By Ali Dunstan
Found in every corner of the state, the osprey is both a migratory species and a year-round resident of Florida. These distinctive birds of prey are easily identified by their large size, white head with brown striping by their yellow eyes, white underbelly and brown feathers. Their impressive wingspan can average 2-4 feet in length.
Ospreys are most commonly observed around bodies of water, both fresh and saltwater, as over 90 percent of their diet primarily consists of live fish. These carnivorous birds can be seen gracefully diving feet first to depths up to 3 feet for their meals in shallow waters and then enjoying their catch atop a perch, a light post or a tree. Fish such as mullet, catfish, sunfish and spotted trout are common captures, though ospreys will eat a very wide variety of fish. This is also how the osprey has gained its nickname: the fish hawk, or the sea hawk.
Their entire design and adaptations help them to be incredibly successful fishermen. Their eyes are adapted to be able to detect fish underwater from over 100 feet above. Ospreys can also close their nostrils when they dive, and they even have reversible outer toes equipped with small barbs which allow them to hang onto their slippery prey once caught.
Another common place to view an osprey is in one of their oversized, bulky, stick-based nests. Ospreys can reuse the same nest for decades and both the male and female will spend time rebuilding and renovating those nests together every year.
Like many other species of birds, ospreys can mate for life and are typically monogamous. Females usually lay up to three eggs at a time, once a year, with both parents taking turns incubating the eggs. At around six weeks of age, the chicks have begun eating on their own, and at around seven weeks, they are learning how to fly. Ospreys fully fledge their nest at around eight weeks old.
In Florida, ospreys have a generally healthy population today. This can be attributed to the ban on DDT and harmful chemical pesticides in the 70s and 80s. However, tomorrow is never promised for wildlife. Their future depends on our careful conservation and stewardship. Remember to reduce, reuse and recycle, and support climate change legislation to ensure a healthy and bright future for all of our treasured wildlife.