It’s an unseasonably warm late October morning as Alabama Power’s Renew Our Rivers cleanup boat plies through the not-so-cool waters of Lay Lake. The news reporters on board are eager to video and photograph a bird nest with no birds — at least right now. Eventually, there will be nests filled with long-winged, fish-eating ospreys.

Ospreys are large migratory birds classified as “raptors” and known in common vernacular as the “fish eagle” or “river hawk.” Although they are not nesting this time of year (nesting season in Alabama typically runs from March to September), their big, chunky nests remain wedged in the tops of most every channel marker in this section of the Coosa River a few miles east of Columbiana in Shelby County.

The reporters and photographers are here to watch as Alabama Power endeavors to make the lake more hospitable for the grand species. The electric utility, which built Lay Dam and manages Lay Lake, is installing several nesting platforms on top of new channel markers here and at Neely Henry Lake upstream. The platforms make it much easier and more efficient for ospreys to build their nests.

The channel markers are an ideal nesting location for the fish-eating ospreys. The markers provide easy access from wide-open water, a clear line of sight to detect predators such as eagles, and a buffet of fresh fish each day.

Workers put the finishing touches on a platform for next year’s osprey nesting season. (Alabama Power)

Nest platforms are bolted on top of seven new channel markers the company installed during October and November in both lakes. The 4-foot-by-4-foot platforms, built by employees at the General Services Complex in Calera, resemble large trays with short sides — foundations upon which osprey homes can be built.

“Conserving fish and wildlife and their habitat is a key component of how Alabama Power manages its reservoirs and project lands for hydropower generation,” says Jason Carlee, an Environmental Affairs supervisor who oversees the company’s stewardship projects.

He adds the osprey nest project is a “great opportunity to take advantage of a required project. We would be deploying the channel markers, regardless, but now we are able to double their impact and leverage them into a conservation benefit for the birds.

“The public benefits from increased safety through better identification of the navigable channel on the reservoirs, and the birds get a better place to build their nests,” Carlee says.

Back from the brink

The increased demand for osprey nesting spots is great news for the species. Osprey and other fish-eating birds, like the bald eagle, were nearly wiped out from widespread use of the pesticide DDT. Fortunately, through focused conservation efforts, ospreys and eagles have made a nice recovery, says Carrie Threadgill, a nongame biologist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

“Osprey nest platforms have been a key component to the return of the osprey population in Alabama,” Threadgill says. “They are often found nesting in undesirable places such as utility poles or towers that require regular maintenance.

“The placement of additional nesting platforms along the lakes will provide safer areas for these large predators to nest, while allowing the public more opportunities to enjoy Alabama’s wildlife,” she says.

The osprey is found around the world and is one of the more dominant species on Alabama waterways. It is often observed diving for fish. Nests are made of large sticks and branches and can be used by the same birds for years.

Safer for boaters

On top of adding the new channel markers, the three-week project also restored the existing markers to conditions acceptable to the Alabama Marine Patrol. Alabama Power installed the original markers in response to property owners, the Marine Patrol and other stakeholders to increase safety on the lakes.

Some of the original markers are due to be replaced because “time, weather, high flows, floating debris — even boaters and wildlife — take a toll on the channel markers,” says Keith Bryant, a senior engineer with Southern Company Generation’s Hydro Services unit. “Ultraviolet rays cause fading, especially to the red markers, and metal signs begin to rust.”

Parker Livingston, an engineer with Southern Company who oversaw the project, says the channel markers help boaters navigate around stumps and other hazards.

“They are color-coded red and green so boaters can tell where to travel safely within the lake. If you’re going upstream, the red markers should be on your right and the green markers on your left,” Livingston says. “The markers are also numbered in chronological order to help boaters know where they are on the lake. We think it’s a real win-win to have a dual-purpose project providing aid to navigation and platforms for nesting.”

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