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August 18, 2010

Location: Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, ID
Camera pushed up to my eye, I concentrated on the cormorant that floated near me as I kneeled at the end of a floating dock. Suddenly, a cannon ball hit the water 20 yards away from me. Startled, I looked up just in time to see an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) lift off the water. It missed, and so had I. I had missed the chance for an incredible photo, though I learned something about osprey. They plunge feet first after unsuspecting fish, the mainstay of their diet. Barbed pads on their feet help grip their slippery prey, which they fly back to the nest face first for better aerodynamics.
Back at the nest, osprey chicks vie aggressively for dinner, with the first hatchling typically eating the most. Often the youngest starve if the fish supply is finicky.
I’ve long held a fascination for osprey. Quite rare at the turn of the 20th century due to the widespread use of DDT, this water-raptor now commonly breeds across most of Canada, the northernmost areas of the Midwest and Northeast, and from the central Rockies across the Pacific Northwest. They willingly set up house on manmade platforms, telephone poles and other tower-like structures, then migrate south of the border when their food source freezes.
One of the largest raptors in North America, with up to a 24-inch body length and a wingspan up to 70 inches, oprey are sometimes called sea hawks or fish eagles, though they are decidedly not eagles. Mature osprey may have a white head, but their sharp yellow eyes are capped by a prominent dark eye stripe. The only way to tell the males from females is size (the females are bigger) and by a necklace of intermittent dark feathers on the female’s lower neck.

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