The big bird in the sky

By Susan Campbell

Very large birds flying high in the sky tend to get people’s attention — even if they are not birdwatchers. Here in North Carolina we have a number of species that can be seen soaring along our coastline. One of the biggest is the “fish hawk,” or as it is known officially, the osprey.

Although ospreys can sometimes be confused with eagles, their appearance is really not that similar. Indeed, both large species can be found in wet habitat, but that is where the similarity ends. Even at a great distance, their flight profiles are very different. Eagles have large, broad wings that are held flat while soaring. Osprey have long, more narrow wings that will always be crooked at the wrist and, as a result of lower wing loading, must flap their wings more so than eagles do. Ospreys do have a degree of pale feathering on their heads, they have a dark eye line, and their head and bill are nowhere as massive as that of an eagle. Furthermore, they have a dark tail and pale under-wing linings that are quite obvious when viewed from below.

As you may have already guessed, these birds eat live fish: either saltwater or freshwater species. A meal can be literally anything the bird can carry. Ospreys will either watch for prey from a high perch or fly slowly, looking for fish close to the water’s surface. They can also hover for short periods as they zero in on a potential meal. Only two other birds, the hummingbird and the kingfisher, are capable of this specialized behavior. Ospreys actually dive into the water to grab the fish they are after. And yes, their flight style was the inspiration for the famous Marine Corps aircraft of the same name.

Not only are these birds conspicuous in flight, but their nests are likely to get your attention as well. They are huge, stick-built affairs, built on a vertical surface of some kind in the open and over water. Man-made platforms can be erected for ospreys, but there are plenty of structures that they will use in coastal areas such as channel markers, pilings or communication towers. Of course, they will also take advantage of large dead or dying trees, setting up housekeeping in the topmost branches. Females will return to the same nest year after year if they successfully fledge young in that location. Each season they will add more material, creating a woven mass of large sticks, several feet across. And given the fact that ospreys live for decades, their nest can become a massive affair.

There are a number of osprey nests around Wilmington. Along the Intracoastal Waterway, at Airlie Gardens (by the Bradley Creek boardwalk), at the end of Wrightsville Avenue in Wrightsville Beach (on the cell tower) are all places you can likely spot a big pile of sticks with an adult osprey or two on top. If you get lucky you may glimpse a fuzzy white chick peering over the edge. Both adults will be busy raising their family for the next few months. Before too much longer they will wander south, separately, to Central or South America for the winter. Although there are a few osprey along our coast during the cooler months, they are likely migrants from farther north.

Our area is a terrific location for fish eaters of all kinds. So if a large powerful bird with M-shaped wings catches your eye or you hear a loud chirping, coming from on high, take a closer look: It may well be an osprey.

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