November 1, 2023

The Rise of Osprey in Carlyle Illinois

Photos by the author.

In the small town of Carlyle resides the largest lake in Illinois. The 26,000-acre Carlyle Lake reservoir opened in 1967. This Clinton County lake is a favorite spot for watersports, hunting, wildlife viewing and other outdoor recreational activities. With five known nesting locations, it is also a hot spot to view the state-threatened osprey. It was not always this way.

Also called fish hawks, river hawks and sea hawks, osprey are unique among the North American raptors, being the sole member of the Pandionidae family of birds. The head of these large brown-and-white raptors is primarily white, broken only by a streak of brown going across their eyes like a mask. Their beak is black, and their eyes range from a deep gold to red. Ospreys wings are dark brown with some streaking. Beginning at the lower beak they are primarily white with brown streaking till you reach their impressive four black talons. Ospreys have three toes facing forward and one facing to the back, although a front side toe can rotate backward to help the bird hold onto prey.

Two white and brown hawks perch on top of a wooden platform near their nest built of sticks. In the background is a cloudy gray sky.

Before we get into the history of osprey in Carlyle, let’s learn a little more about them. These large birds of prey nest near water sources to have access to their favorite food, fish. Their large nests are usually on barren dead trees, human-made structures and cliffs. They prefer being up high, above the tree line. Osprey generally mate for life unless one partner passes away or is unsuccessful in hatching chicks. When raising young they have one brood a year in late spring or early summer.

With a healthy fish population, Carlyle Lake attracts many sport anglers. The abundance of fish also attracts osprey. Ospreys are piscivores, meaning they feed mostly on fish. Their love of fish became a problem when water sources were being polluted and the ecosystem damaged. The Illinois Raptor Center in Decatur says DDT, originally used against mosquitoes to prevent malaria, was found to be polluting the water and impacting fish and other aquatic species, and the fish-eating birds—ospreys, bald eagles and other species—consuming them. When birds ingested fish infected with DDT it weakened their calcium absorption. This led the birds laying fragile eggs; eggs so weak they broke while being incubated. DDT was banned in 1973.

Ospreys may be a state-threatened species, but they are coming back to Illinois! I spoke with a Carlyle Lake Natural Resource Specialist, Doug Wasmuth, about ospreys becoming more common.

“Twenty years ago you would never have seen the amount of osprey we have today,” Wasmuth excitedly told me. To encourage osprey to nest around Carlyle Lake, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers partnered with the Clinton County Electric Cooperative to install large nesting platforms on wooden utility poles. The first platforms built were at Whitetail Access Area and James Hawn Area. James Hawn Area is my favorite location to view osprey.

The pair of mating osprey at James Hawn have constructed a large nest on top of the human-made platform put up for them. This platform resides in the lake and is as tall as the surrounding trees. If you remain quiet you can observe the pair hunting, grooming and perching. I have seen up to five ospreys share the area. If you are lucky and wait long enough you may be able to see them catch fish!

Two white and brown hawks soar in the air. One of the hawks carries a freshly caught fish in its talons. In the background is the edge of a woodland.

Ospreys are one of my favorite birds to watch hunt. They soar above water looking for a glimpse of a fish. Once they have located a fish they will hover above it, and dive into the water feet first. Depending on how deep the fish is, their dives sometimes fully submerge the bird. Their dives can make an impressive splash. Once a fish is in its talons, an osprey will carry it to a perch to eat.

Other osprey nesting locations include a nest at Whitetail Access Area, the Carlyle High School, an old par 3 golf course and at the city park. To further increase osprey productivity in the area, Wasmuth told me that Carlyle Lake staff plan to erect more osprey platforms. To install the platforms, water levels need to be low and steady.

Thanks to conservation efforts and the overall respect for wildlife that residents of the Carlyle community have for osprey, these majestic birds are making their presence known. In the coming years, I am hopeful that the osprey population will continue to rise in Illinois as, like in the Carlyle Lake area, many Illinois communities are also making strides to save this keystone species.

Willow Simmons works as a veterinarian technician, and in her free time, she practices wildlife photography. Her photography primarily focuses on southern Illinois wildlife where she is based. Simmons is also a volunteer at Carlyle Lake.

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