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Gaston group building nesting platforms for ospreys

Nesting platforms in Lake Wylie boost the birds’ odds of survival

By Joe DePriest
jdepriest@charlotteobserver.com

Sharp-eyed ospreys with 6-foot wingspans soar 1,000 feet above Lake Wylie, scouting for fish.

When they spot a crappie or shad or some other prize, the big birds dive like rockets – splashing into the water and shooting out again with a meal wiggling in their talons.

Bill Jarman, president of the Gaston County chapter of the nonprofit N.C. Wildlife Federation, has watched ospreys hunt for years, and he hopes the local group’s ongoing project will continue to benefit the birds.

Gaston P.A.W.S. – which stands for Piedmont Area Wildlife Stewards – has built osprey nesting platforms that rise 20 feet out of the water in North Carolina. Through a Duke Energy Habitat Enhancement program grant, P.A.W.S. will build five platforms in South Carolina within the next few weeks.

The project lets ospreys create their own nests atop the manmade platforms instead of such dangerous places as power poles or high-tension lines.

“Their wingspans are very big,” said Jarman 71, a retired orthopedic surgeon. “If they touch a power line, they could be electrocuted.”

The platforms do more than get ospreys out of harm’s way; the structures also make it easier for people to observe the birds.

“They’re beautiful to watch, and the public’s very aware of them,” said Jarman. “Now we can get the osprey on the lake, where it can be seen and enjoyed by everybody.”

Formed four years ago, P.A.W.S. picked nesting platforms as one of its first projects. According to Jarman, the inspiration came from a similar project by the Lake Norman Wildlife Conservationists, which is also a chapter of the N.C. Wildlife Federation.

The federation has placed nearly 50 osprey platforms over the years at lakes along the Catawba River chain.

Birds warm to nests

P.A.W.S. built its first seven platforms in late 2009. The structures are made of 30-foot-long wooden poles planted in the river by a 1,500-pound pile driver.

A 48-inch square cyclone fence is placed on the platform in a horizontal position with four legs for support. After the platform goes up, P.A.W.S. members put sticks in it “to encourage osprey to make a nest,” Jarman said. “That first year, six platforms were used and three had chicks.”

This year, six of the seven platforms are occupied, and each has two chicks, Jarman said.

In addition to platforms, which have safety reflectors for boaters and are approved by the Lake Wylie Marine Commission, the group has built wooden duck boxes and 18 “fish attractors,” synthetic Christmas tree-like structures that create a micro-environment for fish.

In addition, the P.A.W.S. members take part in the annual fall Lake Wylie Riversweep, a one-day cleanup that yields tons of trash in North and South Carolina.

Volunteers wade into the water to pick up everything from car parts to living room furniture.

Joe Stowe, executive director of the Lake Wylie Marine Commission, said such efforts by P.A.W.S. and other volunteers are a positive contribution to the health of the lake.

“It’s encouraging to see people who really care about this place,” he said.

Lake Wylie is part of the Catawba River chain, listed as one of the most endangered rivers by American Rivers conservation organization in 2008 and one of the 10 most endangered places in the Southeast by the Southern Environmental Law Center in 2010 and 2012.

Rusty Rozzelle, water-quality program manager with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Stormwater Service, said Lake Wylie has the poorest water quality of the three lakes bordering Mecklenburg.

On Aug. 27, Rozzelle will talk about water quality at a meeting of the Lake Wylie Marine Commission.

While there has been some improvement in coves on the Mecklenburg side, “it’s hard to say if it’s a long-term trend or a blip on the radar,” Rozzelle said. Better standards are needed on the lake, he said, including how to deal with elevated nutrient levels.

Meanwhile, the Lake Wylie Marine Commission is trying to get officials in Mecklenburg, Gaston and York counties together soon to discuss the issue of runoff into the lake.

More platforms

As the focus on water quality continues, P.A.W.S. members keep doing their part to help wildlife along the lake.

Jarman said that in addition to the five osprey nesting platforms planned for South Carolina within the next few weeks, eight more platforms will be going up in the winter.

For him, ospreys are not only important in the balance of nature but also add to the beauty of the lake.

“They’re very graceful and impressive,” Jarman said. “Keeping the river clean helps the osprey – and us.”

DePriest: 704-868-7745
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