Unique among North American raptors for its diet of live fish and ability to dive into water to catch them, Ospreys are common sights soaring over shorelines, patrolling waterways, and standing on their huge stick nests, white heads gleaming. These large, rangy hawks do well around humans and have rebounded in numbers following the ban on the pesticide DDT. Hunting Ospreys are a picture of concentration, diving with feet outstretched and yellow eyes sighting straight along their talons.
Unable to dive to more than about three feet below the water's surface, Ospreys gravitate toward shallow fishing grounds, frequenting deep water only where fish school near the surface. Ospreys nest in a wide variety of locations, from Alaska to New England, Montana to Mexico, Carolina to California; their habitat includes almost any expanse of shallow, fish-filled water, including rivers, lakes, reservoirs, lagoons, swamps, and marshes. Whatever the location, Osprey nesting habitat must include an adequate supply of accessible fish within a maximum of about 12 miles of the nest; open, usually elevated nest sites free from predatory mammals such as raccoons, and a long enough ice-free season to allow the young to fledge.
Osprey nests are built of sticks and lined with bark, sod, grasses, vines, algae, or flotsam and jetsam. The male usually fetches most of the nesting material—sometimes breaking dead sticks off nearby trees as he flies past—and the female arranges it. Nests on artificial platforms, especially in a pair’s first season, are relatively small—less than 2.5 feet in diameter and 3–6 inches deep. After generations of adding to the nest year after year, Ospreys can end up with nests 10–13 feet deep and 3–6 feet in diameter—easily big enough for a human to sit in.
Ospreys require nest sites in open surroundings for easy approach, with a wide, sturdy base and safety from ground predators (such as raccoons). Nests are usually built on snags, treetops, or crotches between large branches and trunks; on cliffs or human-built platforms. Usually the male finds the site before the female arrives.
Adept at soaring and diving but not as maneuverable as other hawks, Ospreys keep to open areas, flying with stiff wingbeats in a steady, rowing motion. Primarily solitary birds, they usually roost alone or in small winter flocks of six to ten. Nesting Ospreys defend only the immediate area around their nest rather than a larger territory; they vigorously chase other Ospreys that encroach on their nesting areas. In breeding season, males perform an aerial "sky-dance," sometimes called "fish-flight." With dangling legs, often clasping a fish or nesting material in his talons, the male alternates periods of hovering with slow, shallow swoops as high as 600 feet or more above the nest site. Sustaining this display for 10 minutes or more, he utters repeated screaming calls while gradually descending in an undulating fashion to the nest.
Ospreys are a conservation success story and their populations are still growing, aided by pesticide bans and the construction of artificial nest sites. Osprey numbers crashed in the early 1950s to 1970s, when pesticides poisoned the birds and thinned their eggshells. Along the coast between New York City and Boston, for example, about 90 percent of breeding pairs disappeared. Osprey studies provided key support for wider legal arguments against the use of persistent pesticides. After the 1972 U.S. DDT ban, populations rebounded, and the Osprey became a conservation success symbol. But Ospreys are still listed as endangered or threatened in some states—especially inland, where pesticides decimated or extirpated many populations. As natural nest sites have succumbed to tree removal and shoreline development, specially constructed nest platforms and other structures such as channel markers and utility poles have become vital to the Osprey’s recovery. Sadly, a growing cause of death for Ospreys is entanglement at the nest: the adults incorporate baling twine and other discarded lines into their nests; these can end up wrapped around a chick's feet and injure it or keep it from leaving the nest.
Judy Haner is the Marine and Freshwater Programs Director for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama
UPDATE: May 7 – Chicks have hatched!
The wait is finally over as the two eggs incubated by Josie and Elbert for about 5 weeks have hatched!
Last week, coastal Alabama was slammed with heavy rains where certain spots, especially Wolf Bay, received more than 20 inches of rain in less than 24 hours causing significant flooding and road washouts in Baldwin County.
We were concerned how the eggs would fare from the mini monsoon, but I guess it’s true that rain does bring in new life.
Now the fun part of the osprey cam is about to begin by watching the babies grow as their parents feed them fresh fish caught daily in their backyard from Wolf Bay and seeing them grow and mature.
Check out the camera in the early morning during your coffee break or during lunchtime around noon to share a meal with the babies as they will be likely eating at these times.
In between, Josie keeps the babies warm by nesting on them since their feathers haven’t come in thick quite yet. As they get bigger over the next couple weeks, you will see them fidgeting under her. Get ready for lots of funny moments to be made by these future TNC superstars.
Check back regularly for more updates.
UPDATE: May 1 – We have osprey eggs!
We’re just not sure exactly how many – some folks have spotted two and some say three.
Either way, we’re expecting hatchlings sometime toward the end of May. (Osprey eggs usually hatch within 35-40 days).
For the next four weeks, Josie will spend the majority of her time incubating the eggs and Elbert is on kitchen/catering duty.
Fortunately, Josie doesn’t seem to be a picky eater since it’s almost entirely fish on the menu morning, noon and night. Elbert will also occasionally take a turn sitting on the nest while Josie gets a no doubt much-needed break from egg duty.
Once the eggs hatch, things will start to get a bit more active – like newborns everywhere, the chicks will need to eat. And eat. And eat.
Over the next 55 days or so after hatching, the young ospreys will be busy growing feathers and eventually learning to use their wings.
Stay with us for the summer to catch all the osprey action – watching the young birds learn to fold their wings can be like watching someone try to fold a map in a high wind.
The biggest wildlife reality television stars are back for a new season! Welcome to Osprey Cam, 2014 edition!
Last year, thousands of viewers from around the world enjoyed the real-life drama of Allie and Bama, two ospreys who set up a nest in Orange Beach, Alabama. The cam provided an intimate view into the lives of nesting ospreys.
We’re back for a new nesting season with Josie and Elbert, named after the nearby Alabama towns of Josephine and Elberta. And this year, there’s a new feature. Thanks to a special infra-red sensor – don’t worry, it doesn’t bother the birds – you can now watch the ospreys 24/7.
Ospreys have had a big year. After all, the Seahawks (another name for ospreys) won the Super Bowl. And more importantly, in our opinion, osprey populations continue to be strong.
That wasn’t always the case. Their numbers were decimated by DDT and other pesticides, which caused thinning of their egg shells. Between the 1950s and 1970s, osprey populations declined as much as 90 percent in some areas. Thanks to DDT bans, their numbers have rebounded and continue to grow.
Ospreys are known for their lengthy migrations, but the birds you’re watching are year-round Gulf residents.
And they rely on a healthy Gulf. As conservationists work to restore the Gulf and rebuild fisheries stocks through habitat projects, ospreys will benefit.
Ospreys are like the commercial fishers of the bird world. They’re highly effective fish catchers, too: studies show they catch a fish an average of one out of four tries, and it only takes them about 12 minutes of hunting to catch a fish. (That’s better than my own Catch per Unit Effort by a long shot!).
They dive feet first and catch fish with their sharp talons. They have a reversible outer toe that they use to point their fish head-first, which makes them more aerodynamic on their flight back to the nest.
You’ll see the results of those hunts back at the nest, as the ospreys tear small chunks of fish and feed them to the eager chicks. You’ll notice the chicks wrestling each other for a chance to get a tasty morsel.
The female osprey feeds the chicks, but the male will come shortly thereafter and clean out the nest. They’re great house keepers: the nest is very well kept and free of discarded fish carcasses.
As you watch, you’ll undoubtedly notice all kinds of interesting and unusual behavior. We’ll include updates here (at the top of the blog) throughout the spring and summer. And if you have questions, post them in the comments below. We’ll respond promptly during the day. Unlike the Osprey Cam, though, we will be asleep at night!
Also note that the osprey cam is reality – sometimes things that are upsetting or disturbing happen, like the loss of an osprey chick. These are wild animals and we don’t interact or assist them in any way.
We hope you enjoy our new bird stars. Watch frequently, share with friends and help us in our work to protect and restore a healthy Gulf – benefiting people and ospreys!