The osprey is a large and alluring raptor. I’ve always found them to be spectacular and striking birds in books and documentaries. Graceful in the way they soar on their broad wings, yet strong and bold, with their keen yellow eyes and impressive talons. In past times they were known as the fish-eagle or fish-hawk, and this previous name was accurate in the sense that they are indeed, large, strong-legged birds that feed primarily on fish. Yet, they are not eagles and are truly unique from other raptors. As such, their own name is perhaps more fitting.
For one thing, they are a single living species of bird that is globally distributed: found from Europe and Africa, through to the Americas, Asia, and of course, Australia. Taxonomically, they are treated as the only member of the family Pandionidae – derived from the genus name Pandion, in turn named for the mythical Greek King Pandion who is said to have turned into an eagle.
Among their other oddities, the osprey is the only raptor, other than the owls, with a reversible outer toe. This allows them to grasp prey with a particularly effective grip - useful when your food tends to be wet and slippery. Certainly, fish make up the vast majority of the osprey’s diet. As such they are adapted to see underwater objects with great precision, and have closable nostrils to avoid any unwanted intake of water.
In Europe, where freshwater is abundant, the species tends to live and feed around lakes and streams. However, in our more arid country where much of our freshwater is ephemeral, the osprey has become strictly coastal. It is has been suggested that this habit, combined with Victoria’s high level of coastal development, may explain why the osprey is does not dwell within our state’s borders.
Yes, that’s right; the osprey is regarded as not-present within Victoria - at least in a breeding sense. Why then, should I write an article about a species not found around our city?
Well, while they are classified as not-present within our state, like most birds, ospreys care little for humanity’s invisible borders. The fact is we have a coastline and they are here. Whether there is a viable breeding population, perhaps not. Nevertheless, there have been a few rare sightings of these birds around our city and I am fortunate enough to be one of the few individuals who have seen them on our coast. They have been seen close to Warrnambool, around the western side of Port Phillip Bay, and at our beautiful Point Nepean National Park – the latter of which is where I too found these amazing birds.
Twice I have visited the area where I saw the osprey, and both times, though months apart, I found them. The first time I had been on the lookout for some interesting photographic opportunities. After a long trek around the park, I spied the instantly recognizable silhouette of a bird of prey, hovering in the sky over the horizon. The chance to get some up close shots of a raptor was an exciting thought and, much to the comedic joy of my friend, I threw down what gear I had and ran, camera in hand, at full speed through the coastal bushland. This I would not recommended, as the once important military area of Point Nepean still contains, within its soil, unexploded mines of times gone by. Certainly, I would not have been so hasty had I not known the area in which I was running was free from such hazards.
Leaving my highly amused companion behind, I leaped over the scrub and ran through the grass, terrifying some poor, unsuspecting wallaby that, not unlike a mine, exploded out of the bush in fear and nearly fell off a nearby cliff face – its’ life saving agility allowing it to avoid a nasty fall at the last second. I stood at the cliff and searched, feeling a little guilty for the inconvenience I had caused the wallaby. Before me was the Bass Strait, its huge waves rolling into a marvellously scenic beach.
And then the osprey appeared. It was the first I had ever seen in the wild, and I was quite truthfully in awe of it. It flew with great ease on the strong ocean winds that bent the surrounding vegetation with force. It glided over the sand and water, rising on the up currents with little effort and diving down at great speed with an adjustment in the angle of its wings.
Suddenly, it became apparent that the osprey was being chased. The raucous call of a Pacific Gull cried out across the beach. The large white and silver gull flew with great determination, harassing the osprey relentlessly. The raptor avoided the gull with some effort, but ultimately it seemed unperturbed by the seabird that was protesting its presence. I managed to get a few distant photographs of the spectacle.
Later, after the gull had given up chase, I would see that same osprey fly over head with a healthy looking fish grasped in it talons – they really are excellent hunters. Having had such a fantastic viewing, however brief, of the life of an osprey, I vowed to return.
So it was that some months later I found the time to return to that place, hopeful that I’d spy an osprey again. Indeed, I did, and the bird was not alone. My second visit yielded a second osprey, and it soon became obvious that the two were a pair. Was one of them the same osprey from my first visit? To me, it seemed likely. Were the two planning to breed here? I could not say, I saw no nest. Were they simply passing through? Perhaps, though ospreys tend to be sedentary, and after the months that had passed since my last visit why would they have still been there? Some sources state that they are but rare vagrants in our state, and this might be the case. This article is not written to dispute that fact, merely to spread light on an animal so seemingly rare to our region.
I pursued the pair rather feebly from the ground, up and down the stretch of sand and water with my camera. They, like many raptors, were aloof, and preferred to keep their distance from the human that panted after them. Though, I conclude, I was likely less of a hindrance than any gull ought to have been.
I hope to return to Point Nepean and search out the pair again. Perhaps now they have moved on, or perhaps they or other osprey remain. Certainly, reports of osprey sighted at Point Nepean continue to be made. But regardless, I am pleased to have had experienced such amazing birds, and hold so closely the memories of their dazzling flight and striking yellow eyes that observed me with caution, that I doubt I’ll soon forget them.
I would encourage anyone to savour the moment, should they be fortunate enough to glimpse one of these rare raptors on our shores.