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Living on Osprey Time

For osprey life history, visit the Birds of North America website.

For other osprey facts and behavior:
Friends of Blackwater

Lake District Project

Osprey Basics

Advice for the Beginning Osprey-Watcher

The good news is that ospreys aren’t subtle birds and are fairly easy to identify and watch. They are big, loud, strikingly marked, gregarious, and not shy around human beings. Though I often enough describe them as “eagle-like” to friends, the truth is that they aren’t quite that big. If eagles and condors are the centers of the bird world, then ospreys are the power forwards. What makes them distinct, and unmistakable, however, are their dark masks and the dark-light pattern of their wings when seen from below. On the other hand, “unmistakable” may be an overstatement. It’s not so hard for beginners (or anyone else) to confuse gulls and ospreys, in part due to coloring, but also due to the fact that both birds have long relatively narrow wings that bend in the middle. (But while gulls wings bend at the “elbow,” osprey wings bend less symmetrically at the “wrist.”)

photo courtesy of Alan PooleCommon sense should guide any osprey watcher. For you watching the birds is a luxury while they are involved in the serious business of raising their young. The good news is ospreys will let you know when you get too close. They are not strong silent types. They are gregarious—if you are bugging them they’ll let you know. But they also let you know about anything else they are feeling. They aren’t shy. For human beings, especially birdwatching human beings, they are a delight, since they don’t seem to mind us being voyeurs. They do everything in the open—including building their nests, learning to fly, feeding their young, and breeding.

The best way to watch an osprey is to get out to its nest. For most of the breeding season these large sloppy nests act as magnets for the birds, and they are easily observed there through telescopes, binoculars, or even the bare eye. (You can take it a step further and get a close-up look through one of the osprey-cams listed in Links.) Ospreys are packrats who build their nests high, and jam the nets walls with everything from boat line to Easter tinsel to plastic bags. The birds have traditionally nested in the bare branches of dead trees, and many now nest on top of poles and platforms built by human beings. These platforms are often located in the middle of marshes, and you will find these nests are ideal for the beginning bird watcher. Like the birds themselves, the nests are big and conspicuous, and at the nest the birds go about their behavior in a fairly obvious, even-paced manner, as if winking and making sure you get it. With a pair of binoculars and a little patience you can be a perfectly successful voyeur, watching them mate, nest, feed, preen, sleep.

The cycle of the osprey year varies in different climates, but in the north, the birds usually return from their winter migration sometime in March or April. Here are some of the highlights of the osprey year:

* The year’s first project is re-building and bolstering the nest. My observations have been that the female is the one who most often places most of the new sticks and that the male acts as the gofer. The inner cup of the nest is sometimes padded with moss.

* One of the year’s most spectacular events is the male’s courtship dance, a wild yo-yoing flight called the “fish dance” or “sky dance.” The male impresses the female with his catch and then, after briefly treading air, drops down a hundred feet, before treading air again and then quickly rising.

* If the dance is spectacular foreplay, then the sex itself is fast and furious, lasting just a few seconds. The months of incubation are fairly sedentary, but the birth of the cphoto courtesy of Birdfilms.comhicks, in late May or June, revives the drama. Slimy reptilian creatures the look like they could never fly, the nestlings are wildly vocal, their vocalizations all amounting to one idea: “Give me food!” As they grow, you can watch as the male flies back to the nest with a fish (or what is left of a fish), and hands it off to the female. She then pins the bird in her large talons and rips into it with her bill. This savage display is followed by a beautiful one as she takes the torn morsel, tilts her head just so, and delicately places it In the gaping mouth of one of her young.

* Three or four nestlings frequently crowd the nest during the next month. Life at the nest can be a remorseless course in sibling rivalry. The pecking age is established by birth order and size, and more than one osprey-watcher (see the Puleston group at) has witnessed the death of a runt, both by starvation and the aggressions of its siblings.

* If the fight for food can be brutal, the beginnings of flight are spectacular, and sometimes spectacularly comic. In late June and early July (of most years) the birds lift of the nest, flapping wildly, trying to tread air, staying aloft for no more than a couple of seconds at first. Gradually, they start to get the hang of this flying thing, but still don’t look like they could really go anywhere, until suddenly one goes swooping off the nest. The learning curve for the fledglings is steep. Over the next two months they will not only have to master flying, but catching fish before launching themselves off on migrations of thousands of miles.

* Watching an osprey dive for fish is a sports fan’s delight. (See The Dive.) Some of the young will get the hang of it quicker than others. Some won’t really get the hang of it at all, and those birds won’t be around long. Like humans, some ospreys are more athletic than others. If you hang around the birds long enough, you’ll eventually see their dramatic dives. You won’t be disappointed.

* Once the young learn to fish, the magnet of the nest starts to lose its pull. The young have grown to almost the size of the parents, though they have a checkered dark-white look to their feathers and their eyes blaze orange (before fading to the adult yellow over the next year.) Some time in late summer or early fall, the parents will take off, heading south for the winter. North American birds most commonly fly to South America. The young birds will not travel with their parents. They will loiter in the north until, prodded by instinct and guided by internal compass, they will begin their own migration south. Unlike, their parents they will not return north with the spring, but will spend a full year and a half in the tropics, waiting until the spring of their third year to return to the north. Often enough they will return to the same neighborhood they were born in.

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