I recently visited my family’s riverside farm in Virginia, where we’re a few years ahead of the Northeast in terms of eagle and osprey recovery from DDT (the “Silent Spring” pesticide – notorious for its impact on birds – was banned from general use in December 1972). When I would go to the farm as a kid, the sight of a bald eagle stopped conversations, and ensured bragging rights over dinner, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t see and hear at least a few osprey each spring.
These raptors fly in from South America around the vernal equinox or a little after, and announce their presence with staccato shrieking that sounds a bit like a chimpanzee. By now, they have settled their territorial disputes and built sprawling stick nests that both parents guard diligently. I haven’t seen any fuzzy white heads popping up from those nests yet, but they probably will be soon.
My mother can remember her excitement when the osprey first returned. In fact, my family’s joy at the recovery of birds inspired what has always seemed an odd tradition. In the spring, we build nest platforms out in the river; this despite the fact there are perfectly suitable nesting trees all along the shore. About halfway through the process of building the platforms – a labor intensive process that typically involves a fair amount of swearing, splinters, and at least one cousin’s boyfriend or some other semi-expendable helper falling out of a boat – the osprey show up and start shrieking their displeasure at how badly we’re doing our job. We finish the platform, the osprey move in, and they spend all summer screaming at us if our boats get too close, and pooping on the dock. Then the osprey migrate. Winter comes, ice takes away the platform and we have to start all over again.
Good times. Actually, I mean that sincerely. Those are good times. And it’s such a pleasure to see these magnificent birds soaring over the river.
Anyway, eagles and osprey are now both sufficiently common in this little corner of the Chesapeake watershed that, for the most part, they fly by without comment. Except that, this visit, my husband happened to have his camera out at just the right time when an osprey was fishing. Unlike other raptors, osprey plunge headfirst into the water, with their talons extended on either side of their head. Even when you witness this, it seems wildly improbable, as David Deen aptly described in this 2010 Outside Story article.
Below are images of the full sequence of an osprey dive, from first descent to its recovery out of the water (in this case, the fish got away). The time from the beginning of the dive to the bird becoming airborne again was approximately .7 seconds. You’ll also see an image of the same osprey hovering as it scans for fish, and an image of a skeptical-looking osprey that I just couldn’t resist throwing in.
Not pictured, but an increasingly common part of an osprey’s fishing routine, is the harassment stage, when it (and sometimes its mate) may perform both evasive and aggressive maneuvers to ward off a bullying eagle. Sometimes the osprey wins. Sometimes the eagle wins. Sometimes the fish gets lost in the scuffle and lands with a thud on the lawn, inspiring barking, joy, and fish breath, in my parents’ flat-coated retrievers.