Stolen: Awesome osprey |

Stolen: Awesome osprey

Special to the Daily/Evan Counihan

Osprey seem to be quite in evidence in Summit County this time of year, with several established nests that mating osprey couples return regularly to. One very visible nest is in Silverthorne, which you can see driving along Highway 6. There are several on Dillon Reservoir. One of our favorite, local entertainers, Leon Littlebird told me recently that one “blessed him big time” – or hopefully just the vehicle he was driving.

When I lived in New Jersey, there were two huge nests, one on buoy 21 – where the Coast Guard had put an additional buoy nearby so as not to disturb the nesting pair – and one on the end of a neighbor’s dock. I don’t think they used that dock during nesting season. They can build nests on trees, cliffs, and on man-made structures. Their nest consists of large twigs, driftwood, weeds and whatever they can find that appeals to them – all amazingly engineered to withstand the elements. I have seen the nests withstand hurricanes – and hopefully the recent extreme wind event we had. I once saw a nest with colorful string intricately woven into it; an osprey architect/builder with an artistic eye. Another time I saw this big wake behind the bird, which was flying low to the water. It was bringing a large branch to its nest and was using the buoyancy of the water to carry it. That’s how they manage to bring large branches to their nest! How do they know how to do that? We do not give birds enough credit for their intelligence.

The osprey is primarily a fish eater. I once saw one fly by in New Jersey carrying a large eel, wiggling away. We have seen them flying to their nest carrying fish on Dillon Reservoir. They are especially well adapted to catching fish. Osprey and owls are the only raptors whose outer toe is reversible, which this allows them to grasp slippery fish with two toes in front and two behind. The outer toes have sharp little spikes on the underside of the toes, and backwards-facing scales on the talons act as barbs to help hold their catch. Prey is first sighted when the osprey is anywhere from 32-130 feet above the water, the bird then hovers for a few moments, and then plunges feet first into the water. They have closable nostrils to keep out water during dives. There was a medieval belief that fish were so mesmerized by the osprey that they turned belly-up in surrender.

Osprey mate for life, and a female lays two to four eggs in a month. The whitish eggs with patches of reddish-brown are incubated for about five weeks, and chicks tend to hatch sequentially, one to five days apart. The young fledge at about seven or eight weeks of age, but are usually dependent on the parents until the fall migration. Ospreys become sexually mature at about three years of age and can live 20-25 years.

Osprey populations declined drastically in many areas in the 1950s and 1960s partly due to the toxic effects on reproduction of insecticides such as DDT. The pesticide interfered with the calcium metabolism, resulting in thin-shelled, easily broken, or infertile eggs. Because of the banning of DDT in the early 1970s, the osprey, as well as other affected bird of prey species, made significant recoveries; so much so that the osprey has become a symbol of positive responses to nature. It has been featured on numerous postage stamps, brand names for products, names for sports teams, and as mascots.

Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is a former professor of microbiology from Rutgers now teaching classes at CMC. Her scientific interests are in emerging infectious diseases and environmental pollution.

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