Species Identification - Birds

Osprey - Pandion haliaetus

Family: Pandionidae


Sometimes mistaken for an eagle because of its white head, the osprey is actually smaller and more mottled in color than a mature bald eagle. Its length is 21-24.5”, and the bald eagle’s length is 31-37”. The female is larger than the male, and they mate for life. Both sexes tend to the offspring. It is also called the fish eagle or sea hawk because its diet consists primarily of fish. The osprey hovers over the water, then when it spots prey plunges down and dives feet-first into the water to capture it. It will arise with a small fish in its talons. The osprey has a reversible toe, which, acting like our thumb, allows it to grip slippery fish. This may be what makes is possible for the osprey to carry a fish aligned with its body front to back. This makes it more aerodynamic to compensate for its wingspan (50-71”) that is shorter than an eagle’s (70-90”). An eagle on the other hand carries the fish perpendicularly which causes it more drag. An osprey’s shorter wingspan gives it an advantage over an eagle when an eagle wants to steal its fish. Osprey are more agile and can fly circles around eagles.

The osprey builds a large prominent nest on trees, poles, or special platforms, near a body of fresh or brackish water, sometimes along the side of a road. There is one on the left side of Highway 21 as you approach Hunting Island from Beaufort and another at the foot of the Fripp Island Bridge at the south end of the island. These nests have held babies every year since 2003. Rangers have observed that just after the osprey babies fledge (which means they have the feathers to fly and therefore are capable of flight), the parents disappear and leave the hungry young to fend for themselves. The fledglings will “cry” for two or three days, until they figure out they need to fend for themselves and get out of the nest and find something to eat. A tough love kind of parenting.

Some ospreys overwinter in the southernmost parts of the US, and there are a few on Hunting Island in the winter, but most migrate to Central and South America. Ospreys are the only member of its family, but it is widely distributed throughout the world. The name osprey probably derives from “bird of prey” and its preferred pronunciation is ah-spree rather than ah-spray.

Range: Relatively common thanks to conservation efforts. Widely distributed worldwide near fresh and salt water. Hunting Island osprey usually winter in South America, although some may remain in warm areas of the US, including Hunting Island.

Photos by Carl Berube

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