I cried today when I watched the latest Osprey chick fledge. I cried because I was happy she’d survived the perils of being a chick (and there are many) and is safer now she can fly. But I cried too because I’m always sad that it’s over till next year and I miss all that close contact with the Osprey. She was very funny, she was trying to beg food off her parents and when they ignored her, she gave a few indignant squawks and then just took off … It’s such a great feeling watching them launch into space for the first time and soar around crying at their parents to watch!
I’ve been photographing one pair and their chicks for six years. The first year was twins, who were blown out of the nests in storms and died, but then Harriet, Bella, Houdini and now Jesse. I love them and after six years I can walk up very close to them and they’ll just look at me, sometimes they squawk at me and I know I’ve got just that one step too close.
The Osprey use the same nest each year. It’s a big nest on top of a man-made pole and they carry big sticks in their beaks. The nest is lined with grass, seaweed or bark. They generally pair for life or until one dies. They return to the nest each year and although they both fetch the sticks, the female will usually place them in the nest. She will remain on the nest most of the nesting time while the male fishes and brings food. She will often bring back big branches to add the finishing touches to the ‘playpen’, placing them around the outer edge so the chick can’t fall out.
Osprey are excellent fisherman and dive headfirst with their wings pinned back, often catching very large fish. I’ve spent many hours standing in a small creek outlet in the mouth of the estuary watching them and puzzling about their behavior. I wonder why the male flies in with a huge fish and sits on the pole opposite the nest and takes ages to eat most of the fish, starting with the head, while the female cries and cries. Only when there’s a morsel left does he fly over and give her some. My best assumption is that he needs the energy to keep bringing fish back to the nest all day during nesting season.
I also had the great joy of seeing him calling to her when she wouldn’t come off the nest after the death of their twin chicks. It was a beautiful day and he seemed be to calling ‘come on, come on, come and fly with me’. Eventually she did and they were spectacular swooping up and down the estuary, calling, circling high and diving down along the surface of the water.
Having watched them for years I’ve decided that they’re a great pair and they know exactly what they’re doing. Sometimes he’s only gone for five minutes and he’s back with a huge fish, holding it down with one powerful claw while it flaps. They most definitely ‘talk’ to each other; researchers have established at least five vocalizations. The ones I observe are ‘begging for food’, ‘alarm, intruder’, ‘nest defense’ (usually another raptor overhead), ‘courtship’, ‘warning’ (signaling for the chick to stay down in the nest. Very recently I saw the female do a new call that was a louder and more urgent warning call. It occurred when the male was too far away in the estuary to come quickly and Crows were on the nest with the chick in it. Those crows moved off very fast when she screamed at them.
They are great parents, fiercely protective and devoted. They protect the chick, teach it all it needs to know to survive and eventually they drive it away. I’ve watched the female drive a Sea Eagle (much bigger than her), Whistling Kites and Crows away from the nest, seen her carry big branches in her beak and place them on the edge of the nest so the chick can’t fall out, (chicks don’t fledge until 48 -76 days old) and tear pieces of fish off to feed the chick before herself.
Chicks start as featherless, chocolate covered ugly/cute and change to white feathered, feisty, hungry, fluffy and very very cute. The process is usually much the same except for ‘Harriet’ who was my girl, my all time favorite bird and one I’ll never forget. Always hungry, she screamed and screamed for both her parents to come with fish and often tried to scrabble up and see over the edge of the nest. Most chicks stay hidden and sometimes, as with Houdini, aren’t seen until they fledge. It’s a dangerous path to the nest and no guarantee of seeing the chick, but with Harriet I would hear her screaming from a long way away. She wore her parents out trying to feed her enough and she was bigger than both of them when she fledged. She nearly always had her head above the nest and was quite belligerent but very cute. She made the biggest performance before she took her first flight and it was one of the best days of my life watching her. She kept doing little, hopping flights around the nest, flapping her wings and screaming at her mum, who was watching from her perch nearby. Eventually, and it took quite some time, she took to the air and sort of hovered unsteadily for a few moments. She quickly got the hang of it and circled around screaming her head off. When she came in to land she nearly landed on her mums head, luckily mum ducked down. Later I always knew it was her because she’d come over my head and scream at me to move back to an acceptable position and then she’d stop screaming and perch.
It’s it interesting to note that Ospreys may be a valuable indicator species for monitoring the long-term health of rivers, bays and estuaries. They are well suited to this role because of their piscivorous (fish eating) lifestyle and their known sensitivity to many contaminants.