David Lauderdale

This little Hilton Head osprey could not fly or fish, but he changed people’s lives

Watch as "Julia" the osprey is released on Hilton Head

Hilton Head Island resident Jeffrey Morford had the pleasure of releasing “Julia,” a female, juvenile osprey that was rehabilitated by The Center for Birds of Prey in Charleston of on Hilton Head Island.
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Hilton Head Island resident Jeffrey Morford had the pleasure of releasing “Julia,” a female, juvenile osprey that was rehabilitated by The Center for Birds of Prey in Charleston of on Hilton Head Island.

Poor little Boris.

He was born into a mighty breed: the soaring osprey of the South Carolina Lowcountry that we call seahawks, or fish hawks, or even fish eagles, for their dazzling skills in the sky and water.

But little Boris barely learned to fly, and he never caught a fish.

His little life story was a sad one for his human neighbors to watch.

But Jeff Morford of Cougar Run in Hilton Head Plantation said it has a happy ending.

Boris turned him into a rescue and transport volunteer for the Avian Conservation Center, formerly known as the Center for Birds of Prey, in Awendaw, above Charleston.

That’s who he frantically called the day Boris got into trouble.

Boris and his older sister, Natasha, were seen as great gifts to those who watched their little heads appear in a rustic nest this spring.

It was the fourth year that their parents, who Morford named Popeye and Olive Oyl, tried to have a family. But one year a great horned owl in the neighborhood got them.

“We heard the battle,” Morford said. “It was horrible.”

Another year, they were attacked by two other osprey.

But this year Natasha broke out of her shell, and eight days later came little Boris. In time, she flew and caught fish without even thinking, while little Boris practiced flapping his wings and hesitated to leave the nest. When he got up the nerve to dive for a fish, he’d hit the water and somersault.

“He was getting weaker and weaker,” Morford said. “He went into the nest and never left it. We’d hear him crying, crying, crying all the time, and then he didn’t cry anymore. For about four days, we did not hear a peep.”

Popeye perched in a nearby tree, and seemed to cry out for Boris to get up.

And then Boris did it. He tried one more time to catch a fish.

“He literally collapsed right on top of the water,” said Morford, who watches the wildlife from large windows in his home by a lagoon near Bear Creek.

“He was lying there with his wings out, his head barely above the water.”

Popeye swooped low a few times. Two juvenile eagles appeared. An alligator from the nest around the bend came easing that way.

“Everybody senses food,” Morford said.

He first called the humane association, then the Avian Conservation Center. He ran out to distract the predators as rescue volunteer Vince Romano dashed to Hilton Head Island from Sun City.

“Boris, poor guy, was trying so hard,” Morford said. “He figured out that if he rowed with his wings he could get to the bank. I was so impressed with his intelligence to do that — and the desire.”

Boris got to the bank and totally collapsed.

Romano got him wrapped and in a carrier.

“I was holding him,” Morford said. “They have such beautiful eyes. He just stared right at me. I really thought he would make it.”

Romano delivered Boris to the home of Terry and Nancy Owen on St. Helena Island. He’s a retired veterinarian. They operate a federally licensed facility that Morford called a bird triage center, where rescued birds can be hydrated and examined, and sent on to the federally-licensed center in Awendaw for treatment.

“Boris did well that night,” Morford said. “They got fluids in him, but it was too late. His organs had shut down.”

Two months later, Morford has joined the center’s team of volunteers. He is now one who will rescue and transport injured birds — a perigrene falcon from the port in Savannah, an owl found stuck to a car grill.

Before going for his MBA, he almost went the route of veterinary school.

Since moving to Hilton Head five years ago to care for his late father, Joe Morford, his home office looks out over the world of osprey, eagles, great blue herons, owls, gators, song birds — all co-existing in a fascinating “dance” of life, he said.

He can set his clock by the routines he witnesses. Olive Oyl leaves for South America in September and returns at the end of February. Popeye doesn’t migrate anymore. He keeps an eye on the nest that she insisted he rebuild in a nearby tree, even though it wasn’t Popeye’s inclination, after Hurricane Matthew knocked over the dead pine they had called home.

A few days before she gets back to the Lowcountry, Popeye quits soaring and comes to a tree to wait. When she arrives, they squawk and chirp and soar and dive for a couple of weeks like teenagers. Then they get down to the business of producing chicks, like little Boris.

Morford said everything came full circle last week when he stood in his back yard and released a rescued female juvenile osprey back into the wild. He named her Julia. She had been beaten up when she was rescued and nursed back to health at the Avian Conservation Center.

Julia and Natasha soar around with Popeye.

And Morford answers the phone just as he sits down to eat. Someone has called the number he wants everyone to memorize — 843-971-7474 — to report an injured shorebird or bird of prey.

Off he goes, in the name of little Boris.

David Lauderdale: 843-706-8115, @ThatsLauderdale

What to do if you find an injured bird

  • Call the Center for Birds of Prey at 843-971-7474 and press option No. 1 for the Injured Bird Line. This line is answered from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day of the week.
  • If the bird is contained, do not offer food or water to the bird.
  • The bird may not be strong enough to process solid food, even if it appears hungry; feeding could harm or even be fatal to the bird. Having food in its system may also preclude certain medical procedures that the bird may need.
  • Injured raptors require specialized treatment and care from a federally licensed, experienced practitioner. It is illegal to possess any migratory bird without state and federal permits. However, your temporary assistance is allowed in helping an injured bird reach proper care and doing so ensures its best chance for recovery and return to its natural environment.

Source: The Center for Birds of Prey, 4719 Highway 17N, Awendaw, SC 29429