Ospreys’ large wingspans help them carry fish for long distances. (Photo by Mike Benbow)

Ospreys’ large wingspans help them carry fish for long distances. (Photo by Mike Benbow)

Now playing on a waterfront near you: The osprey show

Port Gardner in Everett is one of the nation’s best places to watch the raptors raise their young.

I’ve never been a fan of reality TV, because so many shows seem scripted, so I’ve replaced television time with hours spent outdoors. I often bring my camera to a local osprey nest to look for some real drama.

Last year, the widowed patriarch of one of my favorite osprey families returned to the Snohomish River in April to find that winter winds had ravaged his nest. Local ospreys typically winter in Southern California or Mexico, returning in spring to raise their young.

In fact, Everett is one of the best places in the U.S. to watch osprey nests.

Ospreys often mate for life and reuse their old nests, so the patriarch had to find himself a new mate. Then he helped his mate rebuild the nest with sticks and grass, and defend it from a marauding pair of Canada geese that tried to hijack it. The geese were quickly evicted.

The osprey’s search for a mate was a long one. It appeared that the top candidate was also spending time at a second nest just upriver. Eventually, the courtship was successful.

Over the past decade or so, Everett’s Port Gardner area has become the scene of one of the largest colonies of salt-water nesting ospreys along the West Coast. The raptors were lured by the good fishing and the many pilings that line the lower Snohomish River. The ospreys build their large nests atop the pilings.

The osprey’s breast and belly are mostly white, with some dark streaks. Its feathers are mottled black-and-white. The bird’s head is distinctive, with a white crest and a face divided into two parts by a dark eye-stripe, and further set off by yellow eyes.

Ospreys are fascinating birds to watch.

I became interested in ospreys while growing up in Ohio because I like to fish. Ospreys do, too. They eat little else. At places where the fishing is good, ospreys are overhead — they hover a bit and suddenly plunge into the water to snatch dinner.

Ospreys have exceptional vision, so they can see fish while flying as high as 100 feet above the water, and they can plunge feet first underwater to grab it. But they prefer finding their fish close to the surface.

Ospreys start out weighing in as fuzzy hatchlings at about 2 ounces and grow to about 2 feet in length and 2 to 4 pounds. Their wings can span nearly 6 feet, which allows them to carry fish as long as 16 inches for long distances. Their average prey is 10 to 14 inches in length.

If fish aren’t available, ospreys will eat small mammals, birds and reptiles. But they greatly prefer fish. Ospreys typically carry their fish head first to control them and to make them more aerodynamic. Like owls, they have a reversible claw on the outside of each foot so they can grab fish with two toes in the front and two in the back.

Drama can start early in an osprey’s life, depending on its birth order.

Females lay two to four eggs, each a day or so apart. In the nests I’ve watched, three eggs are common, but usually only two hatchlings survive.

The male osprey brings fish to the nest every few hours and the female tears off little hunks for each baby, but the older ones are more aggressive and wind up getting much of the food.

The youngest can be bullied by the others, booted out of the nest, or even eaten by older siblings. It’s a cruel life, but that’s often how it works.

Adult ospreys both incubate the eggs for a month or so, and it takes the young ospreys eight to 10 weeks before they’re ready to fly.

The young are fun to watch as they test their wings. They’re like kids at a dance class, taking turns going up a few feet above the nest and settling back down to try again.

The young continue to spend time in the nest after fledging, but both adults lessen the time they spend in the nest and the amount of food they bring to encourage the youngsters to provide for themselves.

The osprey show is a captivating one to watch, and the players don’t usually follow a script.

Where to watch

See nesting ospreys in the Port of Everett’s Riverside Business Park, located at E. Marine View Drive and Riverside Road.

Two nests also are visible from a paved public walkway along the Snohomish River. But the area is filled with private businesses, so parking is very limited.

Washington North Coast Magazine

This article is featured in the summer issue of Washington North Coast Magazine, a supplement of The Daily Herald. Explore Snohomish and Island counties with each quarterly magazine. Each issue is $3.99. Subscribe to receive all four editions for $14 per year. Call 425-339-3200 or go to www.washingtonnorthcoast.com for more information.

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