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OSPREY – NAUTICAL BIRDS OF PREY

My first tour boat was named Osprey and, like many watermen, I have always had a special affection for these “nautical” birds of prey. The osprey (Pandion haliaetus) can be seen all over the Forgotten Coast and the rest of Florida. In fact, the osprey can be spotted around waterways on every continent except Antarctica. With their dark wings and light colored heads, they are sometimes mistaken for bald eagles. But upon closer inspection, it is easy to pick out their unique traits. The osprey is smaller than the eagle with a body length of about 24 inches and an average wingspan of about 5 feet. They have a white chest, a very distinctive dark eye stripe, and their feet are grey in color.  In flight, they can be distinguished by their gull-like wing shape. These birds have many common names including fish hawk, sea hawk, and sea eagle, but the osprey is unique among the raptors with its own taxonomic genus – Pandion. This distinction from the rest of the raptors is the result of many unique physical characteristics and hunting techniques.

The osprey is a fish eater almost exclusively. Its eyesight has evolved to allow it to spot its prey underwater from over a hundred feet in the air – no polarized Costas required.  The osprey’s feet are also specially designed. It is able to turn its outer toe backwards (owls can do this, too) so that two toes face forward and two backwards assuring a much firmer grip. The talons are rounded and very sharp, and there are sharp spicules on the bottoms of the toes- all the better to hold on to slippery fish. After the osprey has caught a fish, he turns it so that the head of the fish is facing forward. This makes it more aerodynamic and easier to fly with. I have never seen an osprey fly with a fish crossway.  Don’t be surprised if you see an osprey sitting on the rail of a bridge enjoying a meal. The cars whizzing by don’t seem to bother them at all.

Osprey pair for life and return to the same nest sites to rejoin their mates at the beginning of mating season each year. In our part of Florida, this occurs in the early spring. An important part of the mating ritual is the rebuilding of the nest. If the nest has been damaged while the birds were away this rebuilding process can be a necessity; but even if the nest is untouched, they will add new sticks and moss to it. This can result in very large nests. There is a nest on the top of the back range marker at the mouth of the Apalachicola River that I have been watching since 1997. It has had a successful nesting pair every year. A prime nesting site can be used for many decades because a new pair will occupy it if the old pair does not return. Nesting here starts late spring/early summer with a total of about 5 months dedicated to mating and raising the young. The female will normally lay 2-4 eggs spread out over a period of a few weeks. The eggs start to hatch after a 5 week incubation period with both male and female spending time on the nest.  Eight to ten weeks later the chicks begin to fledge. At this stage, the young already look very similar to the adults with only a buff colored patch on their breast to distinguish them. Soon the young are on their own and the male and female separate until next year. I have always said that their secret to lifelong partnership was a separate vacation every year. Many of Florida’s ospreys remain in the state all year, but some are known to migrate to South America for the winter.

Keep your eyes open for this unique nautical raptor. Take the time to watch him fish; it is a sight to behold.


 

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