Disclaimer: May not be suitable for all audiences.
I certainly didn’t expect to witness what I did when I visited Sandy Point Beach Park in Stockton Springs yesterday. I was in town to interview someone for an upcoming BDN Outdoors story, and after the interview, I decided to visit the beach on a whim. The rainclouds from that morning had cleared, so it seemed a good opportunity to find and photograph some local wildlife.
I chose to visit Sandy Point Beach Park, a preserve at the mouth of the Penobscot River, because a fellow birder recently told me that an osprey pair had returned to the beach to nest on old dock pilings just off shore. I had seen ospreys nest in the location before, so I wasn’t surprised.
Recent rains and high tides had flooded the river and washed the old nest away, so when I arrived, the two osprey were busy rebuilding the nest. The female remained in or near the nest while the male flew into the woods and returned with sticks and hay. I don’t know how to tell a male and female osprey apart, so I didn’t know which was which at first, but I soon found out.
The only person on the beach, I sat on a cement block (the remains of some structure) at the edge of the grass, keeping my distance from the nest, and watched the birds through my 400mm camera lens at full zoom. The male swooped in with a clump of hay and landed beside the female in the nest. After a few moments, she rose from the nest and flew to a nearby piling, then he followed and landed on her back!
Having seen photos of bald eagles mating, I knew right away that I was witnessing an attempt at copulation. I was surprised, and I was also happy to know that I was observing from far enough away that they felt comfortable to act naturally. While observing or photographing wildlife, it’s important to not disturb the natural behavior of wildlife, especially during nesting season.
The male curled up its feet and gently rested on the females back, being careful to not dig her with his impressive talons. While I knew what I was watching, I didn’t know HOW it actually worked. After a few moments of the balancing act, he flew back to the nest and she remained perched on the piling and preened her feathers. Before long, he flew off to collect more nest materials or hunt for fish, and she perched in a nearby tree.
On the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, I learned that males often fetch the nest material while the female usually arranges it. This behavior is a part of courtship. The male will also bring the female food.
In breeding season, males will perform an aerial dance, often clasping a fish or nesting material in his talons and flying near the nest site. He also utters calls during this dance, which I recall hearing while sitting on the beach.
Ospreys are long-lived, some surviving to be 20 years old, and they’re generally faithful to their nesting site, which means that the osprey pair that I have seen at the Stockton Springs beach in years past is likely the same pair I saw yesterday.
As for how it all works, according to several online sources such as livescience.com and NationalGeographic.com, both female and male ospreys (and other birds) have what’s called “cloaca,” an internal chamber that ends in an opening, and through this opening is a bird’s sex organs. The cloaca is under the tail. Basically, during mating season, they rub their cloacas together. The male’s sperm, which has been stored in his cloaca, is deposited into the female’s cloaca, where it travels up the chamber and eventually fertilizes an egg.
For this to happen, the male bird perches on top of the female. She moves her tail feathers to the side and he moves his tail down.. you get the idea.
Since this is literally a balancing act, it often takes several times before the birds conduct a successful copulation. I inspected my photos of the osprey, and I’m not sure they were successful during that particular try. The female didn’t really seem to move her tail to the side. Their tales seemed to clash, like two people bumping noses when they tilt their heads to the same side for a kiss.
Apparently, younger, less experienced ospreys have a lower copulation success rate than older, more experienced osprey pairs. It makes sense. Also, sometimes the female will shut the male down by not cooperating and moving her tail to the side. (I like to think that if he didn’t bring her enough fish, she would do that.)
To view the photos and story I posted about the three osprey chicks I saw in the nest at Sandy Point Beach Park last year, click here!