Trying to save a drowning osprey

NOTE: The original post, with video, can be seen on

I wish this story were about the cool underwater images I captured last week of migrating herring. Instead, it’s about how I watched a helpless animal drown in a piece of man-made technology meant to help wildlife survive and prosper.

Last week, I was working on a video to accompany a story about herring migrating to their inland spawning grounds, and how their population is growing in East Lyme thanks to human intervention. We received a tip that a number of herring were going through the Latimer Brook Fishway near Flanders Four Corners. I arrived with a waterproof video camera and immediately saw a large group of fish in the clear water of a pool at the entrance to the fishway.

I was in my car reviewing some of the footage when I heard a strange noise, and saw wings flapping inside the fishway’s chain link fence before disappearing below the concrete wall. I grabbed my camera and looked down over the fence to see a bird, later identified to me as an osprey, struggling in the water between the fishway’s outer concrete wall and the inner metal trough where the fish travel upstream.

I recorded what I saw, assuming that the bird would free itself, possibly carrying away a fish it had caught. After a few minutes, it was clear the bird was stuck. I wasn’t sure what to do – I don’t think 911 generally handles wildlife emergencies. Honestly I wasn’t even sure if this was an emergency.

There was a phone number for the state DEEP fisheries office on the sign in the parking area, so I called and let someone know what was going on. The person I spoke with wasn’t sure who would handle a situation like this, and I was transferred to another office. I ended up speaking to at least five different people, none of whose job descriptions, it seemed, included rescuing a trapped osprey. One person even asked me why I couldn’t just reach down and help it myself. (The bird’s claws and beak were the main reasons.) After half an hour, someone finally gave me the number of A Place Called Hope, a raptor rescue center in Killingworth. I spoke to Christine, who was in the middle of another project about 45 minutes away, but was going to drop everything to come try to help.

Given how much time had passed, she asked me to try to reach the bird with a long branch in the hope that it might grab on with its claws. I found a tree branch, but the bird was now motionless with its head below the water. By now I felt a responsibility to the creature, so I managed to fish it out and confirm that it was in fact dead.

Maybe there was nothing I could have done. Animals die in the wild all the time, right? But I was frustrated that it took so long to get in touch with someone who could help, and regretful that I had waited so long to try to physically assist the bird.

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