My name is Nate Ennist, and I’m Marie’s boyfriend, subbing in to write a bird watching post on her gardening blog. The day before yesterday, Tuesday, April 14, 2020, was my first osprey sighting of the year, and I was so excited I dropped everything and commandeered Marie’s blog so I could tell you about it. Ospreys are birds of prey that eat mostly fish (fish are 99% of their diet, according to National Geographic), and they serve as a “sentinel species,” or a species that is an indicator of environmental health.
Ospreys in northern latitudes (like here in Seattle) migrate south in the winter. They prefer to hunt where the water is warmer, because fish become less active and seek deeper water when the water is cold, but ospreys can only dive to a depth of 3-5 ft at the most. (Also, ospreys can’t get to the fish if the water is frozen). Ospreys may also migrate to seek more daylight hours for hunting or to avoid competition from other predators.
Despite being the Seattle NFL football team’s mascot (sort of—”seahawk” isn’t really a proper term; see this article in Smithsonian Magazine), 2016 was possibly the first time in 100 years that ospreys nested in the Union Bay area according to Larry Hubbell’s blog. In the past few years, ospreys have returned to Seattle in mid-April after their southern migration. Tuesday was April 14, and right on cue, I saw two ospreys in the skies above Northeast Seattle from my University District apartment window. As is typical, they were trying to escape relentless pestering from crows. What a way to welcome them back!
Crows don’t take kindly to birds of prey since they recognize them as predators, and crows are abundant in Seattle, to say the least. Nearby Bothell has become known for its crow roosts numbering in the thousands. Crows will often team up and squawk at and dive-bomb raptors, sometimes scratching or pecking at them and inflicting harm. On the bright side, this makes it easier to find raptors—just look for a mob of angry crows! Sometimes crows will even attack people, as Marie can tell you. Last year, a crow attacked Marie’s head from behind as she was walking down the sidewalk and minding her own business. Presumably the crow was trying to establish its territory near its nest.
Yesterday morning, April 15, I went out to see what the ospreys were up to. I walked down to the Union Bay Natural Area, AKA the Montlake Fill, where two pairs of ospreys nested last year. On the way there, while crossing the Husky Stadium parking lot, I looked up and saw an osprey carrying what looked like a fish! It was quite high up, but through my binoculars, the fish appeared to be facing forward along the direction of the osprey’s flight; ospreys carry their prey this way to make them more aerodynamic.
Ospreys frequently have their fish stolen by the larger bald eagles, three breeding pairs of which nest in the Union Bay area. However, rather than quickly flying to a quiet place to devour its catch in peace, this osprey was soaring in circles as if showing off its prize. After a couple minutes, I watched as it began to fly almost straight up and then swoop down repeatedly. This is a well-known mating behavior in male ospreys, and it is often called a “sky-dance” or a “fish flight.” See the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website for details here and here. After a few minutes, the osprey flew back in the direction of one of the nests from last year and the year before. Once it was out of sight, I took off running around the golf driving range to see if the ospreys had returned to same nesting site. When I rounded the driving range and crossed the baseball fields, there they were, perched on top of the light posts just like last year. One was sitting in the nest and the other was on a nearby light post.
Normally after a fish flight, the male gives the fish to the female and she eats it. If the exchange happened, I must have missed it as I was running around the driving range. By the time I arrived at the nest, I couldn’t tell which was the male and which was the female, but one of them was eating the fish.
Once the fish was eaten, the well-fed osprey joined the other at the nest.
Don’t they make a cute couple? Ospreys normally lay eggs between mid-April and late-May, so the female will likely lay eggs in the next few weeks.
They probably shouldn’t be nesting on top of a powerful baseball field light, but you try telling an osprey where to nest! According to Larry Hubbell’s blog, the University of Washington Athletic Department did just that in 2016. After two ospreys (who Larry christened Chester and Lacey) started to build a nest on a light post, UW installed an osprey platform in the Montlake Fill and dismantled the nest on the light. Apparently, Chester and Lacey took the hint and built a new nest on the platform. Now that there are two breeding pairs of ospreys, the problem has returned. I guess they’ll have to build another platform?
The nesting platform in the Montlake Fill appeared to be empty as of yesterday. I didn’t see any sign of Chester or Lacey in nearby trees or flying over Union Bay. Maybe they haven’t returned to Seattle yet. I hope to see them soon!
Update: This evening, April 16, I saw the two ospreys on the light post in the act of mating! They’re off to a great start, as long as no one disassembles their nest.