Know Your Osprey

Osprey flying at RSPB Leighton Moss Nature Reserve @ Keith Grafton

If you’re an expert birder then you’re probably already pretty adept at picking out a distinctive bird like the osprey – but for those of us a little less expert in all things feathery it can be surprisingly easy to confuse one bird with another, especially when you can’t get close and they never stay still long enough for you to get a decent photo.
Osprey bird feather markings

Osprey bird feather markings

First off they’re big birds reaching up to 60cm long with a giant 180cm wingspan (that’s 24 inches and 71 inches respectively in old money). Though they are much the same size as a buzzard they have distinctively solid white colouring on their underside, with characteristic dark patches around their “elbows”. As you can see from the close up many of the feathers are brown with white tips, giving the bird a mottled, almost stripy appearance.

Scientifically they have their own family completely separate to eagles or hawks and they are also unique in their eating habits. They feed almost exclusively on fish – so if you spot a large bird hovering over a body of water before dropping like a stone to grab a fish, that’ll be an osprey.

Depending upon availability they can hunt for food in a radius of around 10 – 15 miles, though this can stretch up to 30 miles when they’re busy tacking down enough food to feed their growing chicks. Our Foulshaw Moss osprey can be seen out over Morecambe Bay and often drop into the RSPB Reserve at Leighton Moss to do their “food shop”.

Osprey nest

They’re pretty territorial birds and aren’t keen on other raptors nearby, particularly when the chicks are about. Apart from man their only other natural threat is the goshawk, which is why osprey tend to build their nests in high up spots with excellent all round visibility, making it much harder for anything to sneak up on them. And while we’re on the subject of nests, big birds require big nests, and the osprey nest is huge, measuring over 2m across. (The nest in the photo is a model on display in the visitors centre at Kielder Castle).

Beyond their immediate habitat there’s a lot of important work to be done to maintain local rivers and waterways where they feed. Fishing nets and power lines can easily claim an osprey so we work hard with other local environment groups to ensure the area around Foulshaw Moss remains an attractive option for the osprey to return to. In the bigger picture human encroachment and over fishing can also have a detrimental effect on osprey habitats leaving them with fewer nesting sites and depleted food reserves.

Still camera image of Osprey at Foulshaw 2014

Still camera image of Osprey at Foulshaw 2014. Cumbria Wildlife Trust

The osprey is a predictable bird and will return to the same nest year after year – unlike other raptors – and fledged chicks returning from their first winter in Africa tend to return to the general area they were born in. Last year our male osprey originated from Basenthwaite while the female was from a little further away in Kielder. Right now we’re just sitting tight and hoping they return to us safely – and we promise we’ll let you know the moment they arrive!

WE STILL NEED YOUR HELP! Last year we had a camera on the nest which sent back photos every six hours but it wasn’t very reliable, and though we got some good pictures, a lot of them were poor quality. We had an eye on the nest from a security point of view but it was hit and miss because of this. This year we’re hoping to improve things with a better camera to enable us to live stream footage from the nest – please help us achieve this by supporting our osprey live web cam appeal. Thank you.

This blog was written by Beth Pipe (Cumbrian Rambler) – an enthusiastic birder, always keen to learn more about our feathery friends. And again, big thanks to our friends at Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust for their help, expertise and generally awesome ospreyness!