Welcome to Osprey Time

At this month’s Kittitas County Field and Stream meeting, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fishing pro Marc Divens was talking stocking and fishing possibilities. One Homey opined as how, in five days of fishing three different local honey holes with his grandkids, he caught no fish, but watched ospreys having no problem catching whatever they wanted. We all commiserated with him, then switched our minds to the glorious creature that is “osprey.”

One of the sharpest videos I have in my mind was put there on a mid-summer day – decades ago – along a little muddy lake in the middle of the Red Desert in south central Wyoming. I had just been drawn for an antelope tag in this “biggest bucks in Wyoming” unit, and was doing my best to convince those big bucks that I was not on a scouting mission. Anyway, looking up from that brownish water, I noticed two downy white fuzz-balls in a stickpile atop a rusty old drilling platform. They were already bigger than some hawks. The bird that passed overhead seemed as big as an eagle, but didn’t look like any eagle I knew. I watched it land at the platform of sticks, pull strips from the fish it held, and feed the fuzz-balls. Ospreys have fascinated me ever since, and to this day I can close my eyes, smell that desert lake air, and watch it all again.

I’ve never met anyone who has watched an osprey fishing, and doesn’t remember every detail. We still talk about that “Fio Rito Show!” a decade or so ago, during one of those June Free Fishing Weekends. There were blue herons, red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds, hawks and cormorants all around, but the star of that day was an osprey (likely a male, since males do most of the hunting during the nesting season).

He patiently circled the lake and swept the creek to the east, looking and finding fish. We reckoned he had a mate on an egg clutch nearby or was feeding new fuzz-balls. Each time he snatched a trout from the water, a couple dozen people came to attention and someone clapped.

Often called “fish hawks,” ospreys are small eagles with long wingspans and a unique set of behaviors which makes them downright thrilling to watch.

You may have watched an osprey hover 50 to 100 feet above the water and then dive headlong – even clear under the water – after a meal. The special protective covering over his or her eyes enables such dives and aids in seeing prey under the surface. There’s enough oil on osprey feathers to dive in, grab a fish, bob back to the surface and take off – but not enough to float or swim. The osprey is the only raptor whose front talons turn backwards, something it probably developed to aid it in catching fish.

As mentioned above, the male does most of the hunting. And hunt he must! He feeds his mate from the time they set up housekeeping. Once they have a brood (two to four), he may have to provide six pounds of fish a day. Fledglings grow fast, and will be flying and hunting by mid-August. By late September, most of our birds will all head to Chile or Argentina to winter over. The young birds may remain in South America for up to 18 months before joining the annual trips north.

Of course, in keeping with the wishes of the Science Education Committee of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association, I must include the following. Osprey’s scientific name is Pandion haliaetus Linnaeus. It is mostly dark above and white underneath, with black “wrist” patches. The osprey is easily identified in flight by the angular shape of those wrists in the wings. Look for the slow deep wing beats of arched wings spanning up to nearly six feet. As with most all raptors, the female will be larger than the male, but still weighing something less than four pounds. The osprey prefers open waterways, lakes and shore areas, where it finds the fish and crustaceans on which it makes its living. Of course, it will eat a rodent or bird, too, given the chance.

You may see ospreys – on their mostly man-made nest platforms – near water most anywhere in the state, but some of the easiest to observe here in Paradise are along the Yakima River through most of the county. Find a nest and a safe place to pull over, get out the binoculars, and let yourself be entertained for a while.

Our ospreys are in good numbers. Their most common danger is entanglement with gathered fishing line or bailing twine – a fledgling or two are lost each year.

Ask Deborah Essman – Bird Whisperer of Paradise – about these wonderful birds and she’ll likely tell you about their “Velcro feet,” the tiny barbs, or spicules, which enable them to grip the slimiest of fish. She may even tell you that ospreys seem largely right-footed. Give her a moment to close her eyes, and she may share the sense of wonder she experiences seeing a large beautiful raptor fearlessly hit the water and emerge with a fish even larger than itself.

See for yourself. Check out National Geographic’s spectacular “Gone Fishing” video at video.nationalgeographic.com/video/00000144-0a1f-d3cb-a96c-7b1f2a0f0000, and others you will find when you google “osprey birds.” Gather the family and watch ospreys doing what they were born (hatched?) to do.

Happy osprey season.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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