One would think large hawks immune to attack by lesser birds. But once you have seen that ultimate absurdity--a hummingbird zooming up to chase off a red-tail--you realize that size does not determine all threats and outcomes. While it is doubtful that a hummer poses any real danger to a hawk, there are lots of surprises in the bird world where confrontations are concerned. Recently, it was an osprey that got my attention.
Ospreys, often thought of as fish eagles, are the largest hawks regularly found in coastal Los Angeles. While much bigger, both bald and golden eagles are exceptionally rare here, while osprey can be found in ones or twos along the coast any time of year, though you will see them less often during the summer. They are strikingly marked birds, with huge dark wings, white under parts and a strong black band through the eye. Quite unmistakable, once you have seen a couple.
Osprey do not nest in my neck of LA, and until recently, nested uncommonly in southern California. Now, however, tall poles with nesting platforms on top can be seen in nearby wetlands, giving the birds new places to raise young. Perhaps, one day, we may be able to establish a similar nest site at Harbor Park, to afford us our own nesting pair.
As their informal name implies, osprey fish for a living, plunging into fresh or salt water to grasp an unwary fish in their powerful talons, then flying up to a perch where they can eat their catch. Fish are slippery critters, so an osprey’s grip has evolved such that once bound to a fish, it will not release until the bird settles to a perch. While a great advantage as far as not allowing its prey to escape easily, that adaptation has its risks. More than one osprey skeleton has been found affixed to the back of large fish, the result of binding to prey too large and powerful to be pulled out of the water. Instead, these were birds pulled beneath the surface and drowned because they could not let go in this direst of emergencies!
Much less perilous to the osprey, but undoubtedly highly annoying, is another downside of that no-release grip. Once they hold a fish, they cannot use their talons to ward off other birds. So even though bigger and more fearsome than a gull, it was an osprey’s inability to drive away a harassing western gull that attracted my eye the other day. Fortunately, I was able to photograph some of the encounter.
The osprey had taken a pretty good sized fish, perhaps a foot and a half long, and was carrying it off to a perch when a passing western gull thought it would try wresting a quick meal from the passing hawk. And the chase was on, the gull unimpressed by long curved talons! It was the fish they held that the gull went after. Each time the gull approached, bill outstretched to nip off a bite, or better yet, snatch the whole thing, the osprey would slip aside or twist the fish just out of reach. And thus it went for several minutes, with a couple of other gulls joining in briefly on the fun. The weight of the fish, perhaps close to that of the osprey itself, was enough of a handicap to prevent a quick escape from the bullying gulls. At one point, the first gull appeared to reach up under the osprey and have the fish fully in its bill, but it could neither hold on nor maintain position, dropping away with nothing to show for its daring.
I suppose, though, that what I was observing for the first time was old hat for both the gull and osprey. The hawk, dodging and weaving, eventually managed to get away from its pursuers. Whether the fish was a meal for itself or family, I cannot say, but I do know that I will not look at an osprey in quite the same way ever again.