Early in summer, a large raptor calls from a tree near a river. It looks like a small, mature bald eagle, but closer inspection with binoculars reveals it's an osprey. This is a female and she's sitting on a nest, a platform of sticks and branches. Her mate soon appears with a ten-inch fish clutched in his talons and delivers it to the nestlings.
Osprey are raptors that specialize in catching and eating fish. They have uniquely curved claws that circle like a fishhook, and rough pads on the soles of their feet to help hold their catch. From flight or from a perch, an osprey will plunge talons-first into the water, sometimes completely submerging, to catch fish. An osprey erupts from the water clutching its prize and as it rises from the surface, wings pumping, it will pause to shake vigorously like a dog, spraying water from its feathers.
Osprey look a bit like bald eagles, but have a distinct dark stripe on each side of its white head. An unlike the brown-bellied eagle, the osprey has a white belly and breast.
Osprey were endangered in the 1950s and '60s because of poisoning by the widely used pesticide DDT. After DDT use was discontinued in the US, young osprey were transplanted into areas where birds had been extirpated, and since then ospreys have made a remarkable comeback in the lower 48. Ospreys are not abundant in Alaska but can be found along lakes, rivers and coastlines south of the Brooks Range. Bald eagles will harry osprey and force them to drop their fish, stealing the smaller raptors catch.