New perches for Everett ospreys

EVERETT — Crews went to work this week to provide new nesting places in the Snohomish River tideflats for what is believed to be the largest colony of saltwater nesting ospreys on the West Coast.

Installation of new pilings in the mouth of the river hit a snag Monday, but it’s believed the work can be done by the end of the week.

Between 20 and 26 nesting pairs of the migratory birds make their homes in the estuary every spring, said Bill Lider, project engineer for the Pilchuck Audubon Society.

The birds historically nested in trees but took to the pilings in the river after their shoreline habitat was logged.

The past few years, many of those old pilings, once used to anchor rafts of logs waiting to be sawed into lumber or made into pulp, have fallen down. Others are rotting and could go at any time, Lider said.

Pilchuck Audubon recently received a donation of five surplus concrete pilings from Concrete Technology Corporation of Tacoma to install in the tideflats.

On Monday near Priest Point, a crane operator on a barge hoisted the first 60-foot-long, 10-ton concrete piling into place and it was allowed to sink several feet into the mud on its own. Then the crane operator lifted a 5-ton vibrational hammer and slipped it over the top end of the piling.

Rather than pounding down on the piling, as does the more traditional “drop hammer,” this type of hammer vibrates the piling downward, said Tracy Diller, co-owner of Whatcom Waterfront Construction of Bellingham, the contractor handling the work. The piling was expected to easily sink 25 to 30 feet into the mud.

Instead, it hit something hard about 12 feet into mud, not deep enough to make it stable, and would go no farther.

Crews initially thought the piling was hitting an old log, but they now think the ground under the mud is just harder than they anticipated, said Lisa Kaufman, a restoration manager for the state Department of Natural Resources.

The state, Pilchuck Audubon and Whatcom Waterfront Construction are discussing splitting the cost of new steel pilings that should work better, Kaufman said. These pilings are expected to cost a total of about $15,000, she said.

If the steel pilings get stuck at the same depth in the mud, they’re not in danger of toppling, unlike the heavier concrete poles, Diller said.

It’s hoped the new poles can be installed Friday, Diller said.

Pilchuck Audubon and the Snohomish County Marine Resources Council had put up $8,000 each, and Boeing put up another $10,000, for a total of $26,000 toward transportation and installation of the concrete pilings. The state Department of Natural Resources pitched in for part of the contractor’s cost, Kaufman said.

The Tulalip Tribes gave permission for four of the pilings to be on its property in the mouth of the river. The fifth will be on tideflats owned by Cedar Grove Composting next to Smith Island. Pilchuck Audubon has spoken with other property owners on the Everett waterfront about installing more pilings but has yet to reach an agreement with any of them.

The estuary’s shallow water makes it easy for the birds to spot the starry flounder and Pacific staghorn sculpin that make up their diet, and the pilings give them homes right near their food source. Ospreys are sometimes called fish hawks but are actually their own type of bird of prey.

They spend spring and summer at the river, then fly to Mexico for the fall and winter. When they return each March, they go back to the same nest if it’s still there, Lider said. If not, they tend to create a new nest nearby, and it’s believed the new pilings will eventually serve this purpose, Lider said. Ospreys mate for life and each pair hatches about three eggs every spring.

The only installation deadline to beat for the new pilings is Feb. 15, the beginning of a four-month do-not-disturb season in shoreline habitats.

Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or sheets@heraldnet.com.

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