With fishing skills far greater than an expert angler’s and the endurance of a marathoner, the osprey is one of the bird world’s true Olympians. Experts believe these birds can log more than 160,000 miles during their 15- to 20-year lifetimes. One flew the 2,700 miles from Martha’s Vineyard to French Guiana in just 13 days.
But cracking bird migration—how they travel and why they take the routes they choose—still remains something of a mystery. Coley Burke, businessman by trade and environmentalist by nature, is answering the unknown one osprey at a time. As a result, curious scientists and bird lovers alike can watch the long journey unfold on the web virtually in real time.
Burke, a lawyer-turned-commericial real-estate company founder who lives in the suburbs outside New York City, is a man of many interests: He’s an avid traveler, a determined seeker of dinosaur bones, and perhaps, above all, a bird enthusiast—focusing on raptors in general, osprey in particular. “What fascinates me is their eyesight and ability to plunge into water and carry away a huge fish or multiple fish,” Burke says, of osprey. “Birds of prey are special to me.”
Since 2006, he’s been a board member of the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy, a nonprofit created to oversee national park units around New York City. Of those, he has a particular soft spot for Queens’ Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge and its diverse wildlife. The waters around this Important Bird Area meet JFK airport, yet it remains an urban oasis with 9,000 acres of open bay, saltmarsh, mudflats, and upland field and woods. It’s also home to one of the largest horseshoe crab populations in the northeast and more than 70 nesting bird species, ranging from raptors to songbirds. “[The refuge] is a nursery for the New York Harbor and a poster child for global climate change,” says Marie Salerno, president and cofounder of the New York Harbor Conservancy. Since Burke met Salerno in 2006, the two have collaborated to protect the city’s parks, particularly Jamaica Bay.
It’s at Jamaica Bay that Burke began tracking osprey. After being introduced to bird banding by Robert Kennedy, one of the conservancy’s scientific advisers, Burke decided that a banding program at Jamaica Bay could attract public interest, benefit birds, and shed light on their movement. “I’m really interested in bird migration—how they do it, why they do it, and what motivates them to do it,” he says. So he donated $25,000 to the conservancy to buy a GPS transmitter to track a Jamaica Bay osprey.
This past May, Coley, a male bird named for his benefactor, was fitted with a device. By the summer, he was busy raising two chicks at Jamaica Bay and preparing for a fall journey that would take him to Colombia for the winter. Burke was thrilled to track Coley’s flight to Florida. “It was phenomenal to see him travel 1,000 miles in four days last fall,” he says, describing his favorite part of Coley’s journey so far. “You are just not prepared to see a bird that small go that far.”
Burke and the conservancy teamed up to create a website for Coley and the Jamaica Bay Osprey Project. The site is loaded with information about the conservancy and Jamaica Bay, and includes a compelling series of blog-like posts about Coley’s journey, written by Kennedy. In addition, Salerno expresses pride that the osprey project has raised the profile of Jamaica Bay and other birds of prey there, such as Cooper’s hawks and peregrine falcons.
As it turns out, Coley’s departure came on March 5th, 12 days later than was predicted he would leave his winter home. Now he’s headed back to his spring one in Queens. “Hold onto your seats,” writes Kennedy. “Here we go.” Follow Coley’s journey from Colombia at jamaicabayosprey.org/.