Farewell to the hawks of summer

Our shores and open water were nearly naked through summer, without the gulls, terns, scooters and grebes that winter pushes into the protection of the sound. This "empty" landscape allowed the king of summer, the osprey - Pandion haliaetus - to shine.

Now, however, the weather has shifted again and migration is in the air. Caspian terns, young great blue herons and sanderlings have arrived. But, unlike our resident bald eagles, the osprey is migratory, and as September darkens our shores they will wing their way south to southern Mexico and Central America.

As sad as it may seem, this means it is time to bid farewell to the singular birds of summer - the Osprey, or sea hawks, which have been gracing the shores of Puget Sound.

With the remaining few warmish weeks, enjoy the lovely specter of these exquisite birds. The osprey is an elegant raptor, with a long, slightly bent wing span of about 5 feet. The crook in the wings leads many casual observers to mistake an osprey for a gull. But a closer examination reveals a dark-brown mantle, contrasted with a white head and a prominent, dark eye strip, which gives these striking birds a Cleopatra effect.

One of the most specialized hawks - a true sea hawk - osprey hover close to shore over a rich feeding ground, plunging feet-first into the water. Extraordinarily long legs and the ability to immerse their body completely allows them to dive quite deep - deeper than their closest fishing competitor, the bald eagle. Osprey grasp slippery fish firmly using a reversible front talon and foot pads covered with tiny impaling spines (spicules).

Once the prey is in "hand," the osprey shakes dry in mid-flight and heads off to a safe feeding perch. During nesting season, one can easily locate a nest by watching the direct flight path of the adult, laden with fish and heading for home.

Ospreys build unmistakable large, bulky stick nests. Recently, they have adapted to using a variety of human-made supports, including pilings such as in the Everett waterfront, cellular towers like those at the Marymoor Park Veledrome and even the stanchions at the Interbay driving range.

Currently the nests are empty; the young have fledged and are preparing to migrate south for the winter. These tremendous structures will serve as a reminder throughout the winter of the summer season yet to come.

So while the last warmth of summer lingers, get outside... and go birding.

Birder Penny Rose is a public education program specialist and Adopt an Area coordinator at Discovery Park. She can be reached at penny.rose@seattle.gov.[[In-content Ad]]