16 Jan 2014

Ospreys Fly Among Us

By Jorge Ventocilla

It would be a good idea to take some time and try to spot and learn more about these fascinating birds of prey. You may actually see some of them while visiting the Biomuseo. In fact, if you pay enough attention and arm yourself with patience, I am sure you will see them…or perhaps you have already seen one or more.

They are highly recognizable. When you see a large bird grasping its prey with its strong talons, chances are this may be an osprey or fish eagle. Its scientific name is Pandion haliaetus. Pandion is a character from the Greek mythology and haliaetus comes from the combination of the words halos (sea) and aetos (eagle).

These are very large birds, with a wingspan or extent of 145-170 cm (approx. 57-67 inches). Male ospreys can weigh 1.6-2 kg (3.5-4.5 lb) and females can weigh a little more than that. Unlike other birds of prey, ospreys have long, narrow wings which allow them to fly long distances over water when migrating.

A seasoned traveler, ospreys may nest in all continents; however, in the American continent, they don’t usually nest south of Guatemala. Therefore, they have been classified as migratory birds in Panama. They are more likely to be seen in Panama during the Northern Hemisphere winter, but some may stay and be seen all year round.

It is amazing to see them flying around Avenida Balboa or Parque Omar, holding their lunch boxes…i.e. recently caught fish. The shanks of the legs are scaled and the pads of the toes are covered with small spikes, which allow them to easily grasp their main source of food: slippery fish.

They hover above and dive into the water when they spot a fish worth the dive. They stretch their legs and talons just before hitting the water surface. Then, they fly up to a tall tree (they usually choose the same tree) where they will devour their food, beginning with the head, down to the tail. You know, we all have different styles when it comes to eating fish.

One of these birds used to take its prey to a giant Elephant Ear Tree or “corotú”, as it is known in Panama, near Calle Luis Felipe Clement, in Ancón, very close to the former PTJ. Unfortunately, this tree is no longer there due to some “progress” in the area (they were building an eye health clinic [sic]). Nobody asked the osprey, or even the residents, what they thought about the change. There was another one that would go all the way to Parque Omar to eat atop another large tree. I am sure many of you have already spotted some of these birds and their favorite eateries.

They do not only fish in seawater, but also in freshwater, near the Panama Canal and lakes, for example. A few days ago we saw one in Lago Bayano. We include a photo that we took that day.

The osprey population declined dramatically in the 1950’s – 1970’s. 90% of the breeding pairs disappeared from the coasts of New York and Boston. Studies confirmed that use of DDT was the cause of this decline. When this chemical was banned in the United States, populations of several species began to recover.  However, DDT is still sold in many other countries, which negatively affects both birds and humans.

One last tip: if you take a look at a matchbox from a particular brand sold in Panama (named after the sparrow hawk) you will see that the bird depicted there is not actually the sparrow hawk but the osprey, ready to dive in and get some fish.
 

English translation by Sara I. Melo D.

Galeria de Fotos: 
Un águila pescadora comiendo su pescado fresco en un árbol de la calle Luis Felipe Clement, en Ancón. Foto de Chelina Batista.
Presa en garra, también en el Lago Bayano. Foto de Elisabeth King
Sobrevolando el Lago Bayano. Foto de Elisabeth King.