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A Bird in Hand

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A Bird in Hand

Osprey - Really, really cool to watch

Snowbirds: sun worshipers afraid of snow.  Yes, these are a common type of fowl in our neck of the woods, many of which do not even have feathers.  You’re familiar with the type: those rich neighbors who have a summer home on Lake Pend Oreille and a winter home in Phoenix.  But before you get into your haughty groove about such weak humans, keep in mind that this sort of behavior is common among our feathered friends. Many, many “native” species of birds are only native during the spring and summer months. And counted among the largest of these is the osprey, often called the fish hawk.

The osprey is a distinctive bird with its black and white coloring and bandit’s mask.  It is also the bird which seems to perch its very large nest on any and every microwave relay tower and abandoned telephone pole within sight of a lake. Interestingly, the osprey is cosmopolitan and lives on every continent, except Antarctica. It is a migrant in the higher latitudes of its range and a year-round resident in rest.

Ospreys are also large birds and within the local distribution of the River Journal second only to the eagles in size. Though grouped by the American Ornithological Union with the hawks and eagles in the family Accipitridae, they are sufficiently different to warrant being placed in their own subfamily Pandioninae. But even this classification is not unanimous among all experts, with some placing the bird in its own family.  

So how is the osprey so distinctive? What is most readily apparent to the birder is the shape of the osprey’s wings. Notice how they are more like those of a gull rather than like the “related” raptors, such as a hawk. Likewise, the osprey holds its wings in a bent, backward-swept fashion. This is probably the most notable field mark from a distance.  

Less obvious is the osprey’s flexible outer toes, with which it can shift forward or backward. It uses this unique structural trait to maneuver the fish it captures into a head-forward position, which is far more streamline when hauling over distances. Its talons also have grippy scales, which have obvious benefits when handling its slimy victims. Osprey can also hover like a sparrow hawk before they plunge into the water feet-first when fishing. Really, really cool to watch.  

Osprey can be very vocal, if not downright noisy.  From my back porch I have many times witnessed an adult bird sweep the sky in lazy circles, piercing my peaceful afternoon with its shrill vocalizations.  Key word: shrieking.  I don’t know why these birds carry on in this fashion, but it is interesting at first.  But like an obnoxious neighbor, it gets tiring after a while.   

Osprey really are quite common in our area, but don’t equate common with not being entertaining to watch. Though they are primarily fish eaters, I have witnessed one particularly hungry individual dive down and capture a vole on the ground, which it carried back to its nest to devour.  Obey the stomach. I have also seen one nest-building bird complete an airborne cartwheel when it discovered the stick it grabbed from a tree was still attached.  Surprise, surprise, surprise. I have also watched a bald eagle bully an osprey into dropping the fish it had just captured. The eagle then swooped down and snatched the treasure before it hit the water. Size rules in the jungle.    

Enjoy these grand birds while they are here. If you have some free time one afternoon, stake out a nest site and watch the babies as they fledge into adult birds.  It is an interesting and readily available birding opportunity. And osprey don’t mind nosey neighbors, as long as you don’t get too close. Happy birding. 

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, osprey, outdoors, birding

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