They are both elegant and fierce, and they don’t get as much attention as their more iconic fellow bird of prey. But, ospreys are on of my favorite coastal seabirds. Their high-pitched “chreek” or whistle rings through the air, giving away their presence. If you look up, you might either catch one in flight, its distinctive white belly flashing against the sky, or spot one of their large nests at the top of a tree or perhaps on a telephone pole. Their wings can stretch out up to six feet across as they swoop through the air and then drop down from up to 100 feet above the water and stealthily snatch a fish.

Their prowess on the water is remarkable – especially if you’ve ever tried to catch a fish yourself. Their success rate is about one in four. Imagine if you caught a fish on every fourth cast! Ospreys are perfectly designed fishermen, which gives them one of their common names – the “fish hawk”. They are the only bird of prey that can actually dive into the water. Others, like eagles, swoop over the surface, but can’t dive underneath. They also have a wacky swivel toe that can rotate either direction in order to work with its other clawed talons to hold onto a fish. If you’ve ever tried to hold onto a fish, watching an osprey fly while carrying a fish is particularly impressive.

Another reason ospreys are impressive is how heartily they recovered after populations plummeted as a result of the widespread use of the insecticide DDT in the 1960s. DDT affected the shells of birds by making them so thin that the chicks didn’t survive. This affected many types of birds, most famously raptors like eagles and ospreys. After it was banned in 1972, many people worked together to help restore natural populations. Ospreys took to these efforts extraordinarily well because of their readiness to nest on top of any tall structure – bridges, piers, telephone poles, or perches specifically built for them. There are now hundreds of nesting pairs in Maine.

At this time of year, you might see them starting to leave for their annual migration. They spend the spring and summer in Maine when there are plenty of fish to eat and the ice is out. Then, come fall, they travel up to 5,000 miles as far as South America – not a bad place to spend the winter. Ornithologists who study osprey were able to figure out this migration with the use of some neat technology – tiny one-ounce solar-powered satellite trackers they can attach to these big birds. They can measure location as well as speed and altitude, helping scientists to understand where they are going and how they get there. They’ve also learned that many of the birds don’t survive the trip – not surprising given how many miles they have to travel.

But, those that do make it back to Maine in the spring will often return to the same nest where they will pair with the same mate and produce the next generation of little fish hawks. As often is the case, nature’s design trumps human capabilities. Ospreys are a humbling example of recovery, adaptability and ability to thrive along our coast.

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