21 Feb 2022

OSPREYS

David Waterhouse, wildlife storyteller and member of WWF’s Living Planet Legacy Society, writes about his encounters with some of Australia’s most beautiful and interesting species. This month he shares his experiences with the eastern osprey, a fish-eating raptor found along Australia’s coastline and inland wetlands.

Hills Peak is a lookout point just off the circuit road in Oatley Park, NSW, not far from the better known Webster’s Lookout. 

One winter’s morning, before work, I drove there and beneath a clear sky, peered down at the glimmering surface of Lime Kiln Creek. The wide expanse was calm and smooth, displaying thousands of sparkles of reflected sunlight. 

Where the creek joined the Georges River, there was a large expanse of exposed sand and mud, for the tide was out. A large pied cormorant was perched regally on an exposed post in the mud, and further out a pair of Caspian terns were resting side by side in the shallows, waiting for the tide to turn. Even at a distance, their black caps and coral red bills were easy to discern in the strong sunlight. 

It was the loud calling of a raven, unusually persistent, which first drew my attention to the patrolling osprey as it flew leisurely upstream, above treetop height. I had a clear look at the brown and cream raptor at first, but as it flew upstream, it was soon lost to view, blocked by the screen of trees which covered the sandstone slopes. As I hoped, it came back within a few minutes, retracing the same flightpath and carrying a fish in its talons. This time no raven harried it and I noticed that, unlike the sea eagles which grasped their prey side-on, the bird before me, in true ‘fish hawk’ fashion, carried its fish head-on in the fore and aft position.

When the raptor reached the confluence of the creek with the river, it circled the area and came in to land on a protruding limb of a dead tree on the other side of the creek, close to housing. There were living trees close by, part of a bush remnant on a headland boarding the Georges River. 

It was only by scanning the trees of this promontory near the last of the houses lining the foreshore that I spotted a large stick nest, high up in the tallest of the living trees.

A scan with binoculars revealed a second osprey sitting low in the nest bowl. It raised its head to acknowledge the sudden arrival of its mate with food. Even at a distance, one could hear the plaintive piping sound used by the crouching female in greeting her provider. 

The male began to eat part of his catch before his mate changed over incubation duties with her partner, taking the rest of the catch and then flying off to eat its somewhere upriver. 

Osprey nest in Buccaneer Archipelago, Kimberley, Western Australia
© Paul Gamblin / WWF-Aus

A few years ago, a sight such as this would have been unheard of in Oatley or anywhere along the Georges River and its tributaries, although in the nineteenth century, some pairs did occur and breed all down the state’s south coast. 

In the 1970s, a survey indicated that only about ten pairs still bred in the whole of NSW – from Tweed Heads to Forster.

The position then began to improve steadily and by the late 1980s, their numbers grew on the north coast and a few pairs managed to extend the breeding range of the species as far south as about Narrabeen in Northern Sydney. One pair attempted to nest on the top of a tall Norfolk Island Pine at Narrabeen Lagoon, but no young were hatched successfully.

Ospreys were recorded more often as vagrants around South Sydney and even further south and in the last few years, breeding attempts have been made along the Georges River, most recently at Illawong.

One year, not long ago, a pair built a nest on a large marker in the river, close to Lime Kiln Creek, instead of a tree. This particular breeding attempt was foiled when a jet-ski rider decided it would be fun to swamp the nest as he sped in a curve alongside it, sloshing a lot of water sideways.

Persecution of the birds and their young is nothing new. In Britain, ospreys were exterminated at the turn of the nineteenth century, and when a pair finally returned to breed in the 1950s, its nest was robbed by egg collectors. Thankfully, more nesting attempts were made and the raptor is slowly returning to breed in the British Isles once more, mostly in Scotland. 

A young David Waterhouse smiles in an old, sepia printed photo.
A young David Waterhouse © Supplied / David Waterhouse

When I migrated to Newcastle, NSW in 1963 with my family as a teenager, I learnt by consulting a book entitled ‘What Bird Is That?’ by Neville Cayley, that ospreys were to be found here in Australia, and in fact, they are found almost world-wide.

As a new student at Newcastle Boy’s High, I soon discovered that most local boys had no interest in birds or other wildlife, except those few who bred finches or parrots in aviaries or took pot shots at bush birds now and then with an air rifle. 

One day, I was sitting in the school playground with a small group of Fourth Formers when one of then brought up the subject of hunting ‘up the north coast somewhere’. One boy mentioned ‘roos and rabbits’ and he added that he once brought down a ‘fish hawk’ with a 22 rifle, saying that it had been a lucky shot. I asked him to describe the bird and I knew at once that he was referring to none other than an osprey.

I asked him why he wanted to kill it. He just shrugged and replied in a casual manner, "somethin' to shoot". None of the others seemed at all bothered by this statement.

Attitudes have changed considerably since that time, and with better protections and the provision of a number of man-made metal ‘baskets’ set up on high poles up and down the north coast, the number of breeding birds have increased and nesting success is now quite high, in contrast with the low reproductive success rate in the Sydney area.

Two osprey (Pandion haliaetus) in a nest at Green Point, NSW - May 2015.
Two osprey (Pandion haliaetus) in a nest at Green Point, NSW © Chris Farrell Nature Photography / WWF-Aus

After all these years of searching for ospreys, David continues to be delighted by his rare encounters with these large coastal birds.

David’s story is a very special one - not many can say they have been a part of WWF from the very start. Read his full account here: In at the Start: A lifetime of support. David hopes that by sharing his experiences in nature he can inspire others to protect what’s left.

Together with you, our plan to Regenerate Australia will rehabilitate and restore wildlife and their habitats, while future-proofing Australia for years to come. You can have a profound impact on this work and ensure your values of protecting wildlife live on by leaving a legacy.

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