In the Right Place

Editor’s note: Brooklin author/photographer Richard J. Leighton creates the popular “In the Right Place” posts online about life and nature in Maine. He shares a post the second Thursday of each month in The Ellsworth American.

Masked marvels

By Richard Leighton

It’s good to see osprey pairs soaring high again above the Union River and coastal waters. Sometimes, they’re so high that we know that they’re above us only by hearing them loudly call out to each other. Their high-pitched greetings often sound like an interrupted whistle on a boiling tea kettle: “CHEEyup, CHEEyup, CHEEyup!”

When we see the ospreys quickly circle down to 30 or 40 feet above the water, we know that we’re probably in for a show. They’re our only raptors that can hover like a helicopter, which they do to zero in on a submerged target.

If they decide that all systems are go, they tip down into a wing-powered dive and crash into the water feet first with a big splash. Sometimes, they disappear for several seconds before emerging, usually with a very surprised fish in their talons.

Of course, these hawks come equipped with specialized fishing gear. Their golden eyes can see through water better than most creatures; their nostrils can close under water, and their feet are weaponized wonders. They have a disjointed, outside stabbing toe that the birds can reverse from pointing forward to pointing almost backward. This allows them to use two claws in front and two in back to carry fish securely. Their soles are barbed to grip their slippery prey and maneuver it in flight so that the fish’s head is pointed forward for better aerodynamics.

Ospreys also are our only hawk that preys virtually exclusively on fish. In fact, they’re commonly called fish hawks or sea hawks. However, don’t confuse them with the namesake of the Seattle Seahawks in the National Football League. There’s no such thing as a “Seahawk” and that team’s live mascot actually is an African augur buzzard that doesn’t like the sea and eats mostly mammals and reptiles.

Unlike augur buzzards, ospreys migrate, often travelling hundreds of thousands of miles during their long lives. One wild osprey reportedly lived to be 30 years old and another reportedly flew 2,700 miles in 13 days, from Massachusetts to its South American winter home.

We welcome back our masked marvels to their spring and summer homes.

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