Return of the raptors

After storms took away their nesting platform over Lake Oconee, locals look for ospreys to return in time for the 2020 nesting season.

Story and Photography by Virginia C. Linch

Exploring the lakes in our area opens our eyes to the diverse and incredible creatures living beside us day by day. Driving past towering power poles and catching sight of magnificent birds soaring to and from them teases us all. These platforms built by Georgia Power to give raptors the ability to nest safely is a project that was begun two decades ago providing us all the ability to marvel at them while they live safely without interference from those of us who are limited to walking the earth.

In 2O12, afriend told me of a small cove on Lake Oconee that held one of these platforms with a bald eagle nest, so off I went, with camera in hand to find it. I found the cove, and in the middle stood a pole with a platform that had a huge and messy nest with what I learned was not a bald eagle at all, but an osprey, also known as a fish hawk, and three chicks. This became a favorite site for me to visit on a regular basis.

While I was able to identify that first pair returning in 2O15, I noticed different pairs each year after.  These birds mate for life, the female choosing a male primarily due to his nest building skills and ability to provide for her while she is on the nest. Catching a meal may require diving underwater. Ospreys can shut their nostrils during this action. The feathers are covered with a waxy, waterproof substance that allows them to simply shake off the water as they rise with a fish gripped between the talons and the barbs on the pads of their feet. Turning that fish head to the front allows them to maintain their aerodynamic position, which they do with every catch.

Watching this nest over the years has shown that there are usually three to four eggs laid, with the female serving as primary incubator. Several times a day, the male will bring her a fresh fish and take temporary nest duty while she flies off to devour this meal. On her return, he again leaves to patrol or do whatever ospreys do on their off time! I have watched them bathe in the shallow waters, constantly shifting their eyes to all areas around, spend hours preening immaculate feathers, or simply screaming a fierce warning to any large birds or other intruders that may inadvertently trespass their territory.  Those warned have immediately swerved away.

The eggs hatch at different times, which sets the pecking order. The first to hatch becomes the most aggressive, and the last, the most submissive. This year’s nestlings follow the pattern, their golden brown eyes follow the flights of the adults and are always observing. Mature at eighteen months, the eye color will change to the yellow of an adult. I am concerned about the smallest in this brood. The larger two will not allow it to approach the feeding until they are finished. The adult female ignores its hungry peeps and simply eyes it dismissively.

Over the years, the behavior of these birds became quite familiar. There would be a fierce, shrill series of calls from the sentry to alert the nesting osprey as soon as I took a step onto the path to the clearing where I watched them for hours at a time. The sharing of the incubation duties by both adults as the sun became hotter and yet the eggs could not be left, was too much for one bird to handle. The spiraling wings vanishing into the clouds and then back to the water all left me breathless with awe. While their vigilance never ceased at my arrival, they did not panic at my invasion. Those piercing eyes would glance my way briefly, then continue to scan for true danger.

On May 29, I was set up for a dose of glorious osprey time, I noticed that the true feathers were starting to appear on the osprey-ettes and estimated they were only a couple of weeks away from fledging.  Their inherent raptor skills were apparent as they fought among themselves under the protection of their mothers wings. These battles stopped long enough to wait patiently as she tore a fresh fish into shreds and carefully placed each morsel into their gaping beaks. The smallest, hovering in the background quietly, accepting its place as last in line.

I had arranged with some nature photographers to meet the following weekend to share this amazing site and was pleased that they were willing to drive from Stockbridge, Athens, and Fayetteville to our little lake paradise to do so.  A storm cancelled that meeting and we rescheduled the following Saturday.

As we walked down the bank, I noted the silence – the now expected calls not heard. I ignored that warning and continued on. As we came to the clearing where I have spent hours and hours over many years, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

 The platform was gone. Only the calm, still water of the lake was in view.

There are moments when one cannot process what the mind tells you, your eyes tell you. This was such a moment – stomach churning, adrenalin pumping realization that a tragic event had occurred and nothing changed in the universe. In this world filled with heartbreaking challenges faced by many family and friends, this location was an oasis packed with vivid colors, intense life, and almost magical power. I could hear the quiet murmurs from the photographers who understood the scene quicker than I could grasp the ending of years of observing the complicated and beautiful lives of creatures we usually only glimpse in the sky. I know these are simply birds, and cannot excuse or explain my immediate distress.

Frantic phone calls to Corporal Lyn Stanford with the Department of Natural Resources led to a return call stating that an agent went to the site to investigate and was able to see the pole and platform on the bottom of the lake with a sonar fish finder. The storm from the week before apparently took down the entire platform.

While most ospreys migrate to Central and South America in the winter, this lake region is a year-round home for established ospreys. According to John Kraft with Georgia Power, 20 osprey nesting platforms were built with Reynolds Lake Oconee and DNR around 2001. The commitment by Georgia Power, DNR, and Reynolds Lake Oconee to provide safe nesting for them is admirable. Calls to officials with Georgia Power and DNR were met with interest and concern as each one contacted learned of this particular situation.

Friends and I have decided that the adult ospreys merely lifted the chicks out of the nest during that storm, and all are thriving in a different location. It is hoped that this structure will be rebuilt in time for the 2020 nesting season and we will once again be under the watchful eye of Lake Oconee’s osprey.

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