Bethel birders demand answers after local utility destroys nest of federally protected hawk

A hawk in a nest on top of a telephone pole
Osprey nesting atop utility pole in Bethel between Blueberry Subdivision and H-Marker Lake on May 15, 2021. (Danny Nelson)

Earlier this month, enthusiastic bird watchers in Bethel spotted some ospreys building a nest atop a local electric utility pole. They were surprised when the fish-eating raptor’s nest disappeared just a few weeks later. Bethel birders demanded answers: The utility company said that the nest was removed to prevent a bigger tragedy.

For many years, Bethel birder Fred Broerman has seen ospreys nesting in trees along the Kuskokwim River. In the last few years, some birds have decided to give urban living a try. Broerman said he spotted ospreys building their nest atop utility poles in Bethel between Blueberry Subdivision and H-Marker Lake.

“This happens all over,” Broerman said. “It’s not, you know, something new or odd.”

A former biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Broerman said ospreys are an opportunistic bird, commonly known to nest on utility poles. They’re migratory, and he noticed a few weeks ago when an adult pair returned to that utility pole and began building a large nest. Then, on May 21, the nest disappeared. Joe Joe Prince, another birder, was the first to notice it missing.

“When I seen that nest down, that got me angry,” Prince said. “And I have a bird group on Facebook that we post pictures in there. And that got everybody upset about that because they’re nesting.”

The utility pole where the ospreys were nesting burned due to the nest conducting electricity from the power lines. (Lenny Welch/Alaska Village Electric Co-op)

Birders soon learned what had happened: Alaska Village Electric Co-op, the utility that owns the pole, had knocked it down because it was a safety concern.

“I definitely don’t want to disrupt any nesting birds. It’s one of those things that you have to do to keep power on and keep the rest of the town safe,” said Lenny Welch, Bethel Operations Manager for AVEC. He said that he had to remove the nest when he saw smoke coming from it. The nest was making contact with the power lines, and causing the utility pole to burn as well.

“It was only a matter of time before the birds ended up cooking themselves up there and the tundra catch on fire, pole line fall down,” Welch said.

With the nest right next to lines carrying 7,200 volts of electricity, Welch said AVEC workers had no way of inspecting the nest before knocking it down. When it dropped to the ground on May 24, they saw how huge it was — almost 50 pounds of sticks. In the pile, workers discovered casualties: remnants of two osprey eggs.

“I was there and it doesn’t feel good. You don’t like that at all,” Welch said.

Danny Nelson, another Bethel birder, was disturbed to hear the news. He said the utility company’s action may have been illegal.

“If there are eggs in it and it is an active nest, then they definitely need to talk to [U.S.] Fish and Wildlife and get the proper permit to remove it. They can’t just knock it down,” Nelson said.

Osprey population numbers aren’t threatened, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but the raptors are federally protected under the Migratory Birds Act.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website shows a permit is required to destroy or relocate an active migratory bird nest, defined as having one or more eggs in it. Specific permits are issued to utility companies in cases where the safety of the birds are at risk, there’s a threat to human safety, or risk of a power outage.

Welch said he did not have time to get a permit with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before taking down the nest, given that it’s fire season.

“That was my fault. I had many things going on, trying to keep the pole from burning down,” Welch said. “But those birds — as you could see from the photo, they probably would never have made it to hatching or maturity at the rate that pole was being burned.”

AVEC installed a platform on a utility pole nearby the original nest to provide the ospreys a safer place to nest. (Lenny Welch/Alaska Village Electric Co-op)

The nest caused several thousand dollars in damage, Welch said. While workers replace damaged parts, the entire west side of Bethel, including the airport, Larson and Kasuyuli subdivisions, and all of Napakiak, will lose power. Welch said the planned outage is scheduled for June 14 from 1:30 to 5 p.m.

As for the ospreys, they haven’t given up. Welch said they began rebuilding their nest atop a pole after the last one was removed. This time, AVEC had a plan.

Welch fashioned a homemade platform out of steel and wood, and installed it near the original nest but away from power lines. The hope is the birds will build their nest on the platform, preventing any future loss of life or power.

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