It would be cool if it was a male of the same species as me, but I have come across another species that is giving me great joy when I see it. Ah, pray tell, say you – what or who has won your heart?
It’s this raptor that has seized my attention and grabbed my thoughts so that I return again and again to spots where he (or she) is known to be seen. I haven’t lost my affection for the many other avian family members, but the graceful flight and piercing eyes of the osprey (Pandion haliaetus carolinensis) have captured my imagination for sure.
The osprey’s beautiful face with a black stripe highlighting its focused gaze is actually more attractive to me than its bird of prey cousin who delights so many, the bald eagle.
Over the past few months, I’ve discovered I’m not the only osprey fan around. During various visits to Jordan Lake, I’ve now met at least 8 guys who devote themselves to photographing raptors. They tend to get more excited when spotting an adult or juvenile eagle, but they will definitely train their zoom lenses in the direction of osprey looking for a meal.
The ospreys circle round and round in the air high above the lake, training their eyes on the water because their superb vision allows them to see the fish underwater.
Sometimes, fish jump out of the water fairly close to me, leaving an ever-widening circle wavelet which is a give-away of their presence. Yet the osprey often ignores those tell-tale signs and looks elsewhere – often at a good distance from where I am so that my shots are mostly from far away and a little blurry. But that gives me motivation to return again and again, hoping for a sharply focused close-up one day!
The bird’s wingspan averages 127–180 cm (50–71 in) and they can weigh up to 2.1 kg (4.6 lb). Interestingly, ospreys are found in all continents except Antarctica, so this family has gotten around!
They are fairly successful hunters. It’s not unlikely to see one beginning a dive, only to halt its descent half-way, apparently deciding that a plunge won’t be rewarding. They begin their dive head first. Then, at the last minute they flip upright so that they enter the water feet first, with claws spread wide and ready to snatch their prey.
Very often when they crash down into the water, closing their nostrils so that they don’t get waterlogged heads, they arise with a fish. Like owls, ospreys have reversible outer toes which help them grab their slippery prey with two toes in front and two behind.
If the fish is large, the bird may have a bit of a struggle to arise from the water while gripping its meal tightly in its talons. Apparently, if the fish is too large, an osprey may not be able to let go and then can drown; luckily, I’ve not witnessed that.
It’s not unusual to see them holding their capture in only one foot , however. Sometimes, they will circle for quite a while holding their fish before they head for a tree where they can eat it at their leisure.
Ospreys usually mate for life and they re-use nests from one year to the next. Some nests have been in use for as long as 70 years. These birds often live 7-10 years, but some individuals have been known to survive up to 20-25 and even 30 years.
My fellow raptor photo-graphers and I are not the only osprey fans around. More than 50 international postage stamps have featured this bird of prey and sports teams have been named after them (sometimes using the nickname Seahawk).
David Gessner, a nature writer based at UNC-Wilmington, has written a couple books about osprey and I was recently lucky enough to get Soaring with Fidel at a bargain price. I’ve just begun reading his adventure in following the ospreys’ migration and expect it will heighten my enjoyment of the photographic pursuit. Knowing these beautiful birds will be soaring overhead when I visit lakes and ponds has certainly made me one of their faithful fans; we’ll be seeing one another for some time to come!