Taken for granted
Why it’s best to watch the remarkable, surprising, and surprisingly fierce Osprey from a distance
Published: June 25, 2010
|Seven hours after the senior prom and nine hours before the worst sunburn of my life, my date and I set off on an epic drive to the Jersey Shore.|
Other classmates were heading for the teenage hotbeds of Seaside Heights or Wildwood Crest — places where boardwalk amusements were thick and scrutiny of underage drivers’ licenses casual. Chris and I were heading for Island Beach State Park, a long, narrow strip of barrier island that was and still is wonderfully and unaccountably natural.
By the time the radio station 77 WABC had played “Good Morning Starshine” for the umpteenth time, the sun was cresting the horizon and I spotted what looked like a big, sloppy stick nest straddling a utility pole.
I’d never seen an Osprey nest before, but I’d seen plenty of photos. The elevated pile of sticks and junk looked classic. As the distance shortened, I realized that it wasn’t just a nest but an occupied nest.
I’d never seen an Osprey before, either. Until that moment, I harbored little hope that optimism could be so privileged.
It was 1969 (just in case you don’t recall the year “Good Morning Starshine” was on the charts). Raptor populations were collapsing on both sides of the Atlantic, and the plight of the Fish Hawk seemed particularly dire.
Roger Tory Peterson himself had witnessed the decline of the great bird on the Connecticut River near his home. What had been a healthy population during the 1950s was little more than a vestige two decades later.
If you draw a line between healthy and vestige and follow that trajectory into the future, you come up with a pessimistic sense of what Osprey populations were going to look like in a short time. It wasn’t pretty, but it was the prevailing attitude in the DDT-soaked days of the late 1960s.
I pulled up short of the platform and nudged the shoulder of the slumbering form beside me and directed her to look at the nest. Then I advised her to commit it to memory. “The bird’s heading for extinction,” I explained. “This will probably be the only time in your life you’ll ever see an Osprey.”
Happy to be wrong
I don’t know whether Chris remembers the large, golden-eyed bird on the nest. Or if it really did prove to be the only Osprey she ever saw. If that’s the case, then she clearly isn’t looking very hard. Happily, despite my dire prediction, Osprey did not disappear. In fact, as all raptor populations did when the use of DDT was curtailed in North America, the bird made a full and remarkable recovery.
Osprey are the most common nesting raptor in the marshes near my home. From March to October, the air over Mauricetown rings with their strident, piping cries. It was the sight of eight individuals soaring overheard one day last April that prompted me to tear my eyes from the sky, march up to my office, and start penning this piece: a celebration of a great bird, a pronouncement upon premature pessimism, and something of a chastisement, too.
Because I counted the bird out prematurely? No, because the bird is so common now that I’ve come to take it for granted, as people commonly do.
It’s a crime against nature and an injustice to a great bird.
Life with Osprey
After nearly 40 years of raptor study, I have seen tens of thousands of Osprey. I don’t remember all of them (only wish I did). Underscoring this human failing, I cannot even recall my second Osprey sighting — but I know it was several years after that first encounter.
Nevertheless, many of my meetings with Pandion haliaetus have been memorable, and some have been remarkable. Not only is the Osprey an impressive bird, it can be a surprising one, too.
Everyone knows that Bald Eagles pirate fish from Osprey, right? This classic interaction is enshrined in lore and literature. It’s almost as much a cliché as “The robin catches the worm.” But have you ever seen an Osprey turn the tables?
I have, twice. I watched Osprey outclimb, outmaneuver, and outlast fish-laden eagles, then force the larger birds to drop their catch. Both times, the eagles were young and the Osprey were determined and, I dare say, practiced.
But who doesn’t love a David-and-Goliath story? OK, here’s another preconception shaker:
Everyone knows that the Osprey’s diet is fish, right? But is it always?
If you look in the literature, you may be surprised by anecdotal observations of Osprey carrying non-fish prey. This surprised me because I thought my own sighting of an Osprey carrying a muskrat had to be idiosyncratic.
At the time, I was conducting a spring hawk count on Raccoon Ridge, in the Kittatinny Mountains in northwest New Jersey. The bird, moving parallel to the ridge, flew by carrying a fur-clad package.
I cannot swear with absolute certainty that the creature double-wrapped in Osprey talons was a muskrat. I cannot rule out mink. Heck, I can’t even rule out platypus. (Yes, I know that’s a stretch, but Osprey enjoys a worldwide distribution that includes Australia.) I can say with certainty only that the creature was not a fish, reptile, amphibian, or bird. It was clearly dark brown, muskrat-size, and furry, not finned, scaled, or feathered. The rest is conjecture.
More outlandish was a report of an Osprey carrying an orange. What made this particularly intriguing was the location: It wasn’t Florida; it was Montclair, New Jersey, where orange groves are only slightly more scarce than orange-carrying Osprey.
One thing Upper Montclair has plenty of is large, well-tended homes. Some have well-tended ponds. Most of the ponds are stocked with exotic fish. An Osprey carrying an orange koi seems more plausible than a bird carrying an orange, but I can say only that I didn’t witness the event. I’m only speculating.
I did, however, almost see one of those rare instances when an Osprey latches onto a fish that is too large to carry. It was at Cape May Point. An Osprey was hovering not far from shore, less than one hundred yards. I was alternately scanning and watching the bird.
I saw the plunge and noted how the bird remained on the water with wings spread. Apparently, it had locked onto a fish that was a real talon-full.
“A young bird,” I surmised, “eyes too big for his talons.”
But I’ve seen Osprey struggle off the water carrying big fish before, so I didn’t have any thought but that the bird would be off in a moment.
I started another scan offshore. Then, after maybe 15 seconds, I looked back to see how the bird was doing. No Osprey.
I looked up the beach. Down the beach. Overhead. All around. No bird! Only empty sky and a wide bay where moments before an Osprey had floated.
Except for the occasional fishermen (and utility-company linemen, who are forced to deconstruct Osprey nests built atop telephone poles), I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like Osprey. Still, other raptors — birds of prey with the right stuff — seem to excite people more.
Unless you are a fish, you’re unlikely to characterize an Osprey as fierce. Yet I saw an Osprey execute a stoop that would have been worthy of a Golden Eagle.
We were near the bird’s nest — or more accurately, I was near the bird’s nest, in a boat beached on an island. The guy who had the state contract to band the young birds was in the nest.
The adult bird cared little about state contracts and was furious. It was hovering overhead and diving toward the intruder’s head, making me glad that I didn’t have a banding license. But it was only an Osprey, right? Nothing as dangerous as a goshawk or an eagle.
A Black-crowned Night-Heron made the mistake of flying by. The Osprey folded its wings, stooped, and struck the bird with balled talons. The sound of the impact, in the middle of the night-heron’s back, was like the crack of a bat. The force snapped both wings. The bird twirled in the air as it crashed to earth, dead. There is a name for this kind of interaction. It is called “aggressive displacement.”
It was a sad footnote to a well-intended ambition, and it was the last time I ever tested the sanctity of an Osprey’s nest.
Just as I was on that morning after the senior prom, just as I do from the confines of my backyard, I’m content to watch Osprey from a distance.
A wonderful bird. Made even more wonderful by their abundance.
Pete Dunne is vice president for natural history information for the New Jersey Audubon Society, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, and the author of
Prairie Spring: A Journey into the Heart of a Season (2009);
Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds (2006);
Feather Quest: A North American Birder's Year (1999); and other books about birds and birdwatching.
Read more by Pete Dunne.