One of my favourite's has always been the Osprey. Incorrectly dubbed a “sea eagle” by some, it actually is in a family of its own and can be found worldwide (except for Antarctica). Ironically, throughout this vast range, there is only one species of Osprey, despite the fact they have been geographically and temporally separated for eons.
A move is afoot to break up the complex into several new species including, perhaps, the Western and Eastern Osprey. But for now, if you see an Osprey anywhere in the world, it’s the same one you’ll find right here in Ontario.
This is the only hawk in North America that hunts fish almost exclusively, and actually dives into the water to get them! Occasionally, they take rodents, rabbits, hares, amphibians, other birds, and small reptiles to supplement their diet.
The Osprey is a big bird, but only weighs in at between 1 to 2 kg. They are mostly white underneath and fly with a kink in their wings, such that they look different from other soaring raptors. Their narrow wings make them agile flyers and their long legs help them reach deep into the water to catch their prey. Their crested head, is large and yellow as an adult, or orange when immature, and their eyes are startling to look at and awe inspiring at the same time. This bird can live to be 25 years old, but generally only survives 7 or 8 years in the wild, as Great Horned Owls and both Golden and Bald Eagles prey on them.
As they hunt they: soar slowly on their meter long wings, over shallow water bodies; hover briefly when they spot a fish; then dive feet first at their prey. Once caught, the fish are repositioned, so they face forward and reduce drag for the Osprey, as it flies to a perch or its nest. Owls and Ospreys are the only raptors with an outer toe that can be turned backward, allowing them to grasp their prey with two toes in front and two behind. Sometimes very large fish can be caught, greater than 300 gms., and the Osprey can’t lift off and must swim to shore! To assist with their aquatic life-style: they have sharp spikes on the underside of the toes; nostrils that can be sealed when diving; backwards-facing scales on the talons, to help hold fish; and an oily plumage, to prevent feathers from getting waterlogged.
Their nest is a familiar site in the Kawarthas, in Scugog and Brock. It is large and bulky and is made mostly of sticks, and is always built high on a pole, tall tree or other platforms. It readily uses human structures to nest. Ontario Hydro has over the years saved hundreds or thousands of them from electrocution by building safe platforms for them atop hydro poles.
In Port Perry, a new nest was established in 2016, right beside a grocery store, and another has been located atop tall baseball diamond lights for years. A new nest was occupied near Blackstock this year. A watchful reader spotted it after the platform remained empty for over 5 years, but this year the nest successfully produced young.
Generally, they mate for life and start breeding when three or four years old. The female lays two to four eggs and incubates them for 35 - 43 days. Near the nest, one often hears the adult’s sharp whistle, quite unlike what one would expect from a large bird of prey. Eight to ten weeks after hatching, the young are out flying on their own, but stick close to the parents for some time.
This is a great time to watch them, and if you are lucky enough to be near a nest, watch the antics of the young’uns as they learn to hunt and fly. Spring isn’t so silent anymore at least in the Osprey’s world.
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, ecotour guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.