Fish Hawks

Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) are sometimes called "fish hawks" and can be found around relatively shallow waterways. They feed almost exclusively on fish and snatch their prey out of the water on the wing. The range maps show they winter along the Texas Gulf Coast; but we probably have some permanent residents as well. They do live year round and breed next door in Louisiana and Mississippi, and there are some records of breeding pairs in far southeast Texas. Maybe in time they will extend their breeding range along our Gulf coast. All they need is a good supply of fish and some tall structures to build big, messy nests.   

Ospreys are distributed world wide; across Europe and northern Asia, Australia and Indonesia and a resident population in the Caribbean. 

The North American population generally breeds in Canada and the Northwest US, along the Atlantic coast and are present year round in Florida and Baja California. I read that migratory populations head south from areas where winters are cold enough to drive fish into deep waters. 

We do seem to have an abundance around Surfside at the moment. I saw one late September and then a mid-October trip netted four different sightings. They are amazing birds and I was able to get some great photos to show you. 

Osprey in flight with dinner Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 640

Osprey in flight with dinner

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 640

If you see an Osprey and can get him in focus, this is usually what you might see. Their wingspan is 5-6 feet (1.5 to 1.8m) and they have a very distinctive steady wing beat. Fairly easy to follow, but I have missed some awesome shots because I was surprised and didn't up my shutter speed. It breaks your heart to look at the great captures, all fuzzy and blurry because you forgot you were at 1/400 shutter speed. 

So, they swoop over the water at a moderate height and then dive down, talons extended and grab some hapless fish. Their toes are of equal length and like owls, the outer toe is reversible allowing them to grasp with two toes forward and two behind. They even have barbed pads on the soles of their feet; better to hold on to those slippery fish. They carry the fish with both feet, one in front of the other.

I thought they snatched the fish from behind because it is always oriented headfirst - obviously to decrease wind resistance.  But, I read they will rearrange a catch to carry it head forward. I have been looking at photos on Google images to see if there is a preference for the front foot, left or right. Seems to be a preponderance of right-footedness, but what if someone reversed their photo? Not a scientific study.

September Osprey on telephone cable with fish Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 500

September Osprey on telephone cable with fish

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/7.1 ISO 500

We spotted this one in late September near the bridge heading to Surfside. He was on the telephone cable (you know that is the lower, heavier cable; the higher ones are for electricity). I was thrilled he was a bit lower than usual and took a quick dozen shots from the truck window. Once we got the tripods out, he had bolted. 

After following him around a bit, and he landed on a short pole in a gravel parking lot at a bait shop. And then he left. 

And then he came back.

Patience, my friend.

September Osprey landing with his fish Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 640

September Osprey landing with his fish

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 640

Yes, I was pretty stoked about that shot. You can clearly see he is holding a fish in his left foot. Look at those talons!  He stayed on the pole and ate the fish, head first. Then he flew off with half the fish to land on top of a utility pole.

Too far away for my lens. 

October #1 Osprey with Redfish Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1600 sec. f/7.1 ISO 640 

October #1 Osprey with Redfish

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1600 sec. f/7.1 ISO 640 

Then, in mid-October, this one was spotted on an old utility pole near Bryan Beach. That is a rather large Redfish prize (note the spot on the tail). The head of the fish is mostly intact and it is being held with the right foot. There are some nice brown feathers around the Osprey's neck. The first one I saw in September (just landing on the pole with a fish) had more white underparts. 

My internet research tells me females are more likely to have a "necklace" of darker feathers in the upper breast area. It is thought the brown coloration helps camouflage a nesting femaleThe breast band of the male is weaker or non-existent. 

Nom nom ... fish guts. You can see the spot on the Redfish's tail.  Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1600 sec. f/6.3 ISO 800

Nom nom ... fish guts. You can see the spot on the Redfish's tail. 

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1600 sec. f/6.3 ISO 800

We set up with tripods and prayed for clouds. It was one of those days the weathermen called "Partly Sunny" and now and then the light was really harsh. You can see the shadow of the fish's tail against the old pole.

Eating a fish is hard work. 

Obviously, Ospreys reject the gills of the fish Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1600 sec. f/6.3 ISO 800

Obviously, Ospreys reject the gills of the fish

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1600 sec. f/6.3 ISO 800

Occasionally, she looked over at us and even squawked when we approached closer. She only raised her wings once and concentrated on her meal. There are just so many photos you can take of the same thing (umm.. 207 to be exact).

We left and found a nice juvenile Reddish Egret and later some willing Least Sandpipers. 

October #2 Osprey - Surveying the shore line at Quintana Jetty Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1600 sec. f/5.6 ISO 800

October #2 Osprey - Surveying the shore line at Quintana Jetty

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/1600 sec. f/5.6 ISO 800

And just as we were leaving the the parking area at Quintana Jetty, we spotted another one.

This was the second Osprey seen that day and this one was fluffier; I think she was drying out after a hunt.  She was on an old pole near the road; we had to get off in the brush to avoid the traffic. And we both got chiggers for the effort. The light was good and we did get to set up tripods for an extended photo shoot. There was a lot of preening going on, with special attention under the wing. 

October #2 Osprey departs Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 640

October #2 Osprey departs

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/2000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 640

But, finally it was time to hunt and look at that wing spread! Note the white up to the "wrist" break. And this is why I try to have a fast shutter speed if possible. You never know what they are going to do. 

October #3 Osprey on the telephone line at Surfside Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/400 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1000 

October #3 Osprey on the telephone line at Surfside

Sony A77 II with 70-400mm G2 1/400 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1000 

We made a quick trip back to Surfside and spotted two more Ospreys. They were not close and seem content to perch on the utility lines. I did see one more that day over behind Surfside Beach. It was carrying a fish and all my photos are blurry due to operator error (not checking shutter speed).

Now, researching the age and sex of these birds on the internet, I think the ones with plain white breasts are males; the streaked ones are females. All of these have a heavily streaked head, which is indicative of juveniles as the fully grown adults have white heads.  Juvenile Ospreys also have orange eyes; the adult eye color is more yellow-gold or brown. Younger birds often have buffy colored underparts; not white. They have a more speckled or mottled appearance due to buff-colored tips on the dark brown upper wing and back. 

Juvenile status might last as long as three years until they are sexually mature for breeding. Young birds may stay in the wintering locations (and not move back North) if the chance of breeding is slim.

So, my assumptions are:

  • The bird I saw first in late September is a youngish male (no breast band, streaked head and orange eyes).
  • The first October bird (eating a fish) is probably a young female (prominent breast band, streaked head and orange eyes).
  • The October #2 bird could be an older female juvenile (streaked head, breast band, and brownish eyes)
  • October #3 bird is probably a male adult (almost white head, faint brownish breast feathers and golden brown eyes).

Of course eye color can depend on the light. But, none of the birds I have seen this Fall have the characteristic white heads. They may be young birds here for the winter or just passing through to parts south. I don't think any of them are of breeding age.

Or, the characteristic white head may only develop in sexually mature adults? or regional differences? More field work!

I haven't seen one actually grab a fish - yet.  For an Osprey in action I asked Bill Maroldo to go through his archives. Here is one from 2010 he took at the lake Storey Park. 

Osprey snatching tilapia from big lake at Storey Park Photo by William Maroldo 

Osprey snatching tilapia from big lake at Storey Park

Photo by William Maroldo 

The identification of age and sex warrants much more research. I am just thrilled to have some photos to compare. Since they winter here along the coast, I hope to have more opportunities. 

Have you ever seen an Osprey? Do you have more data about the age and sex you could share? Do you agree with my assumptions? Don't be shy, let me know in the comments. That is if you have any other browser besides Internet Explorer.