Two young fledglings and a larger osprey call from their nest at Upper Lake Mary outside of Flagstaff as the smoke and flames of the Newman Fire approached the dead tree they nested in since they were born.
The larger osprey, its orange eyes ablaze, can see the flames crawl toward its nest.
Firefighters in the area on Tuesday had seen the large nest and marked it on their map as an area they need to protect. The firefighters attempted to clear the dried needles while they burned and formed a fire line around the snag to protect the raptors' home.
Fire moves quickly, and there are multiple ideas of what happened as the fire approached: either the flames jumped the fire line and burned the dead and dried tree from within, or another tree toppled over and knocked the nest out of the tree. But regardless of how it happened, the nest and osprey within it fell from their tree-top nest to the ground below.
The two fledglings did not survive.
Wade Laster, foreman of the Mormon Lake Hotshots, said one of his men found the osprey, grounded. The hotshot assumed it was injured because the raptor wasn’t flying away, so he decided to pick it up and take it away from the flames that have burned more than 1,937 acres near Upper Lake Mary as of Thursday.
One of Laster's crew knew they needed to call someone with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
Overhead, many birds including adult osprey could be seen flying around the fire area and the lake.
Osprey are large birds of prey that can have two to five fledglings per year. In Flagstaff, osprey are quite commonly found in their nests at the tops of trees near bodies of water for their primary food source — fish. They can be found on the lake diving down and grabbing fish from water with their talons.
Will Lemon, wildlife manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, looked at the smoke and shore as he steered his boat on the lake waters nearby. His job is to turn people away from the fire area, and on Tuesday his job was to keep boaters away from the burning shores.
Lemon spotted the endangered osprey nest from his boat before the Newman Fire reached it, and was watching the area before the fire approached.
“I was there on my boat watching the area. I saw fire was by the tree, before the real fire got to it,” Lemon said. He watched as the hotshots attempted to protect the nest from burning.
Protecting critical wildlife habitats in fire areas is a priority, according to Laster. Laster worked on the Newman Fire and helped by walking through the ponderosa pine forest, identifying osprey nests to ensure they can be protected.
If hotshots are on the scene, it’s common for them to be the first ones to find injured animals. Lemon explained when an animal is found, it first needs to be assessed, so it can be given the proper treatment. It can either go to a rehabilitation facility, zoo or be given a day of rest in a safe location.
As of Wednesday, Lemon said they protected 10 nests with this osprey’s nest the only one impacted.
Later, the sun was setting as light bounced off the lake water onto Lemon's boat.
When he answered his phone, he spoke with a hotshot who described to him how they had found an injured osprey who wouldn't fly.
He drove his boat to the shore and picked up the hotshot holding the osprey with the orange eyes, and brown and white plumage. He pulled off the short and turned them around to the other side of the lake. He has taken injured animals into his care as a member of Game and Fish before, and knows the next step.
As he continued to drive his boat across the lake, he made the call to a bird transporter based out of Flagstaff.
The orange eyes
Jake Bacon, chief photographer for the Arizona Daily Sun, sat at the Continental Little League Fields.
He toyed with how he should fill his time before the Little League baseball state tournament game began. He had just photographed a new food truck on the east side of Flagstaff and arrived at the baseball fields with 40 minutes to spare.
Bacon has lived and photographed the city of Flagstaff for more than two decades. In the past two years, he has become certified to be a licensed wildlife transporter who can move federally protected birds and animals that are injured to Liberty Wildlife, an animal rehabilitation facility in Phoenix.
As he’s deciding what to do at the field, his phone lights up and he sees Lemon is calling. He has an osprey that needs to be taken in, and possibly transported to Phoenix.
“That basically is how I get these calls: ‘We have an animal or bird, are you available to take it?’” Bacon said. “The answer is always yes.”
Bacon left the game and raced home to pick up a cardboard transport box and then drove to Lake Mary.
When he arrived at the water’s edge, Lemon and the hotshot transfered the osprey to Bacon and he’s updated on the situation: the osprey can’t fly, might be stunned or hurt from a fall that happened during a fire.
This is Bacon’s first osprey he has transported and protected, but he’s had multiple ravens, eagles, hawks and owls, including more recently a turkey vulture. He said that he’s become known for being an animal transporter around Flagstaff, and said he’s happy to get calls from people around the community to help an injured animal, even the ones without feathers.
Eventually, after returning to the baseball game to finish his last assignment for the night, he had the osprey back in his home and was making minor health assessments.
“That’s something that includes holding it, taking it out of the box, checking its wings to ensure they’re not broken, checking its feet to ensure they’re not broken, checking eyes to see they respond to light,” Bacon said. “All the basic stuff you would do when checking the health of anyone.”
Liberty Wildlife told him that osprey don’t eat in captivity, so the salmon he bought for the bird at Basha’s was going to go uneaten.
But another friend of his reached out to him after seeing the osprey’s orange eyes and feather pattern in a Facebook picture, indicative that this osprey was still a young bird, a juvenile.
“It was a fledgling juvenile. It wasn’t ready to be out of the nest yet. And that’s why when Will had it, [the osprey] would flap its wings and spread its wings, but wouldn’t take flight,” Bacon said.
After learning the details about its age, he figured the bird of prey was getting ready for its first flight, but hadn’t taken it yet.
So he put the bird in a dark, safe place to keep it calm for the night, and figured it would be best to release it back at Lake Mary the next day.
On a branch in a canyon
Bacon took the osprey out to where its nest had been on Wednesday. From what Bacon has been told, the less exposure the osprey can have with humans the better.
Twenty yards away from where they were going to put the osprey there was another nest, with three adult osprey circling and calling out above the nest. The nest had young fledglings inside.
Bacon said he hoped the adults would watch over the osprey, but understands his job is to be a resource for wildlife in crisis while knowing nature has to be allowed to take its course.
“It had time to rest in a safe place. It got its strength back,” he said. “So I felt comfortable about reintroducing it to as close to possible from where it had come from to continue the natural course of being a fledgling bird. And that doesn’t necessarily going to mean it’s going to make it.”
As the smoke from the Newman Fire slowly covered the horizon, Bacon, Lemon and a hotshot set the bird on a branch across from the nest and left it in the ponderosa pine wilderness to let nature take its course.