Birds of a feather, by coincidence, flock together: Two alumni work together to heal injured osprey

February 22, 2018

By Nina Mastandrea

Lees-McRae alumni Shylyn Peirce and Yaritza Acosta
Yaritza Acosta (left) and Shylyn Pierce (right)

What are the chances that two Lees-McRae alumni would meet on a project caring for a juvenile osprey that was over 2,000 miles from home? Perhaps it is a little higher than you would think.

Even though they both followed similar academic paths in college, Shylyn Pierce ’16 and Yaritza Acosta ’12 had never met or even heard of one another. It wasn’t until an exhausted juvenile Western Osprey landed in a heap on a sandy beach in Miami Beach, Florida, that the odds of the two meeting would increase.

On Nov. 11, 2017, early in the morning, Miami police officer, Traci Sierra, found the injured bird unable to perch or stand. Sierra, a devout animal lover, brought the weak, winged creature to the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station just a few miles north. 

After a quick initial assessment of the bird, the wildlife care team at the seabird station took the wayward raptor in to begin treatment. Team members quickly noticed the osprey was banded, meaning the bird had been previously tagged, usually for tracking, researching and conservation purposes.

Acosta, the wildlife rehabilitation manager at the seabird station, was one of the first few team members to take a look at the bird.

“Upon reporting the band numbers, we found that it had been banded in a nest along the Yellowstone River in Billings, Montana,” Acosta said.

The young bird, banded with the name “Yellowstone Osprey 19/E”, was one of 375 ospreys tagged in the nest in an effort to stabilize the population, reported a City of Miami Beach press release.

However, it wasn’t the distance of the trip that set this osprey out from his fellow banded friends, it was the direction of his flight.

Osprey's path across United States

Marco Restani, a wildlife ecology professor and researcher with the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society, the program that banded “Yellowstone Osprey 19/E”, said that most Montana ospreys travel south to Texas, Mexico, Central America and even into South America.

 “[However], this trip marks the first time one of our birds has headed to the Atlantic Ocean,” Restani said.

Lees-McRae Professor of Biology and Ornithologist, Dr. Stewart Skeate, said the bird might have accidentally headed in that direction due to a storm, weather system or inexperience.

“Juveniles are especially known to move outside of their normal ranges,” Skeate explained.

Over the following 19 days, the team at the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station cared for the weak bird of prey. Diagnosed with astasis, a lack of motor coordination marked by an inability to perch or stand without assistance due to disruption of muscle coordination, it was vital the osprey begin flight testing and conditioning as soon as possible.

However, there was one little problem.

In order to begin flight rehabilitation, a center must have a raptor flight cage—a massive enclosed cage that allows the bird to fully extend its wings and fly from perch to perch. Unfortunately, the seabird station did not have a flight cage, especially one that could occupy a patient with an adult maximum wingspan of 6 feet.

Cue Rehabilitation Manager, Pierce, 80 miles south at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center in Tavernier, Florida.

Injured Osprey
"Yellowstone Osprey 19/E" (left) in a covered crate (right) during the transport from Pelican Harbor Seabird Station to the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center.

After being shuttled by a volunteer from the seabird station, Pierce immediately placed the bird into the flight cage to begin treatment.

“It’s important they get time in the flight cage so they can work on their strength and full mobility,” Pierce said. “For humans, it’s like having knee surgery and going to a physical therapist afterward.”

Several days later, Pierce noticed the bird had knocked his tail wrap off—a special cover to protect the bird’s tail feathers.

“He was flying around the cage so much it must have fallen off, so I decided he was ready to be released,” Pierce said. “Coincidentally, that is when seabird station Director Chris Boykin called to check in on the status of the osprey.”

Pierce said it was during that call that she mentioned she was from Lees-McRae College. Boykin responded that he knew someone from Lees-McRae, and responded with, “I have Yaritza Acosta on the phone!”

“I couldn’t believe it,” Pierce said. “I wasn’t so much surprised that there was another wildlife rehabilitation person from Lees-McRae, but that I never heard about her…it’s a small program that is pretty well connected.”

After the call, Pierce coordinated with Acosta and the other team members at the seabird station to bring the osprey back to Miami Beach to be released on Dec. 14.

Acosta said when it comes to releasing animals back into the wild, it is always a good practice to release them where they were originally found.

“It reduces the chance of them getting confused and getting lost all over again,” she said.

Piecre and Acosta
Pierce (left) and Acosta (right) handle two wildlife rehabilitation program animal ambassadors during their time at Lees-McRae.

Pierce and Acosta, the two rehabilitation managers who met in the most specific of situations, shared similar reasons for entering the field of wildlife rehabilitation during their time at Lees-McRae.

Pierce began her time at Lees-McRae in 2013. Her mother found the college through a quick online search for colleges that specialized in animal sciences.

“I knew I loved the mountains,” Pierce, the Florida native, said. “I was ready to go somewhere else for school, so it felt like the perfect place.”

A long-time devout lover of animals, Pierce knew she wanted to major in wildlife biology with a minor in wildlife rehabilitation. Later on, she added another major to her repertoire, tacking on psychology to complement her wildlife biology and rehabilitation studies.

After graduating from Lees-McRae in 2016, Pierce went on to complete an internship at a conservation program before landing at her current job in south Florida.

Acosta began her studies at Lees-McRae in the biology program with a concentration in pre-veterinary medicine before staying for an additional year to add the wildlife rehabilitation minor to her degree.

“Since I could remember, I have always wanted to be a veterinarian,” Acosta said.

Even though Acosta currently works in wildlife rehabilitation, she still plans on pursuing veterinarian school within the next year. She hopes to use her degree to work with exotic animals in places like zoos and conservation programs.

For both young women, it is the feeling of releasing a once injured animal back into the wild that ignites their passion.

“It’s the coolest feeling in the world,” both Acosta and Pierce agreed. “Like nothing you have ever experienced.” 

Watch the release from the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station Facebook page.
If you're having trouble viewing the video, click here.


The Dan and Dianne May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center on the campus of Lees-McRae College is dedicated to wildlife rehabilitation and environmental education. Rehabilitation professionals and Lees-McRae students annually care for more than 1,500 injured animals from the western North Carolina region, including songbirds, raptors, waterfowl and small mammals. Under the guidance of Director Nina Fischesser and veterinarian Dr. Amber McNamara, students simultaneously contribute to the success of the wildlife rehabilitation program while engaging in a one-of-a-kind, hands-on learning experience.

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