On trips out to Point Pinole, one of the most exciting sights can be the swoop of an osprey over the water. They have been known to nest the old pier pilings sticking out into the San Pablo Bay, and with a sharp eye and some patience, you can sometimes spot one perch on the top of the pilings. How can a bird often called a “seahawk” or a “fish hawk” not be incredible?
Found on all continents except Antarctica, ospreys, Pandion haliaetus, are the second most widely distributed raptor species, after the peregrine falcon. Raptors are birds of prey, hunting small animals including rodents and fish. In North and South America, ospreys can be found from Alaska down to Argentina, breeding in the northern regions and wintering in the warmer southern areas. Osprey live and breed close to bodies of water, including coastlines, rivers, lakes, marshes to be close to their food of choice: fish. The nests can be very large, around 2 meters across, and are often used for many years by different birds, with new “renovations” to the nest occurring each season. Ospreys mate for life, and work together for around five-months to raise their young.
With sharp eyes to spot prey from long distances, a strong beak, and hooked talons to grab prey, raptors, including ospreys are built to be excellent hunters. Ospreys nearly exclusively eat fish, which they catch by spotting movement in the water from high above in the sky. Once they spot a tasty fish, they will dive quickly down and plunge into the water, snatching their next meal with their strong feet. They are adapted to catching aquatic prey in the water, including oily feathers and nostrils that actually close if they take a dive to keep water from going up their nose.
During the DDT in the mid-twentieth century, the osprey population plummeted due to the pesticides effect on their eggs. Thanks to regulation, ospreys have had a resurgence, a testimony both to nature’s power to bounce back and the careful balance between human activities and fragile ecosystems. Like all species, they have an uncertain future in the face of climate change altering their habitats and food sources and the effects of other kinds of pollution, including plastics.
Charismatic and magistic, it is no wonder that ospreys have captured human interest for generations. With a 50-70 inch wingspan, osprey have distinctive plumage, a white chest and underbelly with dark brown on the tops of their wings and head. While flying, osprey arch their wings, making them more like a gull rather than a close relative to a hawk, and reveal their barred white and brown pattern. From ancient Rome to Shakespeare to ancient Buddhism to the NFL, ospreys have made appearances in literature and traditions all over the world, and it is not hard to see why. Next time you are by a body of water or river, look out for a sighting of this magnificent raptor.