Osprey soaring
Osprey soaring

Osprey, the winter visitor

In many of the coastal lagoons and estuaries, often disguised amongst flocks of gulls, is a winter migrant.

Although occasionally spotted during the warmer months, the osprey (or western osprey to give the full name) is a winter migrant to the warmer Algarve winter. This amazing raptor can be found on every continent except Antarctica.

The osprey is quite large, occasionally more than 60cm, with an impressive wingspan of up to 180cm. However, its long wings are angled in flight, giving an impression of a large gull, so it is often unnoticed.

Osprey starting a dive for a fish
Osprey starting a dive for a fish

The colouring is a good way to differentiate from a large gull. With dark brown and contrasting underparts, the fingers of the wings are dark brown. The white head with brown “mask” easily gives them away. Although both sexes are similar, the male is usually slimmer. The call is a simple “cheep cheep” strong whistle sound.

The Portuguese name is águia-pesqueira, or fishing eagle, which describes its primary diet. The osprey is an incredible fish hunter. Soaring high up to 40m in the sky, it can spot a fish in the water with incredible eyesight and, following a short hover, it dives at an incredible pace, feet first, plucking the fish out of the water to be carried away to a perch to eat.

Osprey soaring
Osprey soaring

The feet of an osprey are adapted for catching fish, the outer toes are reversible, which enables them to pluck fish from the water with two toes in front and two behind. The talons have backward-facing scales to help grip the slippery skin of a fish.

Although the osprey doesn’t enter the water, to help with the large splash a catch produces, it is able to close its nostrils and the plumage is oily to help keep the feathers dry to immediately fly away with its catch. Ninety-nine percent of its diet is fish, but an osprey can also prey on small mammals, reptiles and occasionally other birds.

Osprey with a catch
Osprey with a catch

Although a frequent visitor during the winter months to the Algarve coast, the numbers are not great, so patience is required to view them. Crossing over the Ponte Nova do Arade, on the N125 at Portimão, I often see osprey, particularly during a change of the tide. Other areas to witness them are at the wetlands of Salgados, Quinta do Lago and Ludo, and the Alvor estuary.

A short hover before diving
A short hover before diving

So this winter, next time you are in a coastal area of wetlands or estuary, keep a look amongst the gulls as you may spot this incredible fish-catching bird of prey.

By Craig Rogers
|| features@algarveresident.com

Craig Rogers is a wildlife and nature photographer from Wales now living in the Algarve, offering photography workshops. For more information, photographs and his blog visit www.craigrogers.photography