Aren’t Ospreys, or “Fish Hawks” great? I love how they maraud overhead. No fish below is safe. Envious anglers look for clues on where to fish and no doubt wish they could also dive in feet first and grab their prey with their feet. If you step back and watch, there’s a bit more to it than that.
Ospreys fly up and down intercoastal waterways, lakes, and the ocean. They peer down, looking for prey as they fly along, movement presumably the thing they key on most. They’ll hover, body at 45 degrees. When they spot a fish, the feet drop down, the birds tip up, and with wings held flat they align themselves for landing. Their speed increases closer to the water, their legs are extended forward, and are the first thing to hit the unsuspecting fish. This happens with a crash, as spray flies everywhere.
It often seems like the fish has a 50/50 chance of surviving to see another day. Often the fish are so large it looks difficult for the Osprey to drag it out of the water. You can tell how big it is by the bird’s struggle to get airborne again.
Once airborne it gives a shake and a wiggle to get rid of as much water as possible. Then the Osprey switches the fish around, so the fish’s head points out. This is done for improved aerodynamics and probably balance, most of the weight being at the front. Their talons have rough spines, called spicules, on the bottom of their feet to help them to hang on to their slippery prey.
If the fish is for them, they’ll usually go to a utility pole or a sturdy snag that will support their weight. Here they hold the fish tight in their claws while they rip it apart with their sharp sickle-shaped bill—everything in nature is for a purpose, and it can be cruel. They seem to relish it as they get stuck in. Their tools are really nasty, or should I say effective. It’s not for the squeamish, though I know a lot of fishermen who are great admirers.
Ospreys are always careful to keep an eye out for the larger Bald Eagle, which will harass them relentlessly till the Osprey drops its catch.
These birds have been a great success story, with numbers increasing significantly over the years. There are close to 100 pairs nesting from Avalon to Cape May, most in the back bays. Much of the success can be attributed to Hans Toft and his Cape May Technical High School students, who put up nesting platforms in the back bays. Through banding offspring, research, and monitoring them, Osprey numbers have risen dramatically. Increased awareness is always a great help in conservation. Hans did a brilliant job at this, and his daughter Hannah is now filling his large shoes.
Finding an Osprey nest is easy. Just look out into a marsh and there is almost certain to be a long pole and a flat platform on top with an Osprey nest. They also nest on channel markers, utility poles, duck blinds, or even on the ground. Nests are large; built of sticks, they’re often lined with grasses and all sorts of plastic and other trash.
The youngsters are hatched several days apart allowing the parents more time to catch fish. The catch is often shared among the chicks, but the youngest are the most prone to starvation because of their smaller size. Like all birds, when they leave the nest, the youngsters are the same size as the adults. They look very similar to the adults but have pale fringes to the back feathers as well as some other subtle differences.
Ospreys are quite gull-like. They have slim wings, angled back at the elbow and flap steadily with shallow wing beats. They are two-tone, dark brown above and pale below with darker wings and a dark line through the eye. They arrive as early as March and most leave by the end of October, migrating to Florida or South America. It’s possible to see hundreds in a day in Cape May flying overhead as they migrate south. They are noisy, too, giving a series of loud high-pitched notes to defend their territory if being harassed—or because they just feel
like it! ■