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A Nod To Journaling

Every year we have the opportunity to witness and compare the timing of the annual spring appearance of plant and animal species where we live.  Keeping a journal and noting over a period of years when Silver Maples flower, Killdeer reappear, Spotted Salamanders emerge above ground, etc. can provide valuable phenological information.  It can also be a wonderful guide to when you should keep your eyes open and what you should keep them open for.

As a rule, Ospreys return and engage in copulation during the first week of April in the Champlain Valley of Vermont. I know this only because I’ve jotted down my observations in a journal I’ve kept over the past 50 years.  Each spring I religiously review past years’ journal entries for where I am currently living.  This year’s review made me aware that chances were as good as they get for witnessing raptor courtship this week.  A trip to a local Osprey nest confirmed that they had indeed returned.  Two hours of waiting was rewarded with the accompanying photograph.  (They do copulate an average of 160 times per clutch, so luck was in my favor!) If you’re fortunate enough to live in the same area for a lengthy period of time, journaling can be an invaluable tool for the naturally curious.

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Zygodactyl Toe Arrangement

Most birds have four toes, three pointing forward and one back. A quick look in the snow beneath your bird feeder will confirm this. Exceptions to this rule include woodpeckers, owls and ospreys, among others, whose toe arrangement is 2 and 2: two of their toes (the middle two) point forward, and the outer toes point backwards.  The term for this arrangement is zygodactyl

Different species have evolved this toe arrangement to meet different needs.  It enhances the ability of woodpeckers to hold onto limbs and climb up vertical tree trunks, while owls and ospreys can get a better grasp of slippery or wiggly prey.  (Woodpeckers can pivot one of their back toes to the side, and owls can pivot one of their back toes forward, as well.)

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Ospreys Continue To Add Material to Nest Throughout The Nesting Season

The nesting season for Ospreys is well underway – chicks appear larger by the day, and before long they will be fledging.  As advanced as the nesting season is, Osprey nests are still being reinforced with material retrieved by the adults. 

The pictured Osprey took off from its nest, swooped down to a nearby roadside and scooped up a sizable clump of mowed grass with its talons which it then delivered back to its nest where its mate was sitting with two chicks.  Even late in the nesting season all manner of material, not all of it natural, is added to Osprey nests – among other things, paper, plastic bags, rope, nylon mesh bait bags, dried cow manure and beach toys have been documented.

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Objective: An Empty Nest

Note that the adult Osprey in the air above its nest has no fish clutched in its talons – it is not bringing food back to its young.  Rather, it is doing everything in its power to entice its offspring to take off and catch their own meal. 

An afternoon of observing juvenile Ospreys taking short flights from their nest assured me that the process of fledging had begun.  In the Northeast, young Ospreys usually remain at or near their nest for at least 10 – 20 days after they can fly, during which time their parents continue to bring fish to them.  (This seems quite generous, given that for the past two months both parents (primarily the father) have provided their offspring with food.) Finally, when the young are roughly three months old, the parents go all out to encourage their young to become self-sufficient and secure their own food.

On this particular day, the parents repeatedly soared over their nest and landed in distant trees while the young called out to them over and over. After several of these attempts to lure the juvenile birds away from the nest had failed, one of the parents flew to the nest and proceeded to hover for at least 30 seconds directly above the nest (see photo) before flying towards the nearest body of water. Still, the young birds didn’t budge.  True independence would have to wait at least for one more day.

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Ospreys Courting & Copulating

Ospreys have returned to their breeding grounds in New England, where both courtship and copulation is taking place.  The males engage in an undulating courtship display flight high over the nest site, often with fish or nesting material clutched in their dangling legs while they repeatedly issue forth screaming calls.  This can go on for up to ten minutes or so before they descend to the nest.  In addition, “courtship feeding” often takes place with the male providing his mate with food, often just prior to breeding.

Although an osprey pair copulates frequently (an average of 160 times per clutch), nearly half the time there is no cloacal contact. Most of the breeding takes place at or near the nest site. (Note the protective positioning of the male’s toes and talons as he mounts his mate.)

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Mystery Photo: Bald Eagle or Osprey Pellet


Congratulations to Jill Osgood (“osgoodjill”), the first reader to correctly identify the pellet of either a Bald Eagle or an Osprey.  Many people are familiar with bird pellets – lumps of material consisting of the indigestible parts of a bird’s diet which are regurgitated by the bird hours after they’ve eaten their prey.  Raptors often consume their prey whole, including parts that are not easily digestible such as fur, feathers, bones, teeth, nails, etc.  These parts get as far as the proventriculus, an organ located between the esophagus and the gizzard, where they are packed into a pellet.

We often associate pellets with owls, but many species of birds, in addition to owls and other birds of prey, form pellets.  They include grebes, herons, cormorants, gulls, terns, kingfishers, crows, jays, dippers, shrikes, swallows, and most shorebirds.  The size of the Mystery Photo pellet (3” long) indicates that the bird that regurgitated it was very large – in general, the larger the bird, the larger the pellet.  It was found near the shore of Lake Champlain, where Ospreys and Bald Eagles are not uncommon.

If I had to, I would guess the pellet was regurgitated by a Bald Eagle. Osprey are piscivores, eating primarily fish, and bald eagles are carnivores, eating a variety of fish, mammals and amphibians. A close look at the pellet reveals, in addition to fur and fish scales, the upper mandible of a very small rodent on the left hand end of the pellet.  An Osprey’s pellets consist of primarily scales and bones, whereas a Bald Eagle’s pellets are composed primarily of hair (its stomach acid breaks down the bones and scales).

Twelve to eighteen hours after consuming prey, a Bald Eagle casts a pellet. Relatively odorless and light-weight, these pelleted remains can reveal the varied diet of this raptor.

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Juvenile Ospreys Fledging

Their red eyes tell you that both of these Ospreys are this year’s young (adults have yellow eyes).  During the last week they are in the nest, the young often exercise their wings by hovering over the nest.  After their first flight, fledglings generally remain at the nest or nearby.  Eventually they begin hunting for themselves, but the parents continue to bring fish back to their young for ten to twenty days, supplementing the food that the young start to catch on their own.  Within a month or so of fledging the juvenile birds begin their migration south. (In the accompanying photograph, one fledgling is returning to the nest after quickly circling a nearby field while its parents were off fishing.  Dinner was delivered shortly thereafter.)

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Sibling Rivalry

The male Osprey typically provides fish for the chicks, often feeding first and then presenting the remainder to the female who tears the fish apart into small pieces and feeds it to the chicks.  When food is delivered, there can be significant aggression on the part of the older Osprey nestlings if the parent hasn’t fed them in a while.

Incubation begins with the first egg, so they hatch sequentially, producing a brood of chicks that are not  the same exact age.  Once dominance is established, the older chicks feed until satiated and then allow the younger ones to eat.  If food is scarce, it’s not unusual for the younger chicks to starve to death, but if food is plentiful, a peaceable kingdom reigns.

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Osprey Nesting Behavior

Naturally Curious is back!  Different ecosystem (western vs. eastern Vermont) but same curiosity!  This week’s posts are going to be devoted to the nesting behavior of the Osprey — the only raptor that plunge-dives feet first to catch live fish as its main prey source.

Ospreys nest within six to twelve miles of water (usually much closer).  The male collects most of the nesting material and brings it to the nest site where the female arranges it. Sticks as large as an inch-and-a-half in diameter and three feet long are collected from the ground, or (less commonly) snapped off a tree while the Osprey is in flight.  Nest-building continues throughout the incubation of the eggs as well as the brooding period — even if a nest fails, Ospreys will continue to add material to it.

Although nests built on platforms are relatively small, those built in trees or on the ground can be 10 -13 feet deep and 3 – 6 feet in diameter (the largest nests are most likely the result of several generations of nesting Ospreys).  The shape of an Osprey nest changes during the breeding cycle.  When the eggs are being incubated, the nest is bowl-shaped.  After hatching the nest flattens out, but a rim of sticks is maintained. By the time the nestlings fledge (around 50-55 days) the nest is often completely flat.

Ospreys will reuse their nest year after year, saving themselves time and energy which allows earlier laying and more surviving young. Birds whose nests fail are likely to build alternate nests and use them in subsequent years. (Birds of the World Online).

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Ospreys Migrating

10-15-18 osprey 014

Banding birds, and the retrieval of these bands, has provided valuable information on the movement of birds. Today we also have the benefit of satellite telemetry, in which a bird carries a tracking device and its location is calculated via satellites that orbit the Earth.  The following is just a sample of what this tracking technology has revealed about the migration of Ospreys.

There are significant differences in male and female timing of migration (females leave up to a month before males), distance traveled and overwintering locations.  There is strong fidelity to overwintering sites as well as to migration flyways.  Breeding pairs of Osprey do not migrate or overwinter together, and adults do not migrate with their offspring.  Ospreys rarely migrate at night over land but inevitably migrate at night when undertaking longer (more than 12 hours) water crossings.

Subtle insights into migratory behavior can be gained by the findings of satellite telemetry, as well.  Their first flight south by juvenile Ospreys is often largely over water. A majority of juveniles migrating over the Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts to the Bahama Islands flew as many as 1,500 miles over a period of up to 58 hours. The fact that no adults or 2nd year birds took this route over water suggests that juvenile Ospreys learn the coastal migration route during their first trip north.

Overwintering habitat preferences have also been assessed.  Of 79 Ospreys tracked by satellite, 30.4% overwintered on coasts, 50.6% overwintered on rivers, and 19% overwintered on lakes or reservoirs, with differences based on both sex and region of origin.

These few facts don’t begin to exhaust the information gathered from banding and satellite telemetry on Ospreys, much less many other species. They just serve to illustrate how modern tracking technology compliments and increases the information formerly gathered by firsthand observation and banding.

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Ospreys Migrating

email-osprey 014Adult female Ospreys begin their fall migration in August, before their young are completely independent. After females leave, males continue to feed this year’s young and don’t reach the peak of their migration until the middle of September. Ospreys tend to migrate during the day, except when crossing over large bodies of water, which they do at night. Unfortunately, the nocturnal flights of northeastern Ospreys over the Caribbean (a 25-hour nonstop flight) on their way to their wintering grounds in South America often coincides with the hurricane season. As treacherous as this is, 80 percent of adult Ospreys survive migration, according to the National Wildlife Federation.


Ospreys Laying Eggs

5-5-15 osprey 266Ospreys are late-season breeders compared to other raptors of their size, and are just starting to lay and incubate their eggs in the Northeast. This is thought to be an adaptive delay to allow ice to break up and to allow fish to move into shallow waters. (In years of late ice-out, ospreys may not breed.)

Both male and female ospreys incubate their 1 – 4 eggs, but the female generally does a majority of it, and nearly always is the incubator at night. The male typically brings the incubating female food, which she takes to a nearby perch to eat while he sits on the eggs. Once the eggs hatch (in about 5 weeks) the young are brooded by the female. The male does the fishing, bringing his prey back to the nest, eating his fill and then giving it to his mate to tear into small bits and feed to their nestlings.

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Avian Toe Arrangment

3-17-14 mourning dove tracks 004As opposed to humans, who use the entire bottom of their feet for support, birds stand and walk only on the ball of their foot and with their toes. When you look at a bird’s leg, what appears to be its knee, bending backward instead of forward as it does in humans, is actually its heel.

Most birds have four toes, arranged differently according to the life style of the bird. Songbirds, as well as most other birds, have three toes pointing forward and one pointing back. Most woodpeckers, being active climbers, have two toes pointing in each direction, which provides added clinging support. The outer toe (of the three forward toes) of ospreys and owls is reversible, so that they can have two toes in back should they need to get a better grasp on slippery fish or other prey. Some birds that do a lot of running, such as sanderlings and most plovers, have only the three forward toes. (Photo: Mourning Dove tracks)

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