COW ISLAND LAKE, La. – Cindy Ransonet stood tiptoed atop the small boat's cabin and pulled an osprey chick from the nest of a bald cypress tree.
As parent ospreys circled overhead and shrieked, the licensed Louisiana wildlife volunteer lifted the chick gently from the messy, four-foot-wide nest of sticks and handed it to the boat's operator. Rehabilitator Donna Gee then banded it and placed the bird in a plastic portable kennel.
The rising waters unleashed in parts of Louisiana by the opening of the Morganza spillway, to protect New Orleans and Baton Rouge from Mississippi River flooding, has sent people and wildlife searching for higher ground while leaving birds such as the osprey chicks at risk.
In recent days, bird rehabilitators have swooped in and rescued osprey chicks and eggs from this lake in the Atchafalaya Basin. A guide who usually shows them to tourists and photographers got federal approval, saying the nests would soon be under water or in reach of alligators.
The group hopes to return the chicks when the floodwaters recede, part of various efforts to rescue animals injured or threatened by the floods.
The efforts follow a state alert warning people to be careful of poisonous snakes and bears that are on the move. Other swamp dwellers — deer, raccoons and alligators among them — also are trying to stay dry.
A herd of deer and a bear were seen going under a U.S. Highway 190 bridge south of the Morganza spillway. Increased wildlife traffic prompted the cutting of the speed limit from 60 to 45 mph on Wednesday.
Extra signs have been installed at Interstate 10 exits close to the Atchafalaya and the nearby Sherburne Wildlife Management Area warning drivers, "Please Drive Carefully. Possible Wildlife Crossing."
Osprey nests at the top of bald cypress trees — living and dead — are common in swamps across Louisiana. The human presence at Cow Island Lake usually is limited to camps for weekend hunters and fishers, many on a ridge created when an oil company dredged a channel in the shallow lake.
Gee, who also is trained in rescuing injured and orphaned birds, said a federal wildlife agent authorized the rescue after commercial tour guide Coerte Voorhies, 81, spotted the danger. Gee had worked with injured birds during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Ransonet and company worked with a sense of urgency. Water was already about halfway up the 15-foot bald cypress where they found three floppy, pop-eyed chicks — the youngest taken Tuesday.
Osprey (AHS-pray) are also called sea hawks and fish eagles, but are neither hawks nor eagles. Like owls, to which they also are not related, they have a reversible outer toe that helps them grab fish from bayous and lakes. At full growth, they have wingspans of more than 6 feet.
The biggest danger to the chicks are alligators, Voorhies said.
"Alligators can jump three feet out of the water," he said. The big reptiles' tails can power them almost straight up until their hind feet trail above the water.
With luck, the water will go down soon enough so the rescued chicks can be returned to their nests while their parents are still around, said Suzie Heck of Heckhaven Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Lake Charles. She has been caring for six osprey rescued earlier by Ransonet and Gee. Thursday, Gee brought her the seven chicks and three eggs collected Tuesday.
"We knew there were eggs, but we didn't have permission to get them until today," her husband James Gee said Tuesday.
Some rescuers say the state Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has refused to let them rescue reptiles and mammals from the floods.
But Jim Lacour, state wildlife veterinarian, said the service will rescue orphaned or injured animals and turn them over to licensed rehabilitators for care.
Lacour said the area is too dangerous for unrestricted access.
"We do have plenty of people on the edges of the floodwaters and impending areas — making sure deer are getting out," he said.
The rescuers' first trip was only a partial success. Several nests where Voorhies and his son Kim had seen chicks were empty when they motored up to them.
"You could see gators had been there," Kim Voorhies said.
Beau Gast, vice president of the Louisiana Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, a statewide group of licensed volunteers, said five baby owls, a Mississippi kite and baby raccoons also had been brought from the flooded area.
But Heck said they probably were blown out of trees by storms about the time the floodway was opened. She's caring for more than 100 baby animals now.
At the Gees' Youngsville, she and Ransonet weighed the newly rescued birds and gave them infant oral hydration solution by syringe, through narrow tubes inserted into their crops.
"They look good," Donna Gee said as she gently extended a wing.
The youngest were eating by Wednesday, and the older ones finally took food on their own Thursday morning, she said.
The six birds brought in last week are doing fine, Heck said. She said they were so young they were just starting to show pinfeathers — perhaps four to 10 days old when they arrived.
The first three found Tuesday appeared to be about a month old, Gee said. They looked almost like floppy plush toys, with whitish bellies and brown backs with a white stripe down the middle. The two oldest could stand. One of them bit her finger, making her smile.
Said James Gee: "The best part is when they fly off."
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