The spring equinox was just a few days away as a winter storm drenched Sonoma County this past month. And when the storm passed, the first ospreys were seen returning to our area, with perfect timing.
Like many other birds, ospreys have a long migration from their wintering grounds to their breeding grounds. Ospreys overwinter in Central and South America, and each spring they make the long journey to nest here in tall trees near rivers and lakes.
The first to arrive are the males, followed by the females in a week or so. The male announces his arrival with chirping calls from high in the sky. For some, this is the definitive sound of spring.
Ospreys generally mate for life, and they return to the same nest they used in previous years. When the female joins her mate, they will dance in the sky together, a thrilling sight.
Once reunited, the pair immediately sets to work on their nest of sticks high atop a tall tree. Winter winds and rains can wreak havoc on last year’s nest. The male osprey will land with force on a dead branch of a nearby tree, snapping it off. The branch is often covered in soft lichen. He flies with the stick in his talons back to the nest and gives the stick to the female. She can be seen carefully choosing where to place each piece.
With each yearly renovation, the nest becomes bigger, the oldest ones reaching a diameter of up to six feet.
Watching a pair of ospreys through the breeding season is an exciting experience, as photographer Paul Brewer learned. He said, “I first discovered an osprey nest in 2012. The following year there was another successful nest and I vowed to follow its progress at least once a week.”
In 2013 there was just one chick in that nest.
An osprey’s clutch size ranges from one to four eggs, and there is only one clutch per year. Brewer saw the newborn chick on May 14. “My hope was to photograph the dad, who does the hunting, deliver a fish to the nest and observe the baby being fed. On several occasions I was rewarded.”
Brewer watched as the father osprey delivered fish to the nest. He noticed that the head of the fish had been removed by the father. Brewer said, “I assume this was for safety, to insure the baby was not knocked out of the nest. Once the fish was delivered, the dad quickly departed. The mom tore off very small pieces of the fish and very gently placed them in her chick’s mouth.”
As the young osprey grew, she began feeding herself. The mother osprey continued her murmuring call, which encourages the male to bring food to the nest. Brewer noticed the maturing chick begin making the same call.
Brewer enjoyed watching the chick grow strong. He said, “The chick started flapping and strengthening her wings. The next step was to lift a short distance off the nest, dropping directly back into the nest. Finally, the chick flew to a nearby tree. She then seemed afraid to make the return trip. Mom sat by her side and encouraged her to return.”
Fun Fact: a bird that has left the nest for the first time is called a fledgling.
Ten Things To Know About Ospreys
1. As with most raptors, the female osprey is bigger than the male.
2. The female osprey remains at the nest most of the time, sheltering and protecting her young.
3. The scientific name for an osprey is Pandion haliaetus.
4. Ospreys are also called sea hawks, river hawks, fish hawks and even fish eagles.
5. Ospreys are the only hawks in America that eat nearly exclusively live fish.
6. The oldest known osprey lived for 25 years, 2 months.
7. Nests are found on top of snags (dead standing trees), treetops, and in crotches of large branches.
8. Ospreys’ stick nests are lined with moss, grasses, lichen, seaweed, and other materials.
9. Osprey eggs do not hatch all at the same time. The first chick to hatch has an advantage over its younger siblings.
10. Ospreys are excellent anglers. The average time they take to catch a fish is around 12 minutes.