Ospreys, also known as seahawks, are very large raptors that feed almost entirely on fish. Their wingspan can grow to over 70 inches. They are unique among hawks and eagles in that they have an outer toe that they use for grabbing on to fish. The osprey loves to hunt in the shallow waters of the San Diego River. You’ve probably seen them on the lightposts on your way to and from work. Ospreys can spot their prey from more than 120 feet into the air. They hover and zero in, then dive into the water and hook the fish with their talons. In fact, ospreys are the only fishermen that I have ever seen actually catching anything in the San Diego River.
They nest in any tall structures, from trees to telephone poles. The ospreys are migratory birds that are found throughout the globe, but our Southern California ospreys don’t migrate.
Seahawks nest, like other birds, in the springtime and by summer, if they are lucky, they have anywhere from one to four chicks. Most birds mate for life, and ospreys are no different. Both parents raise the young. The eggs incubate for five weeks and the babies take about 8-10 more weeks to learn to fly.
At Robb Field, human eyes are aloft, hoping to see the young bird’s first flight. The baby ospreys will flap their wings in the nest to practice and build strength. Once ready, they will take their first, usually a short, flight. From there, it is off to the river, learning to fish with mom and dad. After that, the young birds are on their own.
The largest young osprey is learning to hover above the nest for a few seconds at a time. He will be a full-fledged fledgling soon.
Inside the Robb Field Fitness Center, the manager has a picture of the newborn ospreys from when they were first sighted in early April. He displays it with loving pride. He has been watching the young parents closely and said he feels a close connection with the family.
The ospreys have their fans, but life can be rough for a bird living in a civilized world. They suffered huge population declines because of pesticides in the early part of the 20th century, but have made a remarkable comeback since then. In part, their ability to co-exist and thrive next to and in large human population centers has caused them new problems.
Three years, ago an osprey couple were senselessly killed with a blowgun on the Sunset Cliffs Boulevard Bridge. Ospreys are protected by the Federal Migratory Bird Act of 1918, and this cruelty is not taken lightly by U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials or the bird lovers who flock to admire these beautiful creatures along the San Diego River.
Two years ago, someone destroyed an osprey nest in Robb Field, killing the young birds that were in it. Now, park management and birdwatchers keep a close eye out for suspicious activity, with a near-constant vigil around the nesting sights to ward off those who might perform these malicious acts.
Last year, there was one chick hatched, but it did not make it to the fledgling stage. It is easy to see why this year these three very large baby birds are so special to observers.
Looking high up to the nest and watching the young birds being fed by their mother and father, it is hard to imagine how someone could think of hurting these majestic creatures. Those who have watched them grow since the chicks hatched seem to consider themselves to be a part of this aviary family. In a few weeks, the young ones will have learned to fend for themselves and will head off to make families of their own.
The birdwatchers of Robb Field might be left with a heavy case of empty-nest syndrome, but with the proper community support and awareness, the ospreys will return again next year, and the year after that — a model for how wildlife can co-exist in urban areas.
— Jorge Valcarcel is an avid birdwatcher/photographer and resident of Ocean Beach.