Despite over 450 years of human development and growth, St. Augustine remains home to a variety of wildlife. In honor of National Bird Day, the Historical Society wants to highlight one of our local feathered friends, the osprey (Pandion haliaetus). Commonly seen swooping over the waters of the Intercoastal Waterway, Matanzas Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, or carrying away a hapless mullet to munch on at a preferred perch around town, these large aerial predators are a Florida native.
Weighing between two and four pounds, with a wingspan of up to seventy-one inches, these raptors are sizable birds. Brown above and white below, they are distinguishable by the significant amount of white in their plumage. Their heads are white with a brown stripe through the eye, and the underside of the wings feature prominent brown patches near the wrists. In flight, they often hold their wings in a distinctive “M” shape, flying in a similar fashion to many species of gull. Unique to the osprey, aside from owls, is a reversible outer toe, allowing them to grip prey with two toes in front and two in back. This adaptation aids the osprey in hanging on to slippery and struggling food.
Sometimes called a fish eagle, ospreys almost exclusively eat fish, though they do occasionally take small rodents and reptiles. Adapted specifically for their piscivorous diet, they have incredibly good eyesight, able to see prey underwater from over a hundred feet in the air. To capture their prey, ospreys dive feet-first into the water, adjusting their trajectory to account for the refraction of light caused by water. Often plunging their entire bodies into the water, these birds snag their prey before rising to the surface and flying off to a nearby perch to eat. Local ospreys have a habit of taking their meals to the Oldest House Museum Complex, and occasionally will eat in the oak trees there, leaving the remains of their catch on the ground when they leave. For a significant period of time, one regularly perched in the large magnolia tree behind the St. Augustine Art Association building.
John J. Audubon unsurprisingly wrote an entry on the osprey, which he refers to as the fish eagle. While this description of the osprey was not written in St. Augustine, Audubon did indeed visit the Oldest City twice between 1831 and 1832. While visiting, the famed naturalist stayed in a waterfront tavern with his companions, before heading south to Ponce de Leon Springs near DeLand. The St. Johns River proved to be his primary route of travel. While his journals do not mention seeing an osprey in Florida, it is likely that the naturalist did, given their prevalence around water here. Audubon’s ornithological biography of the osprey notes their presence in Florida as well, while also noting that they can be found all across the Eastern United States where there are readily accessible bodies of water. Unfortunately, since Audubon’s writings in the 1800s, the range of the osprey has been drastically reduced due to human encroachment and hunting.
The pesticide DDT too had grave effects on the osprey as well as other American birds of prey, including the bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), which is also native to Northeast Florida. The banning of the pesticide as well as hunting protections for many birds of prey, the osprey included, resulted in populations largely recovering by the end of the twentieth century. As a result, the osprey has once again become a common sight in Northeast Florida. Next time you’re visiting town, keep an eye on the skies, because you’re sure to see one of our famous feathered, fish-eating locals.
Audubon in Florida by Kathryn Hall Proby, with selections from the writings of John James Audubon. University of Miami Press, 1974.
Written by Robert Covert