Osprey on Deerfield Island

by Diana R. Lopez



Much to my delight, one of the very first forms of wildlife I was privileged to observe on Deerfield Island was a fully mature Osprey, or Pandion haliaetus, that was perched along the riverbank on an outstretched, dead limb high up in one of the many invasive Australian Pines that thrives and proliferates on the Island. As I gazed at this statuesque bird, its identity and mature status were confirmed by the pattern and coloring of its feathers. It appeared to be about two feet in height. Its folded wings were dark, and its breast and underbelly were predominantly white. Also white was its head but with a dark eyestripe and an equally dark, hooked beak, a sure sign of it being a flesh eater. It was positively majestic.


Enthralled, I watched as it suddenly and quite unexpectedly sprang from its perch and took flight. With its fully spread, long, narrow wings angled and bowed downward and displaying what I gauged roughly to be about a five foot wingspan, it descended swiftly toward the Hillsboro River below. I watched transfixed as its game plan unfolded before me. By purposefully dipping its tail, it slowed its descent and used its momentum to gracefully glide the remaining precalculated distance. What ensued can only be described as an oft practiced, artful maneuver. It thrust both its outstretched legs forward, and using them to narrow its scope of vision, silently glided to an ideal position that brought it  directly above and within inches of its unsuspecting prey. In one precise and skillful motion, its razor sharp talons pierced the water and impaled its victim. Both the osprey and its doomed fish that it carried like a pointed, aerodynamic arrow clasped lengthwise within vice-like talons, now rose skyward as one. 


To counteract the size, weight and struggle of its catch, and without missing a beat, the osprey pumped its wings vigorously in a determined effort to rise upward in sustained flight. As the osprey changed direction and headed back toward Deerfield Island, I was able to observe the fish as it flailed and wriggled desperately in what proved to be a valiant but futile attempt to rid itself of such an unyielding death grip. With fish in tow, this artful and efficient predator then proceeded to thread its way silently into the density and seclusion of Deerfield Island where it quickly disappeared from sight. Interestingly enough, I have since learned that this majestic hunter is one of at least a pair of ospreys that has taken up permanent residency on Deerfield Island.  How spectacular and wonderful is that?


Osprey Rehabilitation; a Postscript


Seeing this masterful and mature, healthy predator demonstrate such a successful drama of survival set within its own natural environment is both moving and rewarding to anyone privileged and lucky enough to witness it. It is especially satisfying because injured or sick ospreys are notoriously difficult to rehabilitate. They command an exceptionally high rate of failure to thrive while in captivity. They become lethargic, demonstrate classic signs of depression and refuse all offerings of nourishment, however well intentioned. Consequently, their weight invariably plummets and they become weak, dehydrated and emaciated. Their muscles begin to atrophy. Human intervention consisting of forced tube feeding of life giving sustenance such as “fish shakes” at regular intervals often becomes necessary causing the animal additional undue stress as a result of frequent handling and the implementation and repetition of life saving medical survival techniques. 


Because ospreys are known to compete for food, there is one rather crafty rehabilitation technique that has been employed with some limited success. By placing  a few small, live fish (such as silversides) in a relatively shallow dish of water within the osprey’s enclosed rehabilitation habitat and then positioning the dish at the base of a secured, full length mirror, the osprey’s own reflection is perceived by it as validation of the existence within its habitat of another osprey, the sight of which is recognized as a genuine threat to its food supply. To eliminate this threat, the osprey doesn’t attack its own reflection, but instead consumes the fish thereby depriving its perceived competitor of any available food source, and in the process, unknowingly helps to ensure its own recovery and survival.

I’ve often thought about how these kinds of problem solving solutions evolve. I’m certain it necessitated a working knowledge of species specific animal behavior (in this case the osprey), coupled with a lot of agonizing, repeated trial and error attempts and an ability and willingness to “think outside the box” before someone thought of and attempted this creative idea. But believe me, it works. I know because I’ve personally witnessed and participated in its success. How incredibly rewarding is that?