view counter

This Week’s Creature Feature: Flight of the Osprey

Each bird’s return to Chesapeake Country is an odyssey

       The osprey is a unique bird, no exaggeration. The fish hawk has a unique taxonomy, a genus of its own.
       Part of what makes them unique is their fishing style. Osprey can hover in place without a wind, go into a dive headfirst and — right before impact — put their talons down to lock them into a fish.
       Osprey flourish on all warm continents, and in the northeastern U.S. they have developed a unique life cycle. 
        In the spring, around St. Patrick’s Day, osprey return to Maryland to start fishing along the Chesapeake. Their return matches the spawning run of perch, herring and shad. The males show up a week before the females and start fixing up a nest site. They will use the same nest year after year and have to defend it from young birds looking to start a family.
       As the larger females arrive, each male displays his fishing prowess by flying up and down with a fish in its talons while singing. They have likely not seen their mate since the previous fall.
       The female will settle into the nest and rearrange the sticks to her liking. She will lay three to five eggs, and after about 35 days the chicks hatch. The first to hatch usually grows the fastest and will pick on the younger smaller birds.
      Osprey will raise chicks that are not their own. Greg Kearns, a naturalist for Prince George’s County, will move a chick that is failing to thrive to another nest with less competition. It usually works out well. The chicks grow rapidly and by the end of the summer are fishing on their own.
      On some designated day in September, the parents fly in higher and higher circles, slipping away to the south leaving the young to fend for themselves. After several weeks alone, the young start a migration, too, also heading to South America. The pairs split up and go their separate ways, and the young try to find a safe area to spend a couple of years.
       In the spring the males fly north, followed by the females.
       After two to four years in South America, the young birds start an early spring return to North America. They do not necessarily go to their birth area and are chased from place to place by older birds until they find a suitable location.
      The mortality of first-year osprey is very high. In the Jug Bay area, great horned owls and raccoons prey on the young in the nest, and the long trip to South America is fraught with danger: hurricanes, starvation and guns.
      When you see an osprey, think about how far it came to be back in its summer home.