Wildlife Spotlight: Ospreys by Cameron Jenness
If you live on Long Island and are close to the water, look up in the sky you might see an Osprey, Pandion haliaetus. Ospreys are the largest raptor on Long Island next to the Bald Eagle. Ospreys usually build their nests close to water because their main source of food is fish. Ospreys’ are also commonly called fish eagles, sea hawks, river hawks, & fish hawks. In New York, there are two main breeding populations, one on Long Island and the other in the Adirondack Mountains. Within its range, the osprey prefers to make its home along the coastline and on lakes & rivers.
The osprey is a large bird of prey measuring approximately 2 feet with a wingspan of 4-6 feet (1.2-1.8 m). The sexes are nearly alike in plumage, but the female is slightly larger than the male. Adult plumage is dark brown above and white below. The white head has a dark crown with a characteristic dark brown streak on each side. Juvenile plumage resembles that of the adult, with buff to white tips on the feathers of the back and upper wing. In flight, the osprey’s long, narrow wings appear to have a crook at the wrist where dark patches are also apparent.
Ospreys search for fish by flying on steady wingbeats and bowed wings or circling high in the sky over relatively shallow water. They often hover briefly before diving, feet first, to grab a fish. An osprey sometimes plunges deep enoughto momentarily submerge its entire body. You can often clearly see an Osprey’s catch in its talons as the bird carries it back to a nest or perch. Ospreys diet is 98% fish but on occasion have been seen eating a mouse or small waterfowl.
The female lays one to four, but usually three, eggs in the spring in a large nest of sticks constructed at the top of a dead tree. Nesting platforms and other man-made structures are also commonly used. They also occasionally nest on the ground. The nest is often used year after year and can become quite large (up to 10 feet high!) as more material is added prior to each nesting season. The young fledge at about eight weeks of age, then remain in the area of the nest for about two months. Ospreys breed on every continent except Antarctica. In North America, its breeding range extends from northwestern Alaska across Canada south to Baja California in the west and to the Gulf States in the east.
The decline of this species was caused by DDT-induced eggshell thinning, which reduced the reproductive output of breeding pairs. In turn, the breeding population declined from an estimated 1,000 active nests in the 1940’s between New York City and Boston, to an estimated 150 nests in 1969. Since the ban of the insecticide DDT in New York in 1971, and in the rest of the country in 1972, the population has slowly been making a comeback. In 1995, there were 230 breeding pairs on Long Island alone. In 1983, the osprey was downgraded to “Threatened” from its 1976 listing as “Endangered”, and in 1999 it was downgraded from “Threatened” to “Special Concern.”
Currently, we see Ospreys almost every day that we are out on the water in Oyster Bay and there are nests throughout the surrounding area. Keep your eyes up at the sky and listen for the chirpy sound that the osprey makes when it is looking for some food.