Natural Living – Fish Hawk
by Ruth Lawrence
Whilst taking a stroll recently, Ruth Lawrence chanced upon a rare yet amazing sight. An osprey diving and plunging into the water hunting for fish before its migration to Africa
Walking round Ardingly Reservoir in mid October I saw a large bird circling the water; too pale for a buzzard, too large to mistake for a gull, it drifted closer. Although I’d never seen one before, it wasn’t long before I recognised it as an osprey, an incredibly lucky and rare sight in Sussex. Once made extinct in England as a breeding bird in 1840, it then only visited these shores as a passing migrant. By 1954 it began to naturally re-colonise and a pair has nested successfully almost every year at the RSPB’s Loch Garten in Scotland. Early numbers were small, probably because of pesticides in the food chain and the continued efforts of egg collectors and by 1976 there were only 14 pairs. Fifteen years later, the number had risen to 71 pairs and 2001 saw the first successful nesting of ospreys in England for 160 years.
The osprey I saw would have been stocking up on fish before heading out on its migration route to Africa where it will spend winter before flying back to this country in the Spring. I watched it carry out its spectacular hunting technique, which involved a near vertical fast plunge dive with wings half folded and feet thrown forward at the last moment. After hitting the water, it rose, wide winged, from the surface, a colossal effort for such a large bird. Although the catch wasn’t successful, ospreys apparently dive to a maximum depth of a metre, holding the fish head first when they emerge to carry their quarry to a perch. Long curved talons and short spines covering the underside of the toes help to hold a struggling fish and the bird is able to close its nostrils to prevent water entering its nose during a dive.
Another name for an osprey is ‘fish hawk’ although is not a true hawk and has its own taxonomic genus and family. Osprey has a connection with the Latin word ossifragus meaning bone breaker referring to the immense grip of its talons. They are long lived birds if they survive to maturity; averaging an eight year lifespan although the oldest known wild osprey lived for 32 years. They are largely monogamous and remain faithful to mate and nest site; some nests have been in use for 20 years with new material being added every year until it reaches a depth of almost two metres.
I watched the osprey circle and return several times over the course of the morning; it was an unforgettable sight and a potent reminder of the resilience of nature. That the osprey has returned after being almost eradicated by man is a hopeful sign that more enlightened attitudes can reverse the mistakes of the past and allow this spectacular bird to hunt our waters in increasing numbers.