African Bird

by Carl Strang

 

I’m not a huge TV watcher, but “Survivor” is one of my guilty pleasures. The current series, taking place in Africa, occasionally shows a passing shot of a species of bird I have seen a number of times despite never having visited that continent. It’s also a species which nests in northeast Illinois. I’m talking about the osprey.

 

Osprey nest, Maryland Eastern Shore

Osprey nest, Maryland Eastern Shore

 

 

Ospreys occur all around the world. I saw them in Australia. Though there are no recent known nests in DuPage County, for the past two seasons there has been one a stone’s throw from the county’s northwest corner. I should say “baseball’s throw,” because this nest is built on one of the light poles in a complex of ball diamonds. It’s tempting to say the birds must be baseball fans.

 

For one species (and there is only one) to have become so cosmopolitan is testimony to the success of its complex of adaptations. Freshwater fish that stay close enough to the surface to be susceptible to a plunge-and-grasp are found on all the warm continents. Ospreys’ feet are wonders. The long curved talons are supplemented by hard sharp protruding scales on the undersides of the toes that grip the slippery prey.

 

Osprey carries fish head forward

Osprey carries fish head forward

 

 

My best opportunity to watch ospreys in action came during my sea kayak circumnavigation of Isle Royale a few years ago. I camped a couple days at a site called Hay Bay, which is accessible only by boat or bushwacking. There I had an excellent opportunity to watch ospreys, cormorants and gulls as they hunted for the abundant lake herring. The ospreys plummeted from spectacular heights, and when it was calm I could hear their collisions with the water from most of a mile away. Often they rose with fish that were at least a third of their own length.

 

Recent nesting success of ospreys in northeast Illinois bodes well for their return as a more familiar part of our fauna.

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