Meet the Raptor family

Raptors at Lake Oconee (and not Jurassic Park)

Written by Willis Johnson

I suspect all of you enjoy birds in your gardens with their cheerful sounds, bright colors, nests of baby birds and antics in the bird baths. However, do you enjoy Raptors (birds of prey – dinosaur relatives) in your gardens? We sure do.

Here on Lake Oconee you get to see many types of Raptors including the Belted Kingfisher, the beautiful White Egrets, Hawks, the ever present Blue Herons, the “Sea Hawks” (or Osprey), the common Screech Owls and even occasionally the Long-Eared Owl and the more reclusive Bald Eagle. We’ve had them all in our gardens as well as above and along the shore line of our cove.

When we bought our property we had visited many lot sites all around the lake but kept coming back to the one that we ended up purchasing. What finally pushed us over the edge to purchasing our future home site was a thrilling event we’ll never forget.

Walking into our heavily wooded lot we woke up a group of deer lying in ferns and shrubs under the towering Oak trees. They must have loved the truly abundant supply of acorns we get every 3-4 years. As they trotted off we were near the back of the property and while looking over the cove we noticed a very large bird on a tree limb very high above us. As we moved, so did the bird and then we realized it was a mature Bald Eagle. We stared and stared at this beautiful bird and were amazed he did not leave the area with us nearby. As we began to leave the property the Eagle followed us, flying from one large tree to the next, typically no more then 10-15 feet apart. When we got to the top of the property and near the cul-de-sac we turned for one last look and that beautiful white head was looking down at us as if telling us to hurry back soon. We did. We bought the property, but we never saw the Eagle on our property again. It does seem it was a beautiful message to us in finding and buying the property that eventually became our permanent home site and the framework we have been making our gardens in.

100_0099Coincidentally, my father being a metal sculpture artist, had made a sculpture of a Bald Eagle on a stump with a fish clasped in its talon. He was kind enough to give that to us for our gardens and it remains a forever reminder of that wonderful day roughly 18 years ago. It now resides in our garden and has been moved to be under the trees where we first saw that beautiful bird. It almost seems like a spiritual event to us now.

With that, the adventures of Raptors in our Gardens began. You might ask “What actually are Birds of Prey (or Raptors)?”. Simply stated it’s those birds who feed on other animals. Osprey, Bald Eagles and Kingfishers thrive primarily on fish. Herons and Egrets are careful slow hunters that will eat just about anything from fish, to snakes, to baby birds, snails and no, not puppy dog tails. The Owls and Red Tailed Hawks seem to like furry critters along with snakes and other non-fish options.

When we first built our home we loved sitting at the lake with a glass of wine and watching the Kingfishers flying like little helicopters over the lake and then dive into the water head first capturing little minnows and flying off with their meal in their beaks. They’d land on a tree limb or a dock canopy, knock the minnow around a little and then swallow it. The Herons and Egrets hunting was a little more slow motion – at least leading up to the kill. They move slowly one leg at a time, stirring up the bottom, and usually moving silently before a quick strike of their beaks into the water. With the capture they would toss their heads up into the air and flick their catch down the hatch and usually take a small sip of lake water and then move on to the next part of their meal search.

That was a great introduction for us into the world of Raptors. Not long after this we built a large Koi pond with a stream. If you have goldfish or Koi we can promise you, you will have Herons in your garden. It is kind of like building a baseball field. If you’re fortunate you will even have Red Tailed Hawks and Osprey visit your ponds as well.

The Heron came in and ate all our goldfish and Koi. We would run out to the garden yelling, chasing and doing all sorts of things to get them to go away hoping they wouldn’t come back. But they did come back many times. It turns out, living on the lake ensures you’re going to be on a flight path that many Heron are going to be traveling back and forth on. When they fly up higher than our trees they can look down and could not resist the sparkling colors of our fish. We tried a fake plastic Owl. We tried a fake plastic Heron. We tried a fake huge snake. None of that worked. In fact I’ve read that during breeding season the fake Heron can even attract them.

So what to do? First was to apply the power of observation. We found that the first visits usually occurred when the leaves were down from all of our beautiful large deciduous trees and in winter they would go hunting in our pond. That was the clue we needed. We now have a net we put over the pond as the leaves begin to fall and that way, even if the Raptor sees the fish they can’t get to them. It also helped us out by keeping leaves out of the pond and thus reducing our clean up chores.

Heron_extraWe still get Heron visiting us as you can see the bird approaching our pond/net. We still chase them away but they haven’t gotten any of our 6 ten year old Koi which have now grown up to be roughly 20 pounds each. Even if they were to get to them I don’t think they could do much given how large the Koi have gotten.

100_3996Osprey, on the other hand, are much different in their hunting methods. They have incredibly good eyesight and circle the lake (or pond) from a very high vantage point and you can watch them circle and circle waiting for the right time to attack. I’ve watched one do this over our cove, and when it was time the Raptor folded back its wings and flew down at a very high speed and smacked the water while grabbing the back of a relatively large fish with its talons on the fly. As the Osprey flew he gained height even while the fish was struggling and twisting in his talons. Off to a secluded location he and his dinner would go. It hasn’t turned out that way every time here. There are two memorable exceptions. The first is when I noticed an Osprey had grabbed onto a very big Bass. It was too large for him to fly away with. I’ve read that 2 pounds is probably the limit for an Osprey to carry. He wouldn’t give up though, staying in the lake gripping the fish and floating like a duck. Then, off he’d fly again. Maybe 10 feet, no more, and down he and the fish would go. This happened 8 or 9 times before the Osprey gave up and left the Bass floating in the lake showing that he had at least killed the fish even though he couldn’t eat it. Maybe that’s where the expression ‘your eyes are bigger than your stomach’ comes from.

The second event with the Osprey was enjoyed by my wife, Devin, as she was at the sink, looking out the window and enjoying the scenery in our kitchen garden where our Koi pond resides. An Osprey obviously had been scoping out the pond and the Koi as he came barreling down into the net that was 1-2 feet above the pond (obviously not seeing the net). He hit the net, bounced up off of it (like a trampoline) in a cloud of feathers landing on the ground behind the pond. The Osprey shook its head several times, sat there for a while (wish we could have read his mind) and then flew away unhurt. Some things happen so fast you don’t have time to get your camera and capture the moment. I hope to photograph an Osprey hunting one day.

We have mixed opinions about snakes in our garden. Devin dislikes snakes and they all scare her. I’m fascinated by them and like most all of them in our garden with the exception of the poisonous ones. I fear for Devin, our Maltese and grandchildren. I have killed 7 or 8 Copperheads in our gardens and always feel guilty when I do as they are quite beautiful. We are lucky in that we have not had any Rattle Snakes, Cotton Mouths or Coral Snakes in our gardens. Incidentally, Copperhead venom is more of a concern with small animals, children or people with immune problems. The reason I bring this up was that one morning, looking out the bedroom window, I saw two Red tailed Hawks hunting as a tag team in our Woods gardens. I’d seen them hunt down and devour a grey squirrel before and this morning they were apparently on snake patrol. Sure enough one of the pair flies down, grabs a snake, repeatedly biting him in the head and neck area. I grab my camera and run out hoping to get a picture but as I approach him he flies, with his snake, up into the tree and just out of my view. I try to edge my way around to get a better view and hopefully a zoom in shot to see him eating and to see what kind of a snake he got (secretly hoping it was a Copperhead). Much to my chagrin the two Red tailed hawks flew off into the woods to never be seen with their snake again.

Another time, where I did get pictures, was tied to our pond again. You wouldn’t think a Red tailed Hawk would be a Koi hunter and he wasn’t. He had seen a frog from high up at the edge of the pond. The Hawk flew down, grabbed the frog with one of his talons and hung on the best he could. The problem was that it was winter and that net came in to play. Hawk on the outside, frog on the inside and net between. The Red tailed Hawk did not want to give up that frog as he had killed him and now wanted to eat him. This time, with my camera I was getting closer and closer and taking a lot of pictures. He finally let go of the frog and landed on a garden pot at the edge of the pond and glared at me. I was roughly 5-6 feet away when he decided he couldn’t get the frog or couldn’t get rid of me and he gave up and flew away.

As you can see we have had many exciting Raptor visits in the garden. There are even more. Every winter we get to enjoy the ‘hoot hoot hoots’ from our Owl friends. It’s usually the common Screech Owls but on occasion we get to enjoy the hoots of the Long-eared Owl. On rare occasions we even get to see them perched in our trees. We mainly hear them at night as the sun goes down and then they seem to disappear at sun up. However, on a 7AM morning walk with our Maltese we hear the hooting (Jeb especially is curious to any strange sounds) of the Long-eared owl and see his silhouette against the sky line showing him to look like a very large bird with very large ears. They look larger than they really are due to all their fluffed out feathers.

On another fine day, mid-morning, I hear a loud raucous noise outside. I’m sure you’ve heard of a ‘covey of quail’ but did you realize a group of crows is called a ‘murder of crows’? Well now I know why. Way up in a tree sits the large Long-eared Owl and he’s surrounded by a very large group (murder) of crows. They were squawking at him, swooping in, pecking at him and I’m thinking ‘Are they crazy? That’s a Raptor!’. Then I started feeling sorry for the Owl. It was obvious they don’t like Owls (I suspect it was fear of what the Owl might do to their young) but I could not quit feeling sorry for the Owl. This went on for what felt like hours but I’m sure it was probably more like 15-20 minutes. I couldn’t take my eyes away from all the action wondering what was going to happen. Then it did. Uneventfully, quietly the Owl flew down out of the tree over my head, around the garage and into the woods with nary a crow following him. It was dead silent.

I have to share one more Heron story with you as it happened in one of the gardens I built at my home in Marietta Georgia years ago. You guessed right, another Koi pond is at the center of this one.

Have you ever had one of those days, fighting the flu, when you find yourself wearing pajama bottoms, a sweatshirt and slippers, staring out the window wondering if you’re going to live much longer?

On a cold fall day, with my oily uncombed hair, and a week worth of facial stubble, I was peering into my garden hoping my illness would soon be over. Looking at the water gardens, I saw one of the largest Herons I had ever seen coveting my Koi. He grabbed my largest fish and hauled him out of the pond and dropped him at his feet. My Koi were my pride and joy as I had raised them all from only a few inches in length and the one he had taken was close to two feet long. Needless to say, he was a valuable Koi, and one of my favorites.

I grabbed a jacket and ran outside hoping to scare the Heron away and to get the Koi back into the pond. Hopefully he would recover from the attempt on his life. I didn’t realize I was about to compete with mother nature and that I should have just stayed inside. As I got within twenty feet of the Heron, he became scared. Not willing to give up the fish, he realized (being at the edge of the Chattahoochee national forest that backed up to my home) he could not fly out with me blocking his escape route. He took the fish in his beak and turned into the forest and flapped roughly fifty feet barely off the ground. Due to the weight of the Koi and his overall panic with the crazy looking man chasing him, he dropped the fish. Once I got within twenty feet of him he’d repeatedly pick up the Koi, run/flap another short distance, and drop the fish. The fish was also resisting the Heron by twisting and turning in his beak.

These stop and go antics continued for ten minutes; it felt like an eternity since I could hardly breathe as I tried to run after him. Finally, the bird made it to the far edge of the woods which opened up to the back of my neighborhood. Much to my surprise the Heron, with the Koi still in his beak, flew up into the air roughly fifty feet. I watched him as he flew over several homes and an intervening road. I was just about ready to give up when the Koi jerked hard, breaking free from the Heron and then taking a long plunge to the ground. I was close enough to see the fish fall, but not close enough to see exactly which house the fish fell near.

I crossed the road and began searching around the homes. After looking in all the yards/gardens, I still couldn’t find the fish. I decided I had better head home, not only because I was feeling terrible, but it also dawned on me that due to my appearance (coupled with the fact that it was still early in the morning) I might be viewed by some home owner as a disheveled prowler. I could just imagine someone calling the police and subsequently having to try to explain why I was there. Looking for a Koi in all their yards and relating that it had fallen out of the sky just didn’t sound to me like something anyone would believe. That explanation would probably get me a day in jail as a demented peeping tom.

I started to head home but decided to risk an encounter with the police and again looked in the gardens of the homes on the way back. Surprise, surprise! I found the Koi nestled in a garden border and he was still alive, gulping and wiggling. I picked up the fish and began to do my run, walk and rest routine (I couldn’t run much as I was gulping and gasping myself). Half way home, my slippers hit a slick root in the trail and I went flying, feet first. The fish slid out of my hands and flew up into the air. We both came down with what felt like a bone crushing crash. I hit the ground so hard it knocked the wind out of me and I couldn’t catch my breath. I just laid there. Finally, I got my breath back and started laughing out loud.

There I was, in the woods, on my back, laughing and envisioning the Atlanta newspaper headlines: “Local man found dead in woods with Koi fish expired next to him”. I could just imagine what kind of bizarre speculations that might generate.

I got up and realized no bones were broken, and unbelievably the fish was still alive as it was still gulping and twitching. I picked him up and continued home (not running anymore). I got him back to the pond and then performed my Jacques Cousteau revival imitation by running the Koi back and forth forcing water to flow through his gills. I did this for fifteen minutes but every time I’d let him loose he’d either float tail up or tail down in the pond. It was at this time I realized that the fall he endured (I claim it was the fifty foot drop from the Heron and not my small flight I provided him) had probably broken his internal float.

The Koi was tough though as he continued to work his gills. I couldn’t stand to see him in this condition so I put him out of his misery. Tired and dejected I threw his remains into the woods, a short distance behind the pond, expecting a nightly visiting family of raccoons would get some satisfaction from this debacle.

I went back inside, washed up and feeling dejected I went to the window for one last look at my dead Koi. Guess who was there. No, not the raccoons. Yes, the Heron had returned. I couldn’t believe it. He found the dead Koi, picked it up and tossed his head back and swallowed the fish in one gulp.

I saw this Heron several more times visiting my ponds, but never again did he catch a Koi. I’ve told quite a few friends about this true adventure and much to my surprise no one has doubted a word of it. Perhaps my eccentric gardening habits surprise no one any more.

Let me close with a few unusual facts about these various Raptors I’ve mentioned.

Bald Eagles – They have a million light sensitive cells per square mm of retina which is five times what humans have. Eagles see 5 basic colors compared to humans which see 3. They typically live near large bodies of water with old growth trees for nesting. They normally are not mature before 5 years.

 

Great Blue Herons – Add sticks to their nests each year for reuse. They were hunted in the 19th century for their plumes.

 

Osprey – They breed on every continent except for Antarctica and South America. They can live to be 25 years old. They build large stick nests which you can see on top of the power poles crossing Lake Oconee between Greene & Putnam counties.

 

Red tailed Hawks – They fly in wide circles during courtship while uttering shrill cries. The males perform aerial acrobatics and after several of these they sometimes grasp the talons briefly with hers. Courtship flights can last 10 minutes or more. They are woodland hunters and hunt by sudden dashes from a concealed perch.

 

Owls – They are nocturnal hunters, and are silent due to a special feather structure reducing turbulence. They have acute hearing (I can imagine the misery inflicted by that murder of crows). The Long-eared Owls live 25-30 years in nature. They are incapable of constructing nests and typically expropriate existing Red tailed Hawk nests.

 

Belted Kingfisher – They dig 6 to 8 feet long tunnels in the banks along lakes, creeks, rivers and ponds for their nests.

 

 

 

Happy gardening with all your Raptors. Remember, it’s their home too. Sleep well knowing our Lake and Forests are very healthy and support a very diverse set of Birds of Prey!

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