Watching someone else fish is not usually exciting, unless you are watching the osprey. This large fish hawk will hover high over a fish until it is within 3 feet of the surface and then dive feet-first into the water, grabbing the fish.
It is quite a sight to see the bird fold his wings back, drop like a rock and hit the water with a huge splash. He will lay on the water for a few seconds and then try to get airborne, which is not easy with the fish in his talons. When he finally gets off the water and starts flying, he will hesitate for a second and shake himself violently to remove as much water from his feathers as possible. He will then fly low across the water to his favorite feeding perch high in a tree.
The osprey’s talons are long, sharp and not grooved like the talons of other birds of prey. This allows his claws to sink easily into a wet, struggling fish. He also has sharp, spiny projections on the bottom of his feet that give him a firm grip on the fish. With these specialized feet he is also able to arrange the fish so it is held head-first to reduce air resistance while he is flying.
The osprey is about 2 feet long and has a wingspan of up to 6 feet. He is brown above and white below with a white head that has a dark brown strip through the eye and on the side of the face. When he is soaring, his wings show a distinct bend at the wrist, giving an M-shaped wing silhouette. This is different from other raptors that have a straighter front wing edge. The eye on an adult is yellow while on the immature it is an orange color.
The male and female look almost identical, except the male has a completely white breast while the female’s white breast has short streaks of brown that form a mottled “necklace.” The osprey’s vocalization consists of musical chirping, very loud and fast, when an intruder gets too close to its nest.
Ospreys have been absent from this area since the era of DDT pollution but, with a hacking program on the state’s Oak Orchard Wildlife Management Area from 1992 to 1994, they have been re-introduced. At the present time I know of about a dozen nests in the Alabama Swamp area.
Fish hawks use the same nests every year, adding to them annually. They prefer to build a nest in a dead tree or snag that is fairly open on the top, so that they can easily soar or glide into it with their long, narrow wings. Of course they look for nesting sites in an area over or near the water. They will build the nest anywhere these requirements can be met.
On Long Island I have seen osprey nests on telephone and light poles and on top of a stone crusher at a quarry. They will use channel markers, cliffs, duck blinds, abandoned buildings, high voltage towers, and even the ground on islands that give them protection from predators. Ospreys will often choose man-made platforms on poles over natural nesting sites.
The nests are constructed mostly of sticks and they grow bigger each year, eventually ending up as big as an eagle nest. It is quite a sight to see an osprey collecting sticks by hitting dead branches with its feet while in flight and breaking them off to be hauled to the nest. I have photographed them flying with tree limbs almost 7 feet long.
At present most local ospreys are laying or incubating. Generally two or three eggs are laid and the female does most of the 35-day incubation. The male does most of the hunting during incubation and while the young are in the early stages of development. The young birds will leave the nest when they are about 9 or 10 weeks old.
I’m sure there are nests along the Niagara River and other places in Niagara County but I only keep tabs on about 10 of them around my area. If you are in the Alabama Swamp there is a nest that can be seen along Route 77, right next to the road on a pole platform, but it is a dangerous spot to observe because the road doesn’t have much of a shoulder to safely pull off, and the trucks fly through there. This is the reason “NO PARKING” signs are posted along this stretch of road.
There is another osprey nest on twin wooden power poles, also on Route 77 just west of Meadville Road. Here there is enough room to get completely off the road to observe. There is yet another nest just down the road that can be seen from the Tonawanda Wildlife Management Overlook, on the south side of the road. The nest is to the southeast of the overlook on a pole with a platform on it.
Come check them out. You may even get a chance to see an osprey dive into the water and catch a fish.
Doug Domedion, outdoorsman and nature photographer, resides in Medina. Contact him at (585) 798-4022 or firstname.lastname@example.org .