Creature Feature: Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
The Osprey or “Fish Hawk” favors coastal regions like salt marshes and estuaries but is also present in fresh water environments like lakes and rivers. They have a remarkable geographic range, and are present on every continent except Antarctica. Ospreys are large, slender bodied raptors with long, thin wings and legs and sharp hooked beaks. The typical wing span of an osprey is about 5 feet, but because of their light, hollow bones they only weigh about 3-4 pounds! Their back is dark brown and their underside is white, except for dark brown segments at the base of the wings and tips of the feathers. The head and neck are white with a dark brown stripe on each side, which frames their piercing yellow eyes. Adult ospreys are easy to identify in flight. They are the only raptors with extensive white on their bellies and they fly with their wings slightly bent, which gives them an M shaped flight silhouette.
These raptors can live between 15-25 years in the wild, and most conduct annual migrations to nesting sites. The osprey on Long Island visit and reproduce here during the spring and summer but spend their winters further south along the gulf coast of Texas and Mexico and in South America. An osprey may migrate over 100,000 miles in their lifetime; one tagged osprey flew 2,700 miles in 13 days, all the way from Massachusetts to South America! These raptors are excellent at catching fish and can often be seen carrying prey back to their nests. They have sharp talons and a powerful grip, which gains strength from an opposable toe (unique among raptors!) This comes in handy for hunting because these birds catch their prey feet first. An osprey will circle over water until they spot a fish, and then dive, plunging their feet into the water to grab their prey. After a catch, the osprey will orient the fish in line with their body to reduce wind resistance as they fly back to their perch.
Although osprey are a fairly common sight on Long Island at present, the widespread use of pesticides like DDT in the mid-20th century severely affected their reproductive success and left them critically endangered. After the use of DDT was banned in the early 1970’s they made a strong comeback.
In the spring, ospreys begin to return to Long Island. Osprey pairs typically mate for life and will continue to use the same nest for years, refurbishing it with new materials every season. These birds need sturdy, high perches for their nests, as they are constructed out of many large and heavy branches. On Long Island it is not uncommon to see man made osprey perches, motivated in part because of their tendency to use telephone poles as nest sites. There are several along Dune Road, and even one in Fairy Dell at the Refuge! When the nest is ready, the female will lay between 2-4 eggs. The eggs are incubated by both parents, but primarily the female. Chicks fledge after roughly 2 months, but will remain in the nest, under the care and protection of their parents for another 2 months as they learn to fish.
If you find yourself by the water this summer, keep an eye out for these beautiful birds. You might just see one heading out to grab lunch!
By Kimberly Stever