by KTNA Staff ~ July 2nd, 2012
In this Earth and Beyond program, host and producer Robin Song tells about a less familiar but easily recognized fish-eating bird of prey, the osprey, which find unusual places to nest. Audio is 6 min 42 sec, text follows photos.
[audio:http://ktna.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/NatObs-Ospreys-Among-Us-070112.mp3|titles=NatObs-Ospreys Among Us-070112]
Ospreys are magnificent raptors. The adults are distinctively brownish-black above and pure white below, with a wing span of 4 ½ to 6 feet and a body length averaging 23”. They have a white head with a dark eye stripe. Females have dark markings on breast and forehead. Juveniles have a light buff-colored breast and the feathers of their wings are outlined in white, giving them a ‘scaled’ appearance from the top view. Osprey wings are narrow, like a falcon’s, but have a distinctive crook in them. They are a unique species and are placed in their own group in the Accipiter family.
Ospreys exist worldwide and live in all ecosystems except for the Polar Regions. In areas of the world where they are numerous, they sometimes nest in large colonies. In Alaska they are much less numerous and not often seen. They migrate from Outside, where they winter-over along the coasts of California and the Gulf of Mexico. They raise their families in Alaska, re-using and adding to their nests, much like eagles. They are found more frequently in Bristol Bay than anywhere else in Alaska. Their diet is mainly fish, so they nest near lakes, rivers and seacoasts. Ospreys like a high vantagepoint and nest in treetops or on top of cliffs. They will also use man-made structures, such as antenna towers and telephone poles. When I was traveling Outside in the early 1980’s, I remember seeing platforms built on telephone poles, which were no longer in use along a river in Florida. Ospreys were happily using the platforms for their nests, and several were occupied along that stretch of the river.
Ospreys are known for their fishing ability and style. They will either perch above a water source, or cruise above the water, searching for fish. The bird will hover, then dive, catching the fish under the surface, often submerging until only its wing tips are above the water. Their plumage is entirely waterproof, and after rising from the water with the fish in its talons, the osprey will shake the drops of water from its feathers. No matter how the fish is caught, the osprey will always turn the fish so that it faces forward and parallel to its belly so the fish is streamlined while the bird is in flight. The osprey has a unique foot, with two toes facing forward and two facing backwards. The foot has scales under each toe, giving the bird optimum grip on slippery fish. Large, sharp, curved talons allow the bird to grasp and kill its prey, and a sharply curved, strong beak is designed to rip the prey apart. Adults tear the fish into tiny pieces, feeding each piece gently to their nestlings. Their diving and catching abilities can be honed to an amazing skill level. I’ve seen photos of an osprey carrying a fish in each foot as it flies above a river. And yes, each fish was turned to face the same direction as the bird flew.
I saw my first osprey in Alaska while out in a canoe on Little Montana Lake on the summer Solstice of 2004. I was filming a pair of common loons when a bird suddenly came into view and flew over the loons. It checked in the air, turned and dove at the loons, which of course immediately submerged. When I saw the crook in the wings and the white underside, I knew it was an osprey. The bird swooped over the water where the loons had disappeared, then flew across the lake and landed high in a spruce. I paddled over to observe the bird and film it while it sat watching the area. After awhile it launched and flew southwards and out of my view. Since then, I have been privileged to see an osprey in a few other locales in the Talkeetna area, including one flying over the Talkeetna River during our annual Bird-A-Thon in 2010.
In 2005 I was told about a nest on the antenna tower alongside Petersville Road in Trapper Creek. The tower was built in approximately 1969 or 1970. Ospreys built their first nest there a couple of years later. Scotty Lake is nearby, and this was an excellent location for the birds. However, their nest blocked the beacon light atop the tower, making it illegal. Alascom threw the nest off the tower and built a platform with spikes to repel the birds. About three years after that, the platform disappeared. There was a discussion in the Community about the removal of the nest, which is now illegal, as the bird is a protected migratory species. The nest was rebuilt in 2005. When I went to view the nest in the fall of that year, I found it had been dismantled and sticks littered the ground around the tower. The next spring the nest was again re-built, and so far it has been left alone. AT&T owns the tower now, and I have left several voicemails on their phone, asking for someone to call me so I can find out the history of this nest from them. So far, no one has returned my calls.
During Bird-A-Thon this spring, I visited the nest and was surprised to find an osprey on the nest. This was the first time I had actually observed a bird there. Over the winter the nest had lost several of its outer sticks and was considerably smaller than it was the year before. I drove by the nest a few weeks later and saw that new sticks had been added and the nest was now back to its normal size.
I received an email from a birding site recently, asking for people to make note of ospreys in their areas. Since the birds exist worldwide and need clear, clean, cold water in which to hunt for fish, they are harbingers for any negative changes in the environment. We are blessed to have ospreys among us, for they denote clean water and they grace our skies with their beauty. While out canoeing or hiking along a lake or river, watch for a graceful black and white bird with narrow, crooked wings and a black eye stripe on its white head. Perhaps you will have the privilege of observing this handsome, unique summer visitor.
Ospreys Among Us, by Robin Song
KTNA, NatObs-July 1,2, 2012