(Click on any of the images to enlarge.)
This is the time of year when Osprey lovers in the upper parts of the Northern Hemisphere start counting the days till they can once again see their favorite big birds in the spring. Ospreys begin their migration from their nesting locales in the last days of summer, heading south to their wintering grounds. Some of us in the southern United States are lucky to have a few of these magnificent large fish eaters all year round, with our summer regulars joined by some migrating birds who choose to stay stateside instead of going all the way to South America for winter. Unlike most other species, Ospreys are found around the world—they inhabit every continent except Antarctica for at least a portion of the year.
Their one requirement: water!
Ospreys are raptors, or birds of prey (birds that hunt and feed on other animals); more specifically, they are fish eaters. Because of this, you may have heard them called “fish hawks” or “sea eagles” or “sea hawks”. You may see an Osprey fishing in a river, a lake, or even near the shoreline of the ocean.
Ospreys fly high in the sky, using their excellent sense of sight to spot fish. You can tell when an Osprey spots a fish below–it hovers in place in the sky for a brief time, positioning its powerful talons, and then suddenly descends feet first to grab the prey.
This Osprey surprised me while I was golfing. It caught a fish in one of the golf course ponds, flew right in front of me, across the course and into a tree to eat. Can you see the way it is holding the fish? An Osprey maneuvers its catch so that the fish head faces in the same direction as the bird. It always reminds me of surfing…fish surfing!
A cool fact about Ospreys is that they have reversible outer toes … I think of them as kind of like humans’ opposable thumbs. This is really important for grabbing and holding onto something as slippery as a fish! The Osprey will hold onto its fish with two toes in front and two behind, so that the fish won’t get away.
If you look carefully, you can see how this Osprey is holding its partially-eaten tuna with two toes on each side. He doesn’t want his meal to fall off the plate!
Ospreys large birds–they can have a wingspan of around 5 feet. They are dark brown on their upper sides, with white underparts and golden eyes. (The young birds have darker eyes and more speckling of the brown and white in their first year.) Ospreys also have dark eye stripes, like a mask, on their white faces.
Can you see the golden eye of the adult on the left, and rusty eye of the young Osprey in the image on the right, below?
Although males and females are fairly similar, females are usually somewhat larger…chunkier…than the males. The females also usually have more of a belly band (or “necklace”) of brown, while the males may have just a hint of a dark band or none at all. It may be difficult to tell the difference, if you observe a lone Osprey, but when you see a pair together, you will likely be better able to know who’s who.
In this photo, can you guess the male and female of the pair?
Ospreys build their nests in high places, atop natural tree snags or on human-made structures, such as utility poles and cell phone towers.
The nest on the left below is one of several in a row of power lines near Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in Seneca Falls, NY. The nest on the right is on a cell phone tower in Little River, SC.
In many places, people have built and installed platforms specifically to encourage Ospreys to nest. These platforms are safer for the birds than some other choices. The fact that humans are building platforms is good news for a species that was once in decline due to pesticides, as well as loss of good nesting locations as areas were developed for human use. The Osprey population is no longer considered endangered in many places–a real success story in terms of conservation!
However, a big human-caused problem is still a concern…but this is a problem we can all do something about. Ospreys build their nests out of big sticks, and then line the nests with soft materials such as moss and grasses. But they also love to bring all kinds of things to their nests! A tube of toothpaste or a sandal or other piece of clothing may seem funny. But what about fishing line or baling twine or other human trash?
A young bird wrapped up in fishing line will surely die, and if a parent becomes entangled in the orange baling twine that many Ospreys seem to be so attracted to, not only will it be unable to fly and fish for itself, but its young will also perish for lack of food.
What can you do? Look for receptacles for fishing line where you fish (and if there are none, talk to the people in charge about starting a recycling program) or start an information campaign in your area about the hazards of baling twine.
Can you find the young Osprey in each of these photos? Because the nestlings cannot fly yet, they cannot cool off in the water or in the shade a tree. The parent is providing some cooling shade.
You may have noticed that I love to talk about Ospreys! I could go on and on…but for now, I hope I’ve been able to whet your appetite. If so, you can find out more about how Ospreys fish, build nests, raise their young and much more, by visiting the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website dedicated to Osprey identification:
There are also several Osprey nest cams that give Internet viewers a “bird’s eye view” right inside the nests. If you watch during the nesting season (spring to late summer) you will be fascinated by mating behaviors, laying, incubation and hatching of eggs, the raising of young nestlings, all the way up to the time of fledge (when young birds leave the nest).
Here is a link to the Osprey nest in Missoula, Montana, along the Clark Fork River. This nest is monitored as part of the Osprey Project at the University of Montana. Though you won’t see Ospreys there in November, you can watch the live feed and also check out the information and some video clips from previous nesting seasons, as you wait patiently for the first sighting of an Osprey next spring. (There are many other nest cams, easy to find with a quick Internet search.)
A word of caution: once you get hooked on Ospreys, you won’t want to let go!
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