By John Dodge The Olympian
OLYMPIA — Breeding pairs of osprey were invited to Thurston County’s Glacial Heritage Prairie Preserve on Wednesday, just in time for the nesting season.
A joint project between Puget Sound Energy and The Nature Conservancy involves placing four nesting platforms on 60-foot tall utility poles at the 1,300-acre nature preserve close to the Black River, where the birds are known to fish for food.
The goal is to discourage the regal white and black raptors from nesting and perching on power poles, lines and transformers serving the neighboring Weyerhaeuser Mima Nursery.
The osprey caused three power outages at the nursery last summer and placed their lives at risk trying to build nests on the utility poles, said Mel Walters, the manager of Puget Sound Energy’s avian protection program.
When the osprey return in the next few weeks from their winter stomping grounds in Mexico, they will find new, safer nesting habitat awaiting them closer to the river.
The osprey nesting platforms are a welcome addition to the nature preserve, providing much-needed breeding sites that fit with construction of other artificial nest sites for bats, owls, purple martins and Western bluebirds at the prairie preserve, said Grace Diehl, Thurston County prairie land steward for The Nature Conservancy.
There’s no guarantee the osprey will use the manmade nests, but Walters said he’d be surprised if they weren’t occupied within two years.
Puget Sound Energy, the state’s largest investor-owned utility, spent about $750,000 last year in its nine-county service area to reduce bird crashes and electrocutions. A full-blown avian protection program was launched by the utility about 10 years ago.
“We’re trying to make sure we are in compliance with bird-protection laws, and we are trying to protect our system,” Walters, a biologist, said. “It’s the right thing to do, and it’s not a waste of money.”
Outages and equipment damage from birds can cost tens of thousands of dollars per incident. The utility responds to about 200 to 250 bird fatalities involving its power-supply system each year.
Puget Sound Energy has completed about 500 retrofit projects on power lines and utility poles to protect birds from electrocutions and crashes, including metal triangles placed on utility pole cross arms to keep osprey from perching on poles at the Weyerhaeuser nursery and line markers. Flappers also were installed on utility lines in Skagit Valley to make lines more visible to wintering snow geese and swans.
The utility has built more than 50 nest platforms for osprey, including those installed Wednesday at the prairie preserve by a utility contract crew from Sumner-based Potelco Inc.
Despite all the efforts, the utility logged more than 350 large-bird deaths from electrocutions and crashes from 2000 through 2008, including 212 swans, 89 bald eagles, 28 hawks and 23 owls.
In some cases, utilities that fail to take bird protection seriously pay dearly.
PacifiCorp utility operations in Wyoming agreed to pay $10.5 million in fines, restitution and equipment upgrade costs last year after federal prosecutors determined the utility failed to take steps to reduce golden eagle and other migratory bird deaths as required by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
“This is a big issue for a lot of utilities,” Walters said.