Hunting a Hunting Osprey

We love raptors. The talons, the down-curved pointy bills, the piercing eyes, the silhouettes high in the sky as they float on thermals, and the uncanny ability to successfully hunt prey. So when a rare visitor to Victoria, the Eastern Osprey, appeared less than an hour’s drive away, I was determined to see it. Imka, however, was less than enthusiastic, dismissing it as potentially incomparable to the experience we had a few years ago with an Osprey not 15m away on a fence post. Still, I was insistent that we visit, not in the least because I had never seen a raptor successfully hunting.


Osprey at Western Treatment Plant in 2015

Facebook groups suggested that the Osprey was active throughout the day at the Werribee Cliffs (in the lookout area immediately after the golf club on K Road), but was especially active in the early morning when it caught its breakfast, and again in the late evening when it caught its dinner. I prefer to be gaining light than losing light, so an early start it was.

We were up at 4am, out of the house at 6am, and driving into the carpark at 7am, greeted by a half dozen cars and, I assumed, birders. Indeed, who else would be up so early with bazooka lenses and binoculars pointed towards the river?


Birding paparazzi

The vista from the carpark is stunning, by the way – a calm, meandering river with a mirror-like surface, towering red-brown cliffs, birdlife aplenty, and a view extending to the horizon, all bathed in the golden light of an early morning sun rising from behind us.


Postcard-perfect
Osprey country

After we exchanged pleasantries with the other birders, we learnt that the bird hadn’t been seen yet – I began to wonder if we missed it by a day. We decided to walk further along the cliff, and it was Imka, bird-spotter extraordinaire, who spotted the majestic Eastern Osprey on the other side of the river, perched on the limb of a large gum tree.


Master and Commander

We waved over the other birders, and the morning air subsequently erupted with a cacophony of excited exchanges and fast-clicking shutters. The bird sat there preening nonchalantly, fending off multiple charges from Magpies and Magpie Larks with the ease and grace of a large, confident raptor.


Birders birding

But, Imka was right: the view couldn’t compare to that of a few years prior. Still, I set my camera to video mode, propped my elbows on the railing, zoomed in, squinted with one eye through the view finder, and waited. And waited. At times I was distracted by the flocks of gregarious Purple-crowned Lorikeets in the trees above, and other birds across the river, but for the most part, it was a disciplined stake-out.


Purple-crowned Lorikeet


Red-rumped Parrot pair


Little Pied Cormorant


Chestnut Teal

An hour later, my patience paid off: the bird bobbed its head from side to side like a professional boxer, stared intently at the river below, locked on to a target with laser-sight precision, raised its wings, and flew towards the river below. Thankfully, I started recording at that instant.

What I captured, was stunning footage: she (birders tell me that it’s a ‘she’) flapped her wings a few times to build up speed, then glided effortlessly as she approached the river’s surface, and extended her talons like landing gear. To my surprise, instead of deftly grabbing a fish on the fly like eagles do in the wildlife documentaries, she smashed into the water at full speed! Indeed, video replays later showed that smaller fishes were thrown into the air upon impact. [See video stills below.]

She struggled awkwardly to flap her wings in the water for a couple seconds, then burst from the embrace of the river in a display of sheer power and determination, clutching her prize in her talons. How did she see a fish from that distance, at that angle, through the mirror-like surface of the river? One of nature’s wonders, no doubt.

She landed on a dead tree branch at eye level in perfect golden light to dine on a freshly caught fish (a Bream, we think), while a dozen birders grabbed their gear and scrambled back to the first carpark to capture extraordinary images of the Osprey. A few minutes later, a Black Kite approached (perhaps to steal the fish carcass?), and she was off: chased far into the distance, and not to reappear until the late evening. But, I had captured the video prize I was after, and Imka snapped some stunning photos. The spectacle was over in mere seconds, but the memory would last a lifetime.

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