High on towers and ospreys

Demolition: When obsolete Navy radio towers near Annapolis are razed, their manager is worried about the loss of nesting places.

November 12, 1999|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

The 20 or so osprey families have all migrated south, so they won't be around tomorrow to see their homes on the tall spindly structures destroyed. But Osprey Man will be there. He's still not sure yet how the detonation will affect his life -- or the birds he's come to love.

John Schorpp -- aka Osprey Man -- manages and maintains the U.S. Navy's 16 steel radio towers on Greenbury Point, across the Severn River from downtown Annapolis.

The Navy hasn't used the towers for years, leaving Schorpp behind as the lone employee of the Navy's obsolete radio transmission station.

Three of the towers will be destroyed tomorrow morning. Ten others will be felled in the coming weeks. The demolition is part of a process to return Greenbury Point -- one of the region's largest undeveloped waterfront tracts -- to the wild.

The red-and-white towers, the tallest of which is 1,200 feet, have dominated the Annapolis skyline for most of the century.

Boaters returning from a day on the Chesapeake Bay navigate their way home by aiming their bows at the towers, which are connected by an intricate web-work of antenna wires and anchored by miles of wrist-thick cables.

For decades, the structures have shared the 231-acre point with deer, foxes, raccoons, hawks, the occasional bald eagle and, particularly since 1983, the monogamous pairs of ospreys.

That was the year John Schorpp's circuitous life brought him to Annapolis to work for the Navy.

Before Schorpp's arrival, Navy workers considered the osprey nests on the towers a nuisance, and tossed them off. Schorpp persuaded the Navy to let the federally protected birds roost there.

He read books on the osprey, consulted experts and became the patron of the birds. Over the years, Schorpp has coddled, hand-fed, photographed and nursed back to health many of the osprey families that return each year to build nests of twigs, reeds and driftwood on the towers.

"I've got a soft spot for critters," Schorpp said after a recent climb up to an abandoned osprey nest. "The Lord said, `John, get your butt on over to Annapolis.' The osprey needed help, so the message went out."

About 20 osprey couples return each spring to the towers of Greenbury Point. They raise two to four offspring each year; the male goes fishing while the female incubates her eggs.

Come March, with all but three towers gone, Schorpp expects to find himself in an anxious mood. By then, free-standing wooden platforms should be built in the same areas to give the ospreys a place to nest -- he hopes.

Greenbury Point was once known as Providence, a settlement of Puritans exiled from Jamestown who came here for religious freedom. The Naval Academy bought the land in 1909 for a dairy farm. In 1918, the first towers were built to send signals to Europe, where they were picked up by antennas on the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Later radio signals left Greenbury bound for U.S. forces in World War II and Navy submarines across the globe during the Cold War. But radio technology, e-mail, satellite and microwave communications have made them obsolete.

In 1993, Congress voted to close the base, and the last signal was transmitted on a January morning in 1996.

Despite intense pressure from hungry developers, the Navy decided not to sell or build on the land. It transferred the property to the Naval Academy in 1994 and, in conjunction with state and Anne Arundel County officials, the academy decided to create a wildlife center.

Trails are being etched and an unveiling is scheduled for next year.

Three of the smaller towers will remain in place for a year, to give the county, private communications companies and the National Security Agency a chance to bid on them. If there is not enough interest, those three towers will also be destroyed.

Congress has provided $4.3 million to remove all the towers -- and to build new platforms for the ospreys.

For Schorpp, 58, the future is worrisome -- for him and his birds.

Schorpp has adopted the steel towers and the land as his playground. He straps on a climbing harness and lanyards almost daily to scamper up the towers. He says it's the best job he's ever had.

But the Navy hasn't told him how much longer he can work there.

Born in Spanish Harlem and raised in rural Pennsylvania, Schorpp worked 15 years in a steel mill before traveling the country as a free-lance tower and antenna mechanic.

Along the way, he read often and picked up bits of mysticism and religion, then wove them into a philosophical pastiche of self-denial and communion with Earth that now guides his life.

The philosophy meshed perfectly with the job the Navy offered him in 1983, with an office under the open sky and 16 jungle gyms poking the sky, most of them alive from March to September with the comings and goings of osprey families.

A favorite among his thousands of photographs is a wide-angle shot of himself reflected in the eye of a baby osprey in its nest.

"I guess you could say that I bonded with the osprey," he said.

And on some days, standing 1,200 feet above the former Providence, he almost feels what it must be like to be one of them.

"When you get up on top of a piece of steel, you're in a different world," Schorpp said. "You're in a more exotic air."

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