Raptors revisited

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Community rebuilds nesting platform destroyed by storms and ospreys return, bringing with them signs of rebirth and resilience

Story and photography by Virginia C. Linch

Last spring, a storm ripped away a man-made osprey nesting platform on Lake Oconee, a place where I would escape to watch and photograph these majestic raptors and their young. It was an overwhelming loss to find their home gone and the surroundings silent.

I shared this experience in the Holiday issue of Lake Oconee Living, and following its publication, our nature loving community sprang into action with an outpouring of support worthy of the magnificent birds that soar above this region every day.

Janet Pearson, President of Rivers Alive, reached out immediately to co-ordinate the building skills of volunteer, Harris McCollum, with donated materials from Lake Oconee Ace Hardware. McCollum created a platform built on specifications from DNR for osprey nesting in the wild. Georgia Power official, Clint Brown, enlisted professional contractor, Michael Clewis and his experienced crew of Ben Brantley and Shane Wright, to install the platform on a blustery winter day in December. This great group of folks worked together to have the platform ready for the 2020 mating season.

The staff at the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center stepped up to build a platform as well. This platform was not ready until mid-January, when most projects came to an abrupt halt with the pandemic outbreak that has changed priorities for everyone. We hope to install that platform for the 2021 season.

These elegant and fierce raptors begin scouting prime nesting locations in mid-January, laying claim as early as possible to their preferred spots. Many people were watching to see when or if any ospreys would stake a claim to this platform and while the lightning fast kingfishers were seen perching on it early on, we all waited to see if ospreys would return to this location.

Ospreys do not require man made structures to reproduce in the wild as evidenced by the many natural nesting sites all over the lake region. The original platform in this setting had been used by many generations of ospreys over the years and provided a safe area that was accessible to wildlife viewers yet suitable for supporting osprey lifecycles.

Word of the sighting of seemingly random and haphazardly placed sticks on the platform spread rapidly between those involved with this project. While the building of the nest is an ongoing and lengthy process that continues during actual nesting and fledging of the young, the nests are notoriously poorly constructed.

I began scouting the area in mid-March and was thrilled to hear the distinctive shrill chirping alarm call as I left the path and headed for the nest. Silence was the first indication of a problem last spring. The ever-vigilant ospreys call warns all who know the sound, of an invader in the area. Stepping out into the site that was desolate just last spring and now seeing that there was indeed a pair of ospreys building a nest, brought that moment of joy that nature shares with so many.

The apparently random pile of sticks was filling out the box frame mounted on a pole in a small cove. Both birds eyed me with a combination of curiosity and piercing suspicion, fearless. I made no attempt to come closer and they soon returned to the business at hand, or talon, both male and female scouting for sticks, while one would remain, guarding the site. They take turns collecting building material and their primary diet of freshly-caught fish, settling in each evening to begin their nighttime vigil.

Returning in April and hearing that shrill warning cry once again, brought a smile which only became bigger as I found the female now in incubation mode. Hunkered down in the nest and while watching every move I made, she did not abandon her instinctive drive to keep her eggs warm. The male returned with a fish for her, and she moved only to give him room to come in. Although they generally only weigh about three pounds, their wingspan can be eight feet wide and that nest is a relatively small target.  Factoring in the average of three eggs, there is not much room for landing.

He drops the fish into the nest, and she pounces on it as he tiptoes carefully around the edges, avoiding the center where the eggs lay. She flies off in a flurry of wings with her snack and he opens his beak silently, in a possible yawn, as he takes incubation duty while she devours her snack and watches from a nearby tree.

Observing the behavior of subjects for hours on end is part of nature photography. One learns so much by just being still, listening and allowing normal actions to continue. The carefree nest building and fishing attitude has drastically changed. They are now on a mission and even birds flying overhead are warned away with a different series of calls and glares from glittering eyes that seem to assess each and every leaf movement, sound or scent, whether in the water below, the shoreline, or the sky above. The noise of the nearby traffic, boats, jet skis, and blaring radios fades away and one can almost understand how these birds of prey have adapted to human interruptions. People and their raucous machines are simply ignored, interrupting the gentler sounds of nature in brief moments.

Keeping an eye on the calendar and checking back mid-May shows yet another and different behavior. The female is sitting on the edge of the nest instead of incubating, there is the barest hint of white fuzz spotted between those piled sticks. The golden glare has changed into an intensity that can be felt on the bank. A fierce and protective stance is taken at my approach, not the humble incubation position at all. At least one egg has hatched and with that new arrival, both adults have become compellingly wary as well as ferocious. They display almost snarling beaks and extended talons while spreading their wings exaggerating their size in a sign of aggressiveness.

They soon relax and although they are cognizant of my presence, the initial barely suppressed display of hostility has gradually settled back into simple awareness.

Nature photographer, Herta Thomas of Fayetteville, Ga., made her first trip to Lake Oconee and was present at the discovery of the destroyed nest in 2019.

“As a nature photographer, I was thrilled with the opportunity to view the ospreys nesting in this location,” she shares with me. “A group of our club members left the Atlanta area early and made the trip with high expectations. When we arrived, we were stunned to see that the platform holding the nest, was no longer standing and a deep sadness came over me. Questions about the young in the nest bothered us all. Did they survive? Where did they go? To this day, the tragic event from that early morning sighting leaves an emptiness in my heart. That sadness was changed by the tremendous happiness with a recent visit after seeing the adults on the nest. I hope that these are the same parents who were able to begin again with a new family. Coming to the lake now, sitting by the nest with camera in hand, while watching these incredible raptors, fishing, feeding, changing shifts while enjoying the sunrise  on the lake makes my heart beat a bit faster and the connection to God is real. I am very thankful for this little sanctuary; it restores my soul and gives me long term peace. Thank you so much for the people and hands who worked to make it possible to sit there, worship God and enjoy that peace.”

I extend my own thanks to all who took part in this restoration project that has justified all the efforts.  The disastrous event in the loss of the original nesting site has been restored by the unity and active participation of all involved. I view this small project as a symbol of what our community, state, country and the world can do to recover and flourish from the epic challenges we now face, and finding ultimate success in the days to come.

  • Virginia C. Linch is a nature photographer and project director of Butterflies & Blooms in the Briar Patch in Eatonton where she lives with her husband, Ronald Linch.

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