Chesapeake Outdoors

by C.D. Dollar

Of Osprey

My affection for osprey is rooted in their love of the water and their graceful but deadly hunting skills. We saw one example of ospreys' beautifully wild nature a few summers ago when President Clinton and representatives from state and federal wildlife agencies convened at the Patuxent Naval Air Station to release a bald eagle that had been raised in captivity.

It was to be a truly eventful day: the once-endangered national symbol to be released into the wild with all the pomp and circumstance surrounding a presidential event. All went according to plan as the eagle soared high above the waters where the Patuxent and the Bay converge. Yet nature follows her own script, regardless of the audience. A nesting pair of osprey, strongly territorial, set their sights on the intruder and forced the eagle to crash-land into the water. The eagle was quickly recovered unharmed (except for its pride) and presumably came away with a greater respect for osprey, those kings and queens among fishing birds.

In the 1950s, heavy use of the pesticide DDT severely threatened the osprey population - and that of bald eagles, brown pelicans and blue herons - for decades. The chemical sometimes killed the birds outright but more commonly weakened egg shells, thus not allowing them to propagate. Over the last 20 years, osprey populations have made a tremendous recovery. On some creeks and rivers on the Chesapeake today, it is common to see osprey nesting on nearly every channel marker.

Osprey are raptors (meaning "to seize"), and belong to the same group as eagles, hawks, vultures and owls. The Chesapeake Bay region, with more than 4,600 miles of tidal shoreline, has 2,000 nesting pairs of ospreys visit each mid-March through September (from South America mostly), representing about 25 percent of all breeding pairs in the US.

Ospreys' genus name, Pandion haliaetus, literally translates from Greek as "Pandion's sea eagle." Pandion was the king of Athens, and had two daughters, Procne and Philomel. They became involved in a love triangle with Tereus, angering the gods who then changed Procne into a swallow, Philomel into a nightingale and Tereus into a hawk. Tereus was sentenced to forever chase Procne and Philomel. Perhaps the osprey's scientific name should have been Tereus, since Tereus was the one transformed into a raptor. But even that would be stretching things since ospreys rarely eat swallows and nightingales.

Osprey come by their common names - fish hawk, fish eagle, fishing eagle and sea eagle - honestly. Their diet consists almost exclusively of fish - menhaden, herring, eels, perch, pickerel, shad and many others. If there is a shortage of fish, ospreys will eat small rodents and small birds.

Ospreys' usual call is a piercing but melodious whistle - chewk-chewk or cheap-cheap. Osprey fly with powerful wingbeats alternated with glides and can reach top speeds of more than 70mph; they cruise from 20 to 40mph. When it sights fish, the osprey hovers 30 to 100 feet above the surface, wings beating and legs trailing under its body. Then, with feet and head projected ahead, wings held back and tail spread, ospreys strike the water with a tremendous splash, sometimes hitting at speeds of 20 to 45mph. It dives as deep as three to four feet underwater, disappearing momentarily - leaving only wing tips showing.

Rising from the water gripping a fish in its razor-like talons, the bird pauses in midair to shake water from its plumage and to arrange its prize so the fish's head points forward to reduce air resistance. Like owls, ospreys have a reversible outer toe, able to be moved into both forward and backward positions, giving them greater control when grabbing and holding onto fish. The osprey will then fly to its perch to eat or to its nest to feed its young. Field studies have reported osprey carrying fish up to four pounds.

Ospreys do not ordinarily scavenge but will chase intruders out of their fishing territory. On the other hand, if a bald eagle sees an osprey catch a fish, it will dive upon the osprey and force it to drop the fish, which the eagle then often catches in its talons before the fish strikes water.

Certainly it is hard to pass judgment upon an animal trying to carve out a living in the hard natural world, but to many people (including this writer), few other birds do it as gracefully and majestically as the osprey. These warm summer evenings are just the time to watch them work their magic.


Fish Are Biting

When the weather is right, the rockfishing in the upper Bay has been very good as the last of the spawners head south. Most anglers have their limit (thanks in large part to the reduced size of 18 inches) as greater numbers of big stripers have moved into the Love Point and Baltimore Light areas, with chumming being the preferred method - though crab baits work.

Martin Gary, DNR fisheries biologist, says that if history is a guide, these rock may hang around until the July 12 cutoff. Hacketts, Thomas, and Tolleys are a good bet for white perch and some rock. DNR and charter boat captains report stripers in the 26 to 33 inch range at Summer Gooses, the Hill, the Buoy #1 area off West River and the western side of the channel from Franklin Manor to Plum Point. Chummers working in 25- to 38-foot depths are scoring.. Kathy Connor from Bunkys in Solomons says Cove Point, Cedar Rip and the Gas Docks are holding rockfish, and that croaker and spot can be taken at the Patuxent River, Cedar Point and Punch Island areas.

Weakfish had been showing up, and flounder catches at Buoy #84, the area just above the Poplar Island Narrows, channel edges in Eastern Bay and the False Channel edges have all been steady. The black drum watch is on, and the Rod 'n' Reel reports nice catches of the big boys. Try the James Island Flats, Stone Rock, and Poplar Island Flats to play hide and seek with the drum. In the lower Bay, the rockfishing fishing has been dynamite. DNR reports huge schools of the 1993-year class stripers (now 20 to 24 inches) roaming the lower Bay. Excellent croaker catches continue in Tangier Sound, the Middle Grounds and Hooper Island Light with an increasing number of weakfish mixed in. Some nice blues, though more hit or miss.

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VolumeVI Number 24
June 18-24, 1998
New Bay Times

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