Osprey is one of the most unique North American raptors. They are built like a gull, dive for fish feet first, and are distinctly plumaged. Osprey is a large bird, only slightly smaller than an eagle, but with a slimmer build. Ospreys are easy to identify even at long distances making them a favorite among birders. But, they are sometimes confused with the similar Bald Eagle or a large gull. Osprey is found near water when breeding, building bulky stick nests in dead trees, on tall light fixtures, power poles, billboards, or platforms provided for them.
Ospreys prey almost exclusively on fish, and almost never scavenge like eagles. Instead, they actively search and hover over waterways until they spot a fish close to the surface. Then, they plunge feet-first into the water to seize medium-sized or sometimes surprisingly large fish with their powerful talons. Ospreys have specialized feet for grasping fish: all four talons are curved moreso than on other raptors, and the toes have tiny spines or "spicules" on the bottom that help them hang on to its slippery prey. Most raptors have three toes in the front, and one in the back, but Osprey can rotate the outer toe backward to help them carry fish, which they typically do head-first for optimal aerodynamics.
Perched, note small head with lack of a supraorbital ridge above the eye that gives most raptors a fierce look.
Extremely lanky wings that appear gull-like, but lack sharply pointed wing tips.
In a glide, wings form a distinct 'M' shape.
Slim-bodied compared to vultures and eagles.
Soars and glides on bowed wings.
Extremely steady flier, soaring in wide circles and gaining lift easily.
Readily uses powered flight for long stretches, does not avoid water or desert crossings like most raptors.
Wing beats of are slow, stiff, shallow, almost "mechanical."
Resembles adult Bald Eagle with blackish topside and white head, but head has broad black eye-line, and tail is blackish with faint pale bands.
Brilliant white underneath with blackish flight feathers and wrists, unlike immature Bald Eagle, which has whitish belly or less white on underwings.
From below, tail can appear whitish or pinkish when tail is fanned.
Adult male and female identical in plumage, but male tend to be less streaked on chest that adult female and juveniles. Adult has yellow eyes and unmarked upperwings.
Juvenile has pale-fringed upperwings, orange eyes, and often show streaking on crown, and often more rufous-washed on underside.
Migrate north mainly from March through May, and south from August through November.
Is seen at all migration sites in N.A., but large numbers occur in fall along the Atlantic Coast (Cape May, NJ; Kiptopeke, VA). Spring migration is more dispersed.
Osprey can be seen inland far from water during migration since they are powerful flyers with incredible stamina.
Often the first and last raptor in the sky during migration, and among the highest birds in the sky mid-day.
(Map from Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds. For dynamic distribution maps, visit the eBird website.)