Quick-name three things you're likely to see on a boat trip through downtown Chattanooga and the Tennessee River Gorge. You might name the gorgeous, steep canyon walls, a fish splashing noisily out of the water or the osprey nest off of Williams Island.
And if you're lucky, that nest is occupied.
Riverboat tourists and serious birders alike take delight in spotting the large, water-loving bird of prey, and the islands and shorelines of the Tennessee River provide the perfect backdrop for bird watching. Because ospreys live almost entirely off of fish, they build their elevated nests in locations easily accessible to water sources. Usually, these nests rest at the tops of dead trees or on manmade hacking platforms (like those at Maclellan Island), but sometimes the birds get creative.
"The nest at Williams Island is actually on top of solar panels for a navigational aid," explains Dave Anderson, wildlife enthusiast, storyteller and boat captain at Blue Moon Cruises. "It interferes with the charging, so the Coast Guard comes in every year to remove the empty nest."
Anderson says that the more than 100 active nests along the Tennessee river near Chattanooga are a welcome sight. The birds were considered endangered in North America during the mid-20th century due to the effects DDT and other chemicals had on their population but have since made an "awesome comeback."
Ospreys can be seen around the Chattanooga area through October or November, when they migrate south for the winter before returning in the spring to raise their young. In August, the chicks have fledged the nest and can be seen learning to fish-an exciting time of year to be an osprey watcher. Recently, the birds continued to prove their resilience. After the tornadoes and severe storms in April 2011, local ospreys were affected along with many other area residents.
"The wind caused tremendous damage, and the Williams Island nest was destroyed," Anderson says. "They came right back and rebuilt, though."
WHERE TO LOOK: The Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge near Dayton, Tenn; Williams Island in the Tennessee River Gorge; Maclellan Island in downtown Chattanooga
WHEN TO LOOK: In the hours right before sunset, when ospreys are most active
WHAT TO BRING: Any kind of binoculars (Anderson recommends 8x40mm) and a camera
HOW TO GET THERE: By boat; views of the birds and their nests will be least obscured from the water