Birds & Birding

Growing Up Osprey: Wildlife Reality TV Returns to Osprey Cam

March 27, 2017

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The Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), on a nest in Florida, is sometimes known as the sea hawk, is a diurnal, fish-eating bird of prey. It is a large raptor, reaching 60 centimetres (24 in) in length with a 2m wingspan. It is brown on the upperparts and predominantly greyish on the head and underparts, with a black eye patch and wings. Photo © Kent Mason

What’s it like to grow up as a wild osprey? Get a front-row seat on Osprey Cam to watch stars Josie, Elbert, and their chicks through a critical period in osprey life – nesting and fledging season.

Josie and Elbert have already returned for a new season. Here’s what you can expect to see on camera as well as some additional information about what goes on off-camera and where our ospreys go when the season is over.

We hope that you enjoy watching this osprey family and continue to submit your questions here or in the Osprey Cam comments.

Adult ospreys can be difficult to tell apart, but there are subtle differences between the sexes. Josie, the female, is larger and has a brown “necklace” across the white on her chest. Elbert, the male, is smaller with a plain white breast.

A view of Josie on the nest last year - and two visitors, see if you can spot both. Image © The Nature Conservancy captured by user FRAWGY
A view of Josie on the nest last year – and two visitors, see if you can spot both. Image © The Nature Conservancy captured by user FRAWGY

Nesting and Courtship

Josie and Elbert have already returned to their nest in Wolf Bay, Alabama. Though they have not been banded or tracked, we can be fairly certain that they are the same birds as in past years because ospreys return reliably to the same nest site.

They began building this nest years ago, but they continue to build and make renovations. This is normal for osprey. In the first year, a nest is usually built up to about 2.5 feet in diameter and 3-6 inches deep, but over the years it can grow to 3-6 feet in diameter and 10-13 feet deep. That’s big enough for most people to sit in.

The basic structure of sticks is often decorated with bark, sod, grass, algae, and other items, sometimes including discarded fishing gear that can be harmful to osprey chicks.

A nest that includes discarded fishing gear on Shelter Island in New York. Photo © Doug Wechsler
A nest that includes discarded fishing gear on Shelter Island in New York. Photo © Doug Wechsler

The male returns to the nest first in spring and is the primary nest builder. You will continue to see Elbert bring new sticks and decorations to the nest throughout the nesting season (though Josie may rearrange them or throw them out if they’re not to her liking). Each year when he first arrives, the male begins a “sky dance” display that is partly marking his territory and partly for courtship. He continues to perform this dance occasionally after the female arrives.

Once the female has arrived, courtship begins. Courtship primarily consists of the pair spending time on the nest together, mate-feeding (the male brings the female all her food), and copulation.

“Bringing food to the nest is one of the main ways a male solidifies his bond with his mate,” explains Matt Pelikan, a restoration ecologist for the Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts and avid birder, “so it’s in his best interest to bring food regularly.”

Things Get Eggciting

 Josie laid her first egg this year on about March 21. And she may continue to lay eggs every one to three days until she has laid up to four eggs. We are watching to see if she will lay more eggs. Please submit a comment if you see them.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds site describes osprey eggs as 2.2-2.7 inches in length and “cream to pinkish cinnamon; wreathed and spotted with reddish brown.”

“Ospreys, unlike many other birds, begin incubating as soon as the first egg is laid,” Pelikan notes. “The warmth of incubation starts the development of the embryo in the egg, so the first egg is usually well along in its development before the last egg is laid. With its head start, the oldest chick will maintain a slight edge over its siblings in size and development throughout the seven or eight weeks until it fledges.”

Josie will spend most of her time on the nest, though Elbert might sub in occasionally to give her a chance to stretch. Elbert will continue to bring Josie most or all of her food so that she can focus on the eggs.

Osprey with fish. Photo © Douglas Rodda
Osprey with fish. Photo © Douglas Rodda

It takes about 36-42 days of incubation for the eggs to hatch. This year we can expect to see the first egg hatch around early May and the rest to follow in the order they were laid. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, eggs may not be viable. When this happens, the osprey may push them out of the nest or may continue to incubate though the eggs do not hatch.

This can be difficult to watch.

Hatchlings and Feeding

In their first weeks of life, osprey chicks remind me of small fuzzy dinosaurs with striped faces. As they grow into their flight feathers, they begin resemble their parents in coloration with the notable difference that their wings have more white on them and their eyes are red. It is difficult to impossible to tell the gender of chicks.

Feeding the hatchlings is a grueling task. When they are young, Elbert will bring most of the fish, and Josie will stay on or near the nest to help protect the chicks from potential predators. However, as they grow, feeding them can become a two-osprey job and Josie may pitch in with some hunting forays of her own.

Josie feeding last year's brood. Photo © The Nature Conservancy captured by user FRAWGY
Josie feeding last year’s brood. Photo © The Nature Conservancy captured by user FRAWGY

“Depending on the size, a fish or two per day is enough to keep an adult osprey happy,” says Pelikan. “But as the youngsters grow, the demand for food in the nest will increase dramatically; by the time the young are ready to fledge, we can expect to see Elbert making a half-dozen or more deliveries to the nest each day, if he can find and catch that many fish.”

Not all young ospreys survive to adulthood. We are lucky to have this window to view their lives, enjoy, and learn more about them. Though we do get attached to the young ospreys, we will not be interfering with the course of nature. Other osprey cams have seen devastating events including bald eagles taking chicks, chicks pushed from the nest by siblings, and starvation. Just recently the Cornell Hawks Cam reported the death of beloved red-tailed hawk Ezra. We ask you to keep in mind that anything can happen on osprey cam.

“If the food supply gets tight, the oldest chick, by virtue of being stronger and noisier than its siblings, will likely get more than its fair share of the fish,” Pelikan says. “This isn’t so good for the younger chicks, which risk being weakened by starvation. But it’s a way in which osprey biology maximizes the chances of at least one chick reaching maturity.”

A LEAF intern examines fledgling osprey. Photo © The Nature Conservancy
A LEAF intern examines fledgling osprey. Photo © The Nature Conservancy

Over the years that we have been watching Josie and Elbert, there have been some scares along the way: a major storm that the ospreys huddled to survive, a chick that seemed reluctant to leave the nest and fly, a week where nobody caught sight of Elbert for a few days, and an infamous camera white-out caused by bird poo. Nevertheless, Josie and Elbert have raised three broods of three chicks from hatchling to fledgling. We hope that this year will be equally successful!

Fledging and Flight

Over the coming months, the chicks will grow flight feathers in a process called fledging. You will see them change in appearance and behavior throughout this process. Before they ever begin to fly, they will exercise their wing muscles by flapping in the nest.

“It takes ospreys about 8 weeks (+/-) to go from hatching to fledging,” Pelikan notes. “It’s actually pretty fun to watch … they flap more and more, start flapping hard enough to lift themselves briefly into the air, and then one day, boom! They take to the air. They always look surprised when it happens.”

Osprey in flight. Photo © Kent Mason
Osprey in flight. Photo © Kent Mason

Even once the chicks are flying, the adults will remain around the nest for a while to bring them fish. But learning to fly is only half the equation for a young osprey to succeed in growing to adulthood. The fledglings must also learn to feed themselves – outside of nesting season, ospreys are typically solitary and hunt for themselves.

“It doesn’t take them long at all to become pretty convincing flyers,” Pelikan says. “Learning to hunt effectively on their own, though, will take them the rest of the season.”

Osprey are incredibly well adapted to catching fish, which makes up around 99% of their diet. They circle above the water, watching for fish, then dive feet first – grabbing the fish right out of the water with their talons. Ospreys can’t swim, so it is rare, but possible for an osprey to drown while trying to catch a fish – likely when a talon is hooked too deeply in a fish big enough to pull them under. Several studies have shown that ospreys catch a fish on at least 1 in 4 dives, and some individuals caught fish in 70% of their attempts.

If you see an osprey carrying a fish through the air, you will likely notice that the fish is aligned head-first to reduce wind resistance. Barbed pads on their feet help ospreys keep a firm grip, but they can let go of the fish if needed. For instance, if an eagle comes to take their food they might let go to avoid an aerial struggle.

The chicks will remain on the nest for at least a couple of weeks (often longer) after their parents have left – honing their flying and fishing skills.

Migration 

We are often asked where Josie, Elbert and the chicks go when they leave the nest for the season. Since we aren’t tracking the individual ospreys, we can’t be sure exactly where they travel. While some ospreys, especially in the southern part of the range of the species, do not migrate, Josie and Elbert definitely do leave the vicinity of their nest at the end of the season.

We do know that American ospreys (ospreys are a global bird that can be found on every continent except for Antarctica) winter range continues from the coasts of Mexico and Central America on down through much of South America. All About Birds notes that one osprey was tracked flying from Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts to French Guiana in South America – a journey of 2,700 miles – in just thirteen days.

Fledgling ospreys on the nest, learning to fly and fish in preparation for their first migration, at the Eldora Nature Preserve in New Jersey. Photo © Amy Deputy
Fledgling ospreys on the nest, learning to fly and fish in preparation for their first migration, at the Eldora Nature Preserve in New Jersey. Photo © Amy Deputy

It is likely that Josie, Elbert, and the gang also spend their winters in sunny South America somewhere near the water with good fishing.

Ospreys can live for fifteen to twenty years and will repeat this cycle of flying north to nesting grounds and back to the south for the winter throughout their lives. The young ospreys will reach sexual maturity at about three years of age and will then begin building their own nests (likely in the same area where they were raised).

Conservation

Ospreys were once endangered in the US because pesticides like DDT thinned their eggshells to the point that the eggs broke under the weight of an incubating adult. Thanks to the EPA’s ban on DDT and conservationists’ efforts to build artificial nesting habitat, ospreys have been a huge conservation success story. Their numbers have rebounded enough that they are not considered a species of concern.

You can help keep osprey populations going strong by supporting the EPA, which continues to regulate pesticides and other synthetic chemicals that can pose a hazard to wildlife and people and by supporting regulations on discarded fishing gear (in which ospreys are sometimes entangled and killed).

View of an artificial osprey platform. Photo © The Nature Conservancy
View of an artificial osprey platform. Photo © The Nature Conservancy

If you live near water and have a suitable habitat, you might also consider building your own osprey nesting platform. Ospreys require a nesting platform with open surroundings so that they can easily keep an eye out for predators.

Thank you to all of the commenters who have watched and commented on Osprey Cam over the years! We hope you will join us for another season.

Please consider making a donation to The Nature Conservancy in the Gulf of Mexico. Your support will help us create healthy habitats for creatures like osprey.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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10 comments

  1. Once rescued a too wet juvenile struggling in the Trinity River of North Western Ca. on the Hupa Indian Reservation. I was in a canoe and got my paddle under it then lifted it on to a sunny rock riverside. The two adults were circling above during the process.

  2. Hi Lisa !!!
    Loved this article ….
    You brought out so many relative and important facts about osprey life !!!
    Now, I have always heard that the male parent “hangs” around the nest until all chicks have migrated.
    Thank you and Be well,
    Bird Woman

    1. Thank you! I love watching and learning about the ospreys – it has been a pleasure to write about them. My info (and past experience watching) suggests that the parents both leave before the chicks. It may be that the male hangs out longer than the female osprey and helps supplement feeding. Some of this may happen off camera in nearby trees, which would explain why we might not see the male.

  3. I am a volunteer citizen scientist working out of “OSPREY HOUSE” in subtropical Brisbane, Australia http://www.ospreyhouse.asn.au naturally we have a resident pair living and nesting beneath a fixed camera which has some brilliant full color shots of this magnificent bird eating a fish, what a magnificent sight.

  4. Thanks for this engaging piece. I’ve bookmarked the cam and will share it with colleagues and FB followers. In the night camera “Josie has an egg,” I’m not sure I’m seeing what’s there. It looks like she’s eating something; her beak looks like it gets darker. Is she moving the egg around or configuring the nest?

    1. Hi Jeannie, Thank you! That’s a good question, it could be either moving the egg or configuring the nest, the movements are similar so can be hard to tell in the night cam. Given that it does look like she’s eating something, I think it’s more likely she’s configuring the nest – probably picking something up and moving it.

  5. Did Josie lay anymore eggs? My PreK class from Beach Elementary is checking in with the osprey family. We started watching last Friday and will continue to see the hatching of the eggs.

    1. Hi Kristen, She laid three total & all have hatched! A new post with more info on the chicks is coming soon. Thank you!

  6. This is a wonderful website that answered some of the concerns that I had about the osprey nest that was built this year on a new “no wake zone” sign in the middle of the river here in Homosassa, FL. Basically, the male abandoned the nest when the single chick was about 3 weeks old. The female seemed to spend 8 or 10 days (?) in the nest with the chick waiting for him to return. Eventually, she began to fish occasionally and fed the chick which had turned brown with a white head. Then she left. The chick, which hasn’t yet begun to flap it’s wings had been sitting there now for 4 days. I’ve spoken to river guides and a wildlife official all of whom said let nature take it’s course. As you’ve noted, watching nature can be difficult.