119 years of Trust Nature THE TRIBUNE
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Sunday, June 20, 1999
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The spectacular flying fisherman

By Nutan Shukla

Ospreys are spectacular flying fishermen. As they glide and soar 150 ft or more above the ocean or a lake, they scan the water for fish. Once fish has been spotted, the ospreys dive headlong towards the water. At the last minute before hitting the surface, they swing their hooked talons forward to seize the fish. Strong legs enable them to withstand the shock of striking the water. Their momentum often carries them into the water, and occasionally even beneath the surface.

Osprey fish by picking up food from the surface of the water or just below it. Ospreys are found worldwide. They are large birds of prey with a short bill which is strongly hooked. The wings of this brownish-black and white bird are long and pointed. It feeds on fish and inhabits coastal areas and inland fresh water bodies. It makes its nest both on the ground and in trees.

Their talons are highly evolved for capturing slippery fish. Bird’s feet have four strong toes which are almost equal in length and the outer front toe can be moved alongside the back one to efficiently grasp objects. The pads under the toes have rough scales to ensure a non-skid grip. While carrying a fish, which can be almost as heavy as the bird itself, it adjusts its position in such a way so that the head of the fish faces forward in torpedo-fashion. This reduces wind resistance.

The efficiency in catching fish at times proves fatal for the bird itself. Ospreys fish by picking up food from the surface of the water or just below it. At times it happens that the bird plunges into the water and disappears briefly before surfacing again. However, there are a few cases of the bird drowning because it could not free its grip after fastening its talons to a fish which was too large to lift.

These birds use the same nest for number of years. One nest in Australia was first seen in 1889 and the site was still in use as late as 1936. It was one of the smallest nesting sites ever recorded in the country. This site was a tiny limestone stack off Cape Mentelle in southwestern Australia. There are a few other nest sites on this island-continent which are believed to have been in use for many years, possibly even centuries.

Ospreys use all kinds of material to construct their nests. When the nest is on the ground by the sea, birds use seaweeds, waste materials thrown away by the ships, things taken from wreckage of ships, materials from the cargo thrown overboard to lighten ship and later washed ashore, e.g. table legs, boards, sticks etc. When the nest is in a tree, sticks, twigs and leaves are used as building material.

Another bird of the same order as osprey is secretary bird. This queer name was given to the bird because its crest of black feathers resembles a quillpen which European clerks in the 19th century used to stick in their wigs.

Inhabiting the open plains of Africa, it feeds on reptiles, particularly snakes, small mammals and insects. It’s a large, grey bird with black thighs and flight feathers. The bird has a long neck and its nape has elongated feathers. The face is bare with a short-hooked bill. It has long legs, with short toes which are we- bbed basally. It has large wings and a long tail with long central feathers. It nests in a bush or in trees.

The bird spends most of its time on the ground searching for food, but to fly it has to run to launch itself into the air. Once air-borne, it flies well.

It’s a hawk-like bird with long legs which are useful for evading snakes on which it preys.

This fortnightly feature was published on June 13, 1999

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