EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. >> "Tewp, tewp, tewp, tewp, tewp." As I wander down the path along the pond at Hand Hollow Conservation Area, I hear the distinctive cry of the osprey. Turning towards the almost-sweet sound, I raise my binoculars and focus through the still leafless trees on this regal bird of prey as it flies across the water to land atop a straggly, long dead tree. After slightly tipping back and forth, then adjusting his wings, the osprey falls silent and still. What a magnificent bird!
Every year, a solitary osprey appears at the end of April. The bird stays about a week and then is gone, maybe to return for a day or two in the fall. Is it the same bird each year? Is he a failure in trying to attract a mate? Or is his partner awaiting him much farther north and he is just stopping here to feast and fatten up before the next leg of his journey. I have no way of telling.
But every spring Mr. Osprey arrives about the same time and every day for a week or so, no matter what time of day, I hear or see him. If I don't find him when I scan the trees along the water's edge, then he announces his presence with that piercing, rising whistle when I wander into his comfort zone. Up he flies and then lands on another bare perch about 50 yards away, then repeat, until he is back again at his original perch.
Mr. Osprey may move when a human is near, but he ignores the crowd of barn and tree swallows constantly swooping over the pond and snagging insects from the surface. He doesn't notice the spotted sandpiper that bebops along the shore under his perch. He pays no heed to the noisy yellow-rumped warblers flitting from branch to branch all around him. His sharp yellow eyes are totally focused on the ripples in the water.
Soon the fish hawk, as the bird is also known, flaps those enormous wings, rises high above the pond, hovers (almost looks like he is back pedaling with his wings) and then plunges in one fell swoop, disappearing for a few seconds beneath the surface. From within the roiled water, first the head appears, then the wings. He shudders and twitches away droplets of water before rising up and becoming airborne with his squiggly, finny prey.
The fish never had a chance. These birds are excellent fishers, striking with 70 percent accuracy. Any species of fish is acceptable. They make up 90 percent of the diet: herring, trout, carp, menhaden, perch, pickerel, salmon etc. If fish are scarce in the water, frogs, toads and snakes should take heed.
Once the fish is caught, the osprey, with those hook-like talons, maneuvers the fish so it is head first making it aerodynamic in his grasp, a grasp perfectly evolved for his lot in life. Not only are the toes all the same length, but one toe is reversible so that he can use two toes forward and two backward for a very firm grasp. Osprey sport spicules (spikes) on the pads of their feet to enable them to hold onto such slippery creatures. Not even an eel could slither out of this grip. The only fish seen to escape after being caught is a blowfish that expanded and expanded until the talons popped out and the osprey dropped the fish.
The osprey, Pandion haliaetus, is one of about a dozen species found on all continents save Antarctica. No matter where you see an osprey — in Yellowstone, in Nova Scotia, in Brazil, in Spain, in China, in Australia — it is the same species. These avians are over two-feet tall with a wingspan of six feet and look like no other predator.
They are brown above and white on the belly. The head is white with a broad black stripe through the eye. When flying, they hold their wings with a slight crook.
Other than humans, the bird has only one enemy: the bald eagle, another regal, magnificent bird of prey, but one that is more of a lazy lout of a hunter. Mr. Eagle will, nine times out of ten, just loll around waiting near a nesting fish eater, be it osprey or gull. Then as soon as the target rises aloft with its fishy feast, the eagle flies in to snatch the meal away. Not unlike bullies forcing classmates to hand over their lunch money.
Harmed by humans
Ospreys like many other species suffered at the hands of man until protective laws were enacted. Clothing in the 19th century may have been decorated with "osprey feathers," but this was just a nom de plume. These were really egret plumes. Plume-less osprey were never hunted for their feathers.
What caused a catastrophic decline in the osprey populations was the use of DDT. By the 1970s, osprey were well on their way to extinction. Huge colonies were devastated. Thin eggs cracked; hatchlings withered away. Then DDT and other pesticides were banned and slowly, ever so slowly, the populations have increased almost to the levels of the early 20th century.
This is also true of their nemeses, the bald eagle. Eagles are nesting by the Hudson River and, at one place I thought I found an osprey nest high up in a basket by the railroad bridge over the river. I check it every year, but maybe those bully baldies chased the pair away.
The osprey is back! Time now to check various nearby ponds, lakes and rivers for those enormous stick-built nests!
Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.