Creature Feature: Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

Osprey - Photo Tim Daniel

Osprey - Photo Tim Daniel

We knew the birds were there, long before we could see them, mostly from the noisy begging by the juveniles. We were near several Osprey platforms with nests. Osprey calls are piercingly loud, but the adults don’t make them often. Big begging juveniles are another story; they squeal long and loud, imploring the adults to catch them ‘one more fish’. These were big juveniles, fully capable of flight, but oddly reluctant to catch their own food. “Just like many teenagers I know,” murmured one of my birding companions, while others nodded silently in agreement.

Osprey on nest platform (Photo Earl Harrison)

Osprey on nest platform (Photo Earl Harrison)

Anthropomorphizing aside, Osprey are a big success story of bird conservation in the Midwest. Back in the 1960s & 70s, Ospreys, along with Bald Eagles and Peregrines, were at an all-time low, decimated by pesticides that were ratcheting up the food chain to these top-level predators. They were all but extirpated in Ohio and Indiana, and hung on in some isolated areas of Michigan and Wisconsin. Similarly dire collapses were seen in the coastal areas of the mid-Atlantic states. Only after the most noxious of the pesticides were banned, and young captive-born birds were hacked back into the wild, did populations begin the slow climb back to normalcy.

Normalcy, though, is an elusive concept with Osprey. One of the most unusual of raptors, it’s evolved expressly to catch fish. Its talons are very curved, its outer toe can flex forward or rearward, and its feet are covered in spiny tubercles, all to grip slippery targets. It’s wings are very long and pivot easily about the wrist, which allows the birds both to soar effortlessly and to ‘helicopter’ – hang in one spot by sweeping their wrists back and forth. This allows them to search for
and stalk fish from great height. Once they’ve locked on a potential target, they slowly swoop closer, making a wingsfolded-back, talons-first plunge at the last possible moment. As she dives into the water, we invariably turn to watch.

Adult Osprey Approaching Nest to Feed Young

Adult Osprey Approaching Nest to Feed Young

Did she catch the fish? It’s great drama, one of the best shows in birding. After you get past the fish-catching behavior, though, Osprey start to snap into the grid-lines of a typical raptor. They carry off their prey to a perch or nest, and use their hooked beak to tear it into bite-sized chunks. If they’re trying to impress a mate, the males will shower her with food that they catch. They’ll also perform an elaborate ‘sky dance’ of calls and aerial maneuvers to emphasize their flying prowess. If they’re returning to a nest, it’s a huge platform of sticks in a large shoreline tree, usually with 1-3 nestlings, depending on how proficient the adults are at fishcatching. And like most raptors, they migrate south for the winter, spending their non-breeding season along Caribbean or South American shores.

Still, though, the oddness of this raptor tends to seep through in almost all aspects of its life. The slow-flying skill that makes them excellent fish-catchers also makes them a target for fish-stealing eagles – Bald Eagles here, other species in Europe and Asia. Their nest site selection is very adaptable, using buildings, towers, poles, and pylons, as long as it’s near water. Parks and conservation organizations have even designed simple artificial nest platforms that Osprey will readily use. Our most reliable locations to find Osprey locally involve such platforms in upper Alum Creek Lake, Hoover Reservoir, and Pickerington Ponds. And there is this magnetic attraction to water, even on
migration. You won’t find many migrating Osprey at most traditional mountaintop hawk-watches. Look for them instead along coastal sites, whether along the Atlantic Coast, or the Great Lakes, or big rivers like the Ohio or Mississippi. Just don’t expect to hear squealing juveniles on migration – the parents leave them back at the nest platforms, so the big juvies have to find their own way south. We don’t recommend this to the exasperated human parents among you.

Osprey (Photo Earl Harrison)

Osprey Stretching Wings (Photo Earl Harrison)