Peering through his binoculars, Peter Gordon scans the treetops along Lake Lanier, searching for his favorite bird of the season — the osprey.
“They are unique birds,” Gordon said while looking out to the water. “I’ve lived in Gainesville since the early ‘80s, and you just didn’t see them often. Now, they’ve certainly made a comeback, and they seem to be adapting.”
Gordon, longtime birder and Elachee Nature Science Center’s retired director of education, said the species returns to Hall County in February to nest. Like most raptor birds, ospreys mate for life. Gordon shared that the male and female birds will come back to the same nests throughout their lifetime, which can range from 10-12 years.
Once their eggs hatch in the spring, the mated pair will care for their chicks until around August. From that point, the young fledglings are left on their own to fly to Central and South America for the colder months.
“Juveniles will migrate on their own and return to the general area in two to three years after they mature,” Gordon said.
Immature ospreys can be identified by their red eyes and speckles on their backs. Gordon said as they become adults, the spots will disappear and their eyes will change to yellow.
Compared to bald eagles that also live on Lake Lanier, ospreys can be identified by their smaller size and white chests. Bald eagles only have white plumage on their heads and tails.
Ospreys like to nest at the tops of trees, preferring those that are dead or mostly barren. Gordon said they choose this type of home because of its locality to prey, which is 99% fish, and for the view of potential danger.
Although ospreys are predators, Gordon explained that they aren’t exactly on the top of the food chain in Northeast Georgia. Unfortunately, bald eagles and great-horned owls have been known to snatch up osprey chicks.
As for their territory, Gordon said great blue herons will compete for space. Like ospreys, these large water birds enjoy nesting atop trees surrounding large bodies of water. If you see an osprey nest, chances are, you might spot a heron on the next tree or so over.
Gordon said that ospreys can be found on every continent except Antarctica.
“They’re very much specialists, “ he added. “Three-quarters of the earth is covered in water, so there’s plenty of habitat for them. They like fresh water, but have certainly adapted to the oceans.”
Riding out on Lake Lanier during the spring and summer, people can’t go long without witnessing an osprey flying over the water. Several have already begun nesting atop the two 65-foot nest platforms near Bolling Bridge at the Hall-Forsyth County border.
The structures were built in 2018 to give the ospreys that nest on the bridge a new place to live before it underwent construction. Ospreys are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, making it illegal to destroy the species’ habitat.
Gordon said the Gainesville Marina off Dawsonville Highway also has a nesting tower, which has been used by ospreys for over a decade. Once the mature birds die, he said their nests will continue serving other generations of local ospreys.
“We’re the poultry capital of the world, but I’d love to see consideration of the osprey being the symbol of Hall County and the Lake Lanier community because it’s such a spectacular bird,” Gordon said. “It represents perseverance and a lot of qualities that are unique in that animal.”