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Look Up!

Bethel’s decades-long partnership with a local park district has resulted in the reintroduction of ospreys to the Twin Cities area—including a nesting site on Lake Valentine that keeps biology students and faculty looking up.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08, GS’16, new media strategist

July 23, 2020 | 4:15 p.m.

Ospreys, or Pandion haliaetus, are native to Minnesota.

Ospreys, or Pandion haliaetus, are native to Minnesota.

This story originally appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Bethel Magazine.

Ken Petersen, professor of biological sciences, began his spring Wildlife Ecology and Management course as he usually does, with a reading from 1 Kings 4. “Tucked in those verses, the writer logs how King Solomon described birds and reptiles and fish, and how people all over the world took notice of that,” Petersen explains. “Wisdom doesn’t only have to do with how people interact with people and how nations interact with nations. By studying the natural world, we’re engaging in godly wisdom. This is becoming wise.”

His students were to take part in a project decades in the making: a partnership with the Three Rivers Park District to reintroduce and monitor ospreys—large, fish-eating birds of prey—in the eight-county Twin Cities metro area. The class would visit and measure nesting sites, learning industry best practices and data collection techniques as they contributed to one of the biggest success stories the district has ever seen. 

“To see the osprey hunt and dive into the water to grab a fish is just spectacular. Getting people interested in them has been a pretty amazing thing to be a part of.”

— Steven Hogg, Three Rivers Park district wildlife supervisor

Unexpectedly, those students would move to virtual learning in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Petersen’s reading that day served as a call to respect the natural world—in his course and in life—and also a prophetic encouragement to his students to keep their eyes upward, even as their world would rapidly change in so many ways.

Ospreys, or Pandion haliaetus, are native to Minnesota. They nest in tall trees that offer good visibility of lakes or ponds, and shelter from predators. The Twin Cities’ many bodies of water make the area an inviting place for ospreys, but deforestation, unregulated hunting, and pollution had completely wiped them out from the metro over the last century. 

Bethel University is home to one of about 100 artificial nesting sites that have since been erected in the Twin Cities through the Three Rivers Park District Osprey Reintroduction Project, and one pair returns annually to raise their young on Bethel’s own Lake Valentine. They’re what Petersen refers to as “charismatic megafauna,” an impressive species that’s highly visible and inspires reverence for the natural world. “They’re hard not to notice,” he says. “In terms of getting people interested in natural things and taking care of the environment, they’re one of those hooks.”

Professor of Biological Sciences Teresa DeGolier remembers when Bethel’s first nest structure was installed. She says science at Bethel has progressed significantly since then, with high-tech laboratories giving students hands-on experiences they didn’t have when she started teaching in the 1990s. But she and her colleagues still share a flurry of excitement each spring when the resident ospreys return to campus. “There’s this race, trying to see who will be the first to notice them. And we’ll yell ‘They’re back! They’re back!’ like they’re grandchildren or something. One of our goals is to get students outdoors and away from their technology...to get them to look up!” says DeGolier. “At least with the ospreys, there’s a certain type of beautiful cohabitation that’s possible.”

“Why should people care about ospreys? Because their Creator cares. I can’t eat an osprey. I can’t wear it. It has no instrumental value to me or anyone else. But it’s one of millions of distinct and beautiful creatures that are part of the global biosphere we live in, and it plays a particular role. They’re doing what they were made to do as part of a healthy, delicate ecosystem. As a Christ-follower, as an image-bearer of God, that matters to me.”

— Ken Petersen, professor of biological sciences

The Osprey Reintroduction Project

A Timeline

1972

The use of DDT in pesticides is outlawed. By this time, osprey are long nonexistent in the Twin Cities, with the population impacted in outstate areas as well. The chemical causes bird fertility to drop and egg shells to become thin and fragile, making it unlikely that a chick would survive incubation. With almost-nonexistent hunting regulations adding insult to injury, the osprey is now found only in northeast Minnesota.

1984 

Three Rivers Park District decides to start a pilot project, moving six young osprey from northern Minnesota to Carver County Park Reserve. They’re banded for tracking purposes and hand-fed fish in a protected “hack box” until they fledge the nest. The hope is that they will migrate back to the area to breed.

1995

There are 10 active sites—where pairs have returned to nest—producing 19 fledged young. The project grows, with Three Rivers Park District recruiting volunteers to hand-feed more birds to be released.

1998

Bethel’s first osprey nesting site—a 30-foot aluminum pole bought for $300—is erected on Lake Valentine, near the former seminary buildings. It’s front-page news in the Clarion student newspaper. 

2000

“All of a sudden, they took!” says Three Rivers Park District Wildlife Supervisor Steven Hogg, who coordinates the osprey project as part of a holistic program to encourage native species locally. He describes the turning point when ospreys began to nest not only at the intended sites, but also in other man-made structures. “Ospreys were nesting in cell phone towers, on water towers, railroad bridges. It’s like they made a switch, really heavily.” 

Mid-2000s

Former Bethel parent and former Three Rivers Wildlife Specialist Judy Voigt Englund enlists Petersen and his students to help compile and make sense of the plethora of tracking data gathered through the project. “She just started throwing all these numbers at me,” Petersen remembers. 

2010

The oldest bird ever tracked through the project is discovered. He was 22.

2013

Despite the team’s best attempt to “think like a bird,” ospreys aren’t using Bethel’s nest structure, so Professors Jeff Port and Bryan Anderson decide to try a new spot. “Bryan puttered over with his fishing boat, laid the pole across the boat’s gunwales, and carefully towed it over to the other end of Lake Valentine,” Petersen remembers.

2015

By now, an army of volunteers monitor the nesting sites established across the Twin Cities. The Three Rivers team launches an online dashboard for its “citizen scientists” to track nest occupation and identify trends that could make their efforts more effective.

2016

The first pair of ospreys is seen nesting at Bethel, on the southwest, marshy end of Lake Valentine. The pair has been back every year since. 

2020

There are about 100 active nests tracked through the project, with 130+ fledged young last year. COVID-19 has prohibited many of the spring site visits, and Bethel students have instead worked with past years’ data remotely. But the project still illustrates an impressive upward trend in the population, over time, and keeps tabs on one species that’s largely unaffected by the pandemic. Petersen lists Englund and Hogg as co-authors on the project data and findings to be published in the Journal of Raptor Research.

Ken Petersen, professor of biological sciences

Ken Petersen, professor of biological sciences

Study the Breadth of God's Creation

The biology program at Bethel gives students the space and tools to investigate the wonder and intricacies of life. Have your pick of specialized areas of study including immunology, aquatic biology, animal behavior, molecular biology, neurobiology, wildlife management, and developmental biology. Through investigative work in the classroom, field, and lab, biology students are prepared to be Christians immersed in scientific discovery, ready to make a difference in their chosen fields.

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