Until now.
In the summer of 2023, Perry Lake, located in northeast Kansas, recorded the first successful osprey nesting and fledging in the state of Kansas’ history. Much like other raptor species, osprey experienced declining populations during the 1950s to 1970s due to the prevalence of lead and harmful insecticides. And just like other raptor species, osprey populations have begun to make a come-back after being protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
“Around 50 years ago, raptors were added to the [Migratory Bird Treaty Act],” said Jeff Clouser, game warden with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and reservoir officer at Perry Lake. “They’ve been protected, and we are just now seeing the results of several people’s hard work.”
Clouser knows firsthand the hard work it takes to ensure osprey can successfully breed. He has worked at Perry Lake since 2008 and first spotted an osprey nest in the area as early as 2017. Another nest was observed in 2019 but unfortunately, 2019 saw historic flooding in the region and Perry Lake rose about 20 feet during the flooding. Despite efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff at Perry Lake to relocate the nest that year, it did not survive the rising waters.
“We had record high flooding in 2019 across the [Kansas City District] but especially at Perry Lake,” said Wesley Henson, natural resource specialist and park ranger at Perry Lake. “We relocated the nest a couple of times, and we don’t think [the osprey] were ever successfully nested that year.”
While nest structures were identified again in 2020 and 2021, osprey were not seen nesting at Perry Lake until 2022. Clouser was patrolling the lake in May 2022, when he noticed an osprey sitting in a nest. He continued to monitor the nest, and Memorial Day weekend he notified USACE staff of rising waters. Henson and Matt Pulsipher, civil engineer technician, Kansas City District, attempted to relocate the nest to higher ground but unfortunately, the nest and chicks did not survive after a severe storm came through the area shortly thereafter.
“Our local game warden, Jeff Clouser, notified us that there were osprey nesting … and the lake was coming up pretty quickly,” said Henson. “We went out and relocated the nest and three chicks to higher elevation and then a couple of weeks later, we had a big, severe storm come through and it blew the nest down.”
According to Kyle Ruona, conservation biologist with the Kansas City District, it is not uncommon for birds of all species to nest, lay eggs and something happen to the nest, causing the birds to renest.
“I believe most times what happened, these trees, the more you move [the osprey nests] up in the tree the smaller the branches get, they are old, they are dead, they get brittle, and these nests are pretty heavy,” said Ruona. “It’s just physics. A strong windstorm comes through, and they blow it over.”
Although attempts to relocate the osprey nests in 2019 and 2022 were unsuccessful, the team did not give up. In 2023, through perseverance, creative thinking and perhaps just a little bit of luck, they were triumphant and were able to record the first successful osprey nesting in the state of Kansas.
Success takes flight
Like in years past while on patrol in 2023, Clouser observed an osprey nest, which had been built on a dead tree in the lake. With the potential for rising waters always a possibility, Clouser notified Henson and together, along with the help of Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks biologist, Tyler Warner, and Perry Lake summer ranger, Wesley Monaghan, they relocated the nest to a larger, more solid tree just out of the water on the shore of the lake. The team decided to build a wooden platform in the tree to create a more secure structure for the nest.
The stakes were a bit higher this year—there were three eggs in the nest at the time of relocation. Thinking outside the box, Clouser contacted Operation Wildlife, an organization that provides rehabilitation and veterinary services to injured and orphaned wild animals in northeast Kansas. Diane Johnson, founder and executive director of Operation Wildlife, suggested temporarily swapping out the osprey eggs with placeholder eggs while the nest was relocated to hopefully avoid confusing or upsetting the adult osprey.
“Diane [Johnson, with Operation Wildlife] mentioned the idea of putting eggs back in the nest temporarily while she had the actual osprey eggs at her facility in the incubator and I happened to have some brown chicken eggs at my house, so I grabbed them and replaced them,” said Clouser.
The team was able to build a more secure nest platform and move the nest to higher ground all while the osprey eggs were in the care of Operation Wildlife. Once the osprey eggs were returned to the nest, the team anxiously waited to see what would happen.
“Two days after we relocated the nest, we swapped the osprey eggs back in the nest and then within 20 minutes [the osprey] were laying on the eggs again,” said Henson. “Then within about two to three weeks, we were able to confirm that [the chicks] had a successful hatch.”
Although the excitement of recording the first successful osprey nest and fledging in the state of Kansas was felt by everyone involved in the effort, the threat of flooding and strong storms was still at the forefront of the team’s mind. They could have stopped there and left the fate of the osprey nest up to Mother Nature—but they didn’t.
The team worked together, along with members of the Evergy Green Team, a group of Evergy employees and retiree volunteers who work on environmental projects in Kansas and Missouri, to design a permanent nesting structure. The permanent structure will allow osprey to continue nesting at Perry Lake without the threat of getting washed out by rising waters or blown away by strong winds.
“Like many electric utilities across North America, Evergy implements an Avian Protection Plan that is designed to reduce negative impacts of our electrical infrastructure on avian species,” said Eric Johnson, senior environmental consultant with Evergy. “As part of this plan, we look for opportunities to support and enhance avian populations across Kansas and Missouri.”
On October 31, 2023, the Evergy Green Team successfully installed a 40-foot permanent nesting structure on the shore of Perry Lake. Those who had been involved in supporting the osprey for the past several years watched as the permanent structure was installed. The optimism and excitement for what the structure can provide was palpable.
“Our hope is [the osprey] utilize [the permanent structure] in years to come and we don’t have to go through this process over and over because it puts a lot of stress on the birds and the eggs,” said Ruona. “Ultimately, we hope it’s desirable for the birds to lead to more successful nesting in the future.”
Ask anyone involved in the project how it feels to be part of such a historic event, and you’ll likely get the same response: gratitude for the partnership of all who were involved.
“It’s just nice to work with different people, different divisions, different agencies that have the same passion and are willing to work well together,” said Clouser.
Like Clouser, Henson, who has been involved since the very beginning, credits the success of the project to the interagency partnerships.
“It was nice to see some of those partners who we work with day in and day out, kind of in the background a lot of times, to actually get your hands dirty, so to speak, and work together to get a positive project done,” said Henson.
Perhaps best known for the incredible year-round recreation they provide, it might surprise some to know that the Kansas City District’s 18 lakes have several important missions beyond public recreation. One of these missions is environmental stewardship.
“Part of our mission in Operations and Maintenance is environmental stewardship,” said Clint Mason, technical support branch chief of the Operations Division at the Kansas City District. “This includes trying to be good stewards of endangered and more rare species that are native to the area to try to encourage them to come back to thrive.”
Like the osprey at Perry Lake, the bald eagle saw a resurgence in populations in Kansas and Missouri starting about 30 years ago. According to Ruona, some of the district’s lakes played an important role in the recovery of the bald eagle in this part of the country.
“[USACE is] an agency that supports conservation and the recovery of species,” said Ruona. “I think it could be a mark to the significance that some of our lakes play in [the conservation of] certain bird species throughout the nation.”
For the natural resource specialists and park rangers who work at the Kansas City District’s lakes, the environmental stewardship mission is often what resonates most on a personal level. However, it’s also the mission that most often gets pushed to the side when other missions take priority, like flood risk reduction.
“I think it’s just another example of the benefit to the ecosystem and the environment and our native wildlife that our reservoirs provide that often times get overlooked,” said Henson.
While the successful osprey nesting and fledging that occurred this year is an exciting and historic moment for the local, state and federal partners involved, as well as for the state of Kansas as a whole, it is evidence of the importance that USACE lakes play in the conservation of wildlife. The effects of which will be felt for generations to come.
“Every species on this planet has a ‘job’ or purpose and we are intertwined in a multitude of ways,” said Diane Johnson of Operation Wildlife. “By conserving any species, we are ensuring that future generations can enjoy our natural world, as well as safeguarding our own existence.”