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Fish hawks overhead

From the moment we pulled into our campground at Gold Beach, my wife and I were aware that we had entered osprey territory.

The call of this bird of prey, a series of high-pitched yips, caught our attention as we were choosing a site, then pitching our tent.

Looking up, we saw three of these large, brown-and-white birds circling gracefully overhead, their gaze fixed, no doubt, on the Rogue River across the road.

“Fish hawk,” another name for this raptor known scientifically as Pandion haliaetus, tells you all you need to know about the osprey diet.

An hour later at Ophir State Beach, 10 miles north of town, we watched an osprey grab a fish from the ocean and fly off with it wiggling in its talons.

Diving from great heights, ospreys swing their legs in front of them just as they are about to hit the water. Arresting its prey is one thing. Once a fish is in its grasp, an osprey must flap its wings with all its might to get airborne again. Not an easy feat with a very perturbed captive under you, trying to break free.

The day after the Ophir show, it was too windy to walk the beach, so we parked where we could sit in our truck and zone out on the ocean. Then we had a picnic lunch at a city park, followed by a return to the waterfront, and more zoning out. In the evening, we strolled through town and settled on a restaurant for dinner.

Throughout the day, ospreys were a constant presence. We saw them, heard them — or both — wherever we went.

Near dusk, I walked a trail paralleling the Rogue, close to our campground. The thick brush blocked my view of the river most of the way, but the yipping from above told me that ospreys were overhead, cruising for a last bite before dark.

Ironically, these strong, tenacious birds bring back sentimental memories for me. I grew up on Long Island, not far inland from the Atlantic Ocean, and I credit ospreys for sparking my interest in wildlife viewing. This was the late 1970s — I was 20 or so — and ospreys were making a comeback from the ravages of DDT.

Through a joint effort between environmental groups and state agencies, tall poles with platforms on top had been erected, about a quarter-mile apart, along a stretch of shoreline on the east end of the island. Ospreys, who build bulky nests in high places with panoramic views, turned these platforms into penthouse pads.

I would drive east on weekends, then bike along the beach road, going from pole to pole to check out the osprey action. Good exercise. Fresh air. Cheap entertainment. I could get used to keeping an eye on nature, I thought to myself.

Since then, I have always had my sensors out for ospreys, and the detectors rarely fail to go off at certain locations in Southern Oregon. Lake of the Woods, for example, and Casey State Park.

But the concentration in and around Gold Beach was the densest I could remember. Had anyone counted these fish hunters lately and compared the numbers to populations in other areas?

Short answer: no.

“Our Audubon chapter has not done a survey of our osprey,” Ann Vileisis, president of the Audobon Society’s south coast chapter, informed me. “But I do know there are abundant opportunities for feeding on the south coast,” given the conjunction of river and marine environments.

Whether Gold Beach could justifiably call itself the osprey capital, it’s safe to say that a bunch of ospreys live there, and that they aren’t going anywhere, as on a long migratory journey.

“They tend to stick close to where they are born,” Vileisis said, adding “there are a few nests right in town.” Indeed, my wife and I had seen one at the top of a tree, near the city park.

“It’s good to be reminded of how special our osprey population is,” Vileisis told me. “Often we are paying attention to the problems and threats rather than to the positive thriving parts of our extraordinary south coast ecosystems.”

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.

An osprey dives for a fish. The birds are plentiful on the Southern Oregon Coast, and they are called “fish hawks” because if it’s fish, they will eat it, freshwater or salty. 123RF.com