The Osprey

Since I became interested in wildlife photography, I have dreamed of capturing “the shot”. That might be a tender moment between mother and child, a soaring bird overhead in perfect light, or the struggle for life between predator and prey. I have been fortunate to capture some of these images, but many more are still just dreams.

One of my dream shots is catching an Osprey diving into the water and coming out with a fish. I’ve captured many Osprey shots in the past. Some have been on nests, some have been with recent hatchlings, and some have been flight shots with and without a fish in the talons. But I had never been successful in being at the right place at the right time to catch one diving and taking flight with prey. Until now.

While we were vacationing in Indian Rocks Beach, FL last month, I would spend the first 2-3 hours of daylight walking the beach and composing shots of anything that moved. I love shorebirds and there were many to choose from that week. On one of these morning walks, I spotted an Osprey circling overhead. Thinking he might be looking for breakfast, I waited him out and was rewarded with a dive and a catch.

Now, trying to catch an Osprey diving and getting the focus and framing just right is pretty tough to do. Even professional photographers will tell you that unless you just happen to have the Osprey already focused and everything lined up properly, catching the dive is very difficult. I guess I’ll need more practice as the shots I fired off while he was diving are all unusable…unless you consider a brown out-of-focus blob as the subject of a photo interesting. But once he hit the water, my camera caught focus and I was able to get him coming out of the water with his breakfast.

Click an image to view larger.

Osprey with his morning catch

I took a whole series of shots as the Osprey lifted out of the water and began to fly away from me. I had no idea at the time if I had good focus and exposure. All you can do is hope you’ve set the camera correctly for the light and keep firing away. The entire encounter lasted less than 5 seconds. By then the Osprey was too far away to keep shooting.

Why do they always fly away from the photographer?

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was no ordinary fish for the Osprey. If you look closely at the next image, you’ll see that there is fishing line and fishing hooks attached to the fish. This was a fisherman’s bait fish that the Osprey had captured. You should be able to see the hooks and line if you click the image.

The fish has two hooks and fishing line attached to it.

This obviously wasn’t a very good day for this particular fish. First he was captured by a fisherman, then he was rigged with hooks and tossed back in the Gulf in hopes a larger fish would eat him. Then he gets grabbed by an Osprey and yanked out of the water again. What else could go wrong?

In this next image, you will see that the Osprey’s left leg is tangled in the fishing line. This is not turning out to be a good day for the Osprey either.

The Osprey's left leg is caught in the fishing line

In this final image, the Osprey is able to free leg from the fishing line. He eventually dropped the fish and flew away unharmed. Since I was shooting the action, I didn’t notice what the fisherman might have been doing. He couldn’t have been too happy watching his bait be taken away. I’m sure he would have gladly given up the fish in order to avoid entangling the Osprey and having to save the bird.

The Osprey freed his left leg and then dropped the fish. He was on his way unharmed.

In hindsight, it would seem to me that the fisherman should have been paying attention and noticed the Osprey circling overhead. I would have thought that he would have reeled in his rig to avoid getting the Osprey entangled in the line. And perhaps he was and the Osprey dove for the fish anyway. This is also a common problem with pelicans too. As they fly by, they are always looking for a fish that might be struggling or separated from the school. Many pelicans have met an untimely demise because they have captured and swallowed a bait rig like this. Once swallowed, the only hope for the pelican would be to reel him in and get him to a bird hospital as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, most fishermen would simply cut the line leaving the pelican to die a slow and horrible death.

I will say that I was quite excited to “find” this sequence when I got home and uploaded the images to my computer. Although I don’t have an image of the Osprey diving yet, I do have a decent one of the Osprey coming out of the water with a fish…even if it is a bait fish. Maybe that makes the encounter that much more exciting.

9 Comments

  • Mia McPherson

    November 20, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    So glad to know the Osprey got untangled and was unharmed by the fishing line. This happens with Double-crested Cormorants too. At least this had a happy ending even if the Osprey didn’t get the fish!

  • Dina J

    November 20, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    Great story and pictures. Perfect focus. I’m so glad he dropped that fish. I would hate to think he’d keep going and then eat the fish and the hook. You’re right about the fishermen. They’ll just cut the line. I guess we can’t outlaw fishing on the shore or at a pier.

  • Debbie Tubridy

    November 20, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    So glad that you got your shot! Congrats!

  • Scott Simmons

    November 21, 2011 at 8:08 am

    Wow. Nice post! Glad it turned out well for the Osprey. I have lots of photos of brown fuzzy blobs that look a little bit like ospreys catching fish. It’s always exciting when they turn out.

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  • Marie Counten

    November 23, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    Very glad you managed to catch this shot, I can imagine the moment of joy when you saw this on your PC high resolution ! Keep up the good work, lovely photos !

    • Michael

      November 23, 2011 at 6:24 pm

      Thanks, Marie!

  • Kathy Bridges

    November 24, 2011 at 6:58 am

    What an amazing series of shots and great story. Awesome Michael. Beautiful ocean for the BG.

  • Roni

    November 30, 2011 at 10:54 am

    What an outstanding post! Wow! I know how this feels, Michael and I am SO after this shot too. I can’t believe what a bad day it was for that poor fish! lol I really really enjoyed this post!