“…and like a thunderbolt he falls!”
What a dive! Quite a splash!!! Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote this description about an eagle in a poem aptly titled, “The Eagle” (see below), but I have always thought his words best describe the hunting behavior of the osprey (Pandelion haliatus).
On the “Clark County Wetlands Park Bird List,” ospreys are categorized as “uncommon migrants,” meaning they travel through our area in Spring and Fall on the way to their breeding territories. These very specialized fish-eating hawks are so distinctive that they are hard to miss when they visit. Perched in trees, their dark backs, white bellies and heads, and bold masklike dark eye stripes set them apart from other raptors. In the air, their wings form a broad, shallow letter “M” as they soar and glide over the Las Vegas Wash and Park ponds in search of prey.
Osprey feet have barbed pads on the soles to grip slippery fish. Like owls, they have a toe that can switch places from front to back on the foot, allowing them to use two toes in front and two in back when needed for fish-handling.
The “thunderbolt” part comes when the hawk sights a fish near the surface of the water, sometimes from over 100 feet in the air! A diving osprey opens its wings very slightly and lowers its head to look where it is going. At the very last minute, it swings its feet forward so its head is between them, talons extended when it hits the water. It may disappear completely below the surface, reappearing with one powerful wing beat to take to the air again.
As the osprey flies to a nearby tree to perch for its meal, it carries the captured fish headfirst. Experienced birds can count on catching a fish two dives out of three!
I once watched two ospreys catching very large goldfish at Vern’s Pond. I took them for younger birds, because they dove again and again before one managed to grab a fish with one foot. As he flew off out of sight, I watched him trying to get that dangling fish organized with its head facing front!
Please enjoy these YouTube videos, which appear to be taken in the Park. Photo is by Philip Martini.
By Alfred, Lord Tennyson
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.