Osprey: Signs of Spring

Mid-March for me is punctuated by the return of the Chesapeake’s osprey. Along the South River in Anne Arundel County, where spawning alewife and gizzard shad school up before going into shallower water, the osprey come to feed heavily and gain weight for nesting.

I like to watch them fly in place over a potential target and drop head first, then suddenly flip to talon first as they hit the water. They usually completely disappear underwater and as they come up, I can tell how large their catch is. As they float on top of the water they are adjusting the position of the fish underwater. The head is turned forward to make the fish more aerodynamic.

Sometimes the birds struggle to get large fish in the proper position and out of the water. The largest fish I ever saw caught was an 18- to 22-inch striped bass. The female osprey had a really hard time lifting off and dragged the fish’s tail in the water a good 200 feet before getting airborne. I know it couldn’t eat the whole thing.

Most of the Chesapeake Bay’s ospreys spend the winter in South America but mated pairs go to separate wintering grounds. The males return to the nesting spot a week or two before the females. They work on rebuilding the nest and fishing. When the female shows up, the male performs a courtship flight. He will catch a fish and start flying up and down in the air, calling out loudly. Frequently, the object of his desires will follow him and accept the fish he is carrying. These displays are loud and become a little sad when no female shows interest. He will fly higher and higher and carry the fish so long it will dry out. Young birds seem to have the most trouble.

Ospreys become sexually mature after spending two years in South America. Their first return is an awkward time for them. The males struggle to find a nesting site and then struggle to garner interest from a female.

The young females have trouble taking care of the eggs and the young. The couple’s first attempts at raising a family frequently fail. If an older bird loses its mate, it chooses a replacement, which may be a young bird.

The return of the osprey is a sign of spring. Hopefully, you can find a spot to watch them catch fish and build a nest.

The best online local osprey cam is from the Patuxent River Park on
Jug Bay, pgparks.com/3441/wildlife- cameras.

To see nesting in person, visit the pier at North Beach, which usually has two active osprey nests.