As the ice breaks up on rivers and lakes, look to the sky to see the flying angler: the Osprey. The Osprey migrates north in March through early April to its breeding grounds in Michigan. You will be impressed by the fishing prowess of the state’s only raptor that dives into water!
There are certain characteristics that will help you recognize an Osprey (Pandion haliaetus). When flying, its 5-foot-wide wings appear to be bent in the shape of an M. White wing linings marked by a black patch at the wing bend (wrist), along with the flared tips of its flight feathers, distinguish this bird of prey. An Osprey’s flat white head and wide, dark brown eye line separate it from the Bald Eagle, which has a white rounded head. When an Osprey is perched on tree branches above the water’s edge, you’ll notice its dark wings, back, and tail.
An Osprey flies back and forth about 60 feet high over shallow water. Ospreys hover in place with their wings flapping and tail spread, deciding on a plan of attack. Suddenly, its wings pull back as it dives headfirst. Just before hitting the water, the Osprey thrusts its legs forward with its talons wide open, making a splash. A clear nictitating membrane protects the eyes like swimming goggles. The Osprey dives into the water, grasping a fish in its sharp talons. After flapping its wings repeatedly to regain altitude and twisting from head to tail to shake off water, the successful hunter heads to a perch or back to the nest.
The remarkable talons of an Osprey aid in its high capture success rate. Unlike other raptors, an Osprey’s four toes are all equal in length, with long rounded talons that curve downward. When resting, its feet are positioned with three toes forward and one behind, similar to most birds. However, the Osprey’s reversible double-jointed outer toe can be moved backwards, so its talons resemble a cross when stretched wide open. Barbed scales called spicules cover the loose skin on an Osprey’s feet, which hold onto slippery fish. While flying, an Osprey can shift the fish so it is headfirst to reduce wind resistance, another one of its unique abilities.
Clean shallow water, abundant fish, and stable nest sites are necessary requirements for healthy populations of flying anglers.
Mates for life. Male courtship behavior includes a sky dance of roller coaster flights high over the nest area, along with high-pitched squeals and brief hovering. A pair mates for life, returning to the same nest area each year, which is known as site fidelity. The male feeds the female in response to her begging behavior. The male provides all the food for his mate and his young (until they fledge).
Birds that adapt. Ospreys construct flat bulky nests averaging 5 feet wide on dead trees over water. Many Ospreys have readily adapted to using artificial platforms on poles or towers, too. Confirmed nests have been found at Tuttle Marsh in Iosco County and Houghton Lake Flats in Roscommon County.
Sibling fights. Nests surrounded by water help reduce Osprey predation from raccoons or coyotes, but Great Horned Owls still prey on chicks in the nest. Asynchronous hatching of the two to four eggs leads to the larger first-born Osprey chick battling with its siblings; the smallest may starve or get pushed off the nest.
Enemy territory. A Bald Eagle may “pirate” a fish from an Osprey by flying toward it, causing the Osprey to drop its catch, which the eagle retrieves. These two species usually do not nest near each other.
Michigan natives. During the last statewide survey, 124 active Osprey nests were located in the Upper Peninsula and over 100 were located in the Lower Peninsula.