This Green Life
A monthly journal of sorts by Sheryl Eisenberg

OCTOBER 2012 (links updated 2014): Following Coley the Osprey's journey from New York to Colombia brings the hazards of migration home.

On a Wing and a Prayer
One osprey's story

Since September 10th, I've been avidly following Coley the Osprey's migration from Jamaica Bay in New York City to South America. Every few days, Osprey's Journey posts a report. I read each one not just with interest, but with relief to learn he has completed another leg of the trip.

Then, time passes and I start to wonder: Where is he now? Is he still ok?

True, I have something of a personal connection to Coley (I helped create his website for the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy and produce the flight maps that accompany the reports), but I am not alone in this Coley fixation. Many people who are perfect strangers to Coley are sitting on the edge of their seats as well. If more time than usual goes by without word, Coley's Facebook friends and website pals ask for news.

When the report announcing Coley's arrival in Colombia was posted, one well-wisher wrote: "I feel like my kid called home to tell me he's safe."

Migration is a dangerous business. This isn't so obvious when you think of it in the abstract, as something millions of birds (and other animals) do each year, but following one osprey's journey closely brings the hazards home.

Consider, first, the length of the voyage. Coley traveled 2,600 miles to reach northern Colombia. The trip of his compatriot Señor Bones from Nantucket was an even longer trek of 3,000 miles. (Like Coley, Señor Bones wears a tiny GPS transmitter that allows him to be tracked.)

Along the way, Coley needed to rest and refuel. Osprey feed on fish (the name osprey means fish-hawk), which they hunt on the wing, so he had to locate bodies of water—lakes, rivers, marshes, bogs or reservoirs—where fish could be found.

When he got to the southern tip of Florida, he faced his first long over-water flight across the Straits of Florida to the north shore of Cuba. It took him eight hours, at least half of which he flew in the dark. (Though osprey are diurnal birds, they often travel over long water distances at night.)

After a week spent moseying across Cuba, he hopped over to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He seemed to be enjoying some well-earned R&R after the mad dash down the East Coast of the U.S. (over 1,000 miles in four days). But there was one thing he didn't know. In leaving the U.S., he had lost the protection of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits the hunting of osprey and a long list of other birds.

Bob Kennedy, the scientific advisor on the project, says migrating osprey are often shot in Hispaniola while foraging in fish ponds. Hunting isn't the only reason. Locals who consider osprey competition for fish may shoot them, too.

Fortunately, Coley passed through Hispaniola unscathed.

Then came what could have been the toughest part of the trip—a 20 hour, 485-mile flight across the Caribbean at the height of hurricane season. Again, Coley was lucky. The weather was calm.

Coley landed in Colombia on September 26th and continued on till he reached his current location between the Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta (Big Marsh of Saint Martha) and Ciénaga Pajaral (Bird Marsh) later that day. It is a large area of marsh land that is relatively uninhabited. Dr. Kennedy calls it an ideal spot for an osprey's winter retreat.

And yet, there is now some reason for concern about Coley's condition. Over the last couple of weeks he has moved very little, confining his activity to a section of the marsh less than 2 miles across. This could indicate a problem with his transmitter or a problem with Coley himself. As of this writing, I just don't know.

Regardless of how the story ends for Coley, and I do hope it ends happily, one thing is clear: the immense importance of strong conservation laws protecting animals and habitat throughout their range. As another Coley fan commented on the website:
Coley's journey pointed out to me the need for conservation of habitat in parts of the world other than our own backyard. The need for a home in South America is as vital to their survival as is their environment in Jamaica Bay. Somehow this wasn't apparent to me until I thought about where Coley was going to winter. South America is going through significant growth in population, without the resources and public backing for conservation that we have in the US.
Well said, my friend. Let's think and act both locally and globally—and support the science that helps us to understand and protect our world.

—Sheryl Eisenberg

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On This Topic

Coley's migration route
COLEY'S ROUTE to Colombia was 2,600 miles long, taking him through Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Bob Kennedy, the scientist tracking Coley, believes the speed of his migration indicates a learned component.

How do birds migrate? Dr. Kennedy says, "No one knows for sure, but studies suggest a combination of methods from celestial cues, including the position of the sun, to the earth's magnetic force and firsthand knowledge of the route."

He also has these interesting observations on osprey migration in particular: "Ospreys do not migrate in flocks. However, they may be influenced by other ospreys and hawks encountered on the way. Their departure for the south is triggered by some biological clock influenced by day length. Since their wintering grounds are close to the equator where day length hardly changes, it is probably not a factor in the timing of the return."

Coley at his nest
COLEY PERCHED ON HIS NEST at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, New York last summer. Osprey pairs mate for life, but migrate separately in the fall. They reunite at their nest each spring, shore it up and breed again.

WATCH DR. KENNEDY RELEASING COLEY after outfitting him with his GPS transmitter.


Osprey's Journey
Keep up with Coley

All About Birds
Backpacking Ospreys

National Geographic
Gone Fishing (osprey video)

Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918

OnEarth Magazine
Ten Ways to Protect Migrating Birds

Save Biogems
Save Bird Habitat from Tar Sands Pipeline

More to Do

This Green Blog Switchboard Save Biogems
Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (, she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.
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