Being a person who spends a lot of time outdoors in the woods and fields of the Fox River valley and on the waters of the Fox River itself, I have been privileged to see a lot of amazing wildlife throughout the course of my life. Some of the most thrilling wildlife experiences I have had over the years have involved the subject of this month’s article: the Illinois state-threatened Osprey (Pandion haliaetus).
While any sighting of an Osprey constitutes a red-letter day, seeing one catch a fish at close range is a thrill that few people get to witness in person, especially in northern Illinois. I’ve been lucky to see this spectacle twice in my life. Both of these close encounters occurred on the lower Fox River in Kendall County while I was fishing from my boat. The first time came as a complete surprise to me as I hadn’t spotted the bird prior to it hitting the water only about thirty feet from my boat: I was young and foolishly less observant back then.
A Wonderful Surprise
While I was single-mindedly casting my lure in search of muskies, a huge splash behind me redirected my attention to the activity on the opposite side of the boat. As I looked over at the commotion, all I saw was a flurry of grey, black, brown, and white feathers thrashing the otherwise calm waters of the river to a froth. I had no sooner thought “What is that crazy Canada goose doing?” when a powerful pair of wings began to beat, pulling the magnificent bird out of the water with a large golden redhorse secured in its huge talons! I was dumbstruck by the site of a full-grown adult Osprey pulling itself out of the water and slowly gaining altitude with a fish that weighed at least a couple of pounds, taking it either to a distant perch to feed on it herself or taking it back to her nest to feed her offspring. Until witnessing that sight, I had always thought that Osprey gracefully flew over the surface of the water and plucked their prey cleanly and effortlessly out of the surface film before flying gracefully away without getting too wet. I was wrong! The Osprey’s entry into the water had obviously occurred from a fairly great height and a steep angle as her momentum took her completely under the surface with her talons leading the way to capture her quarry. It was a sight that literally left me shaking from the adrenaline rush of seeing something so rare and spectacular on one of my frequent fishing trips to the Fox River in a spot so close to home!
On the Comeback Trail
I had very occasionally seen Ospreys flying overhead while fishing on the river and always had admired their size and beauty. This encounter led me to investigate more about the bird’s life history. I found that for a time, the Osprey was on the endangered species list in the State of Illinois. More recently though, conservation efforts improving habitat and reducing pesticides and other threats to these birds have led to their reclassification in 2020 from state endangered status to state threatened. While they’re not out of the proverbial woods around here yet, they are definitely making a comeback!
Interesting Osprey Tidbits
Osprey are large, relatively slender raptors in the Pandionidae family (Pandion haliaetus) that can have a wingspan of five feet and a body length of over two feet. They are migratory hawks that can log over 150,000 miles in their up to 25-year lifespan flying from their northern North American breeding grounds in the spring and returning to Central and South America in the fall. They are fish-eating hawks that are well-adapted to catch their slippery prey by having a reversible outer toe that allows them to grasp a fish with two forward and two rearward facing toes. They also are unique among hawks by having barbs on the soles of their feet that assist in grasping the fish they catch. Osprey do breed in our area in large nests that can be found in trees and on manmade structures like telephone and utility poles and nesting platforms, specifically constructed for Osprey nesting sites. The nests consist of branches and sticks and are very large structures. Years ago, I observed a nesting pair of Osprey in a large tree on an island in the Fox River not far from the site of the new Eldamain Road bridge in Kendall County.
Whether you’re out hiking one of the trails along the river or fishing its bountiful waters, be aware of what’s going on in nature around you. Observing the skies over the river can yield some spectacularly rewarding sights. Bald Eagles continue to make a comeback in the Fox Valley as do Ospreys. Spotting either of these magnificent raptors is a real thrill and seeing one actually catch a fish can make for a lifelong memory.
Until next time, keep on enjoying the natural wonders of our beautiful Fox River!