It should come as no surprise that watching and learning from wildlife is my favorite hobby. There truly is no experience comparable to being outdoors as the sun rises and witnessing the flora and fauna awaken.


If there was to be an upgrade to this experience, however, it might just be when one is fortunate enough to observe the same specific animal(s) on a recurring basis over an extended period of time. Instead of being in the presence of an animal just once for a fleeting encounter, the privilege of observing the animal multiple times, learning its patterns, tendencies, etc., is even more special. 


In so many ways, animals are just like humans. Yes, members of the same species largely act and behave the same, but individuals have unique characteristics and qualities that differentiate them from their initially seemingly identical fellow members of that species. 


The ability to observe the same animal(s) over an extended period of time is, unfortunately, quite rare—at least outside the confines of one’s backyard. Yes, I see the same cardinals, green anoles, and even an osprey at my home regularly, but it just isn’t the same as truly being in the wild, separated from civilization. 


Over the last couple of years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have just such an opportunity with a male and female osprey. 


I live in a beach town in the Florida Panhandle, and unfortunately there aren’t many areas of raw nature left. However, not too far from my home is a largely undisturbed stretch of sandy dunes along the Gulf of Mexico. This stretch of land is home to quite a few osprey nests—I’m aware of seven that can be seen from the road without even leaving my vehicle, and I’m confident there are many more among the salt covered pines not visible or accessible to the public. 


One of these nests is perfectly positioned atop an “ancient” utility pole, even though it is unfortunately quite close to the busy highway. I say it is perfectly positioned as it is relatively easy to achieve a great vantage point with the sun at my back for sunrise shooting, and the wind typically comes from the east, meaning take-offs and landings to and from the nest will be facing the sun and myself. I couldn’t place it any better!



In 2022, I was able to observe a male and female begin courtship in the immediate vicinity of this old nest (I do not know if they used the nest prior to 2022, or if it was occupied by a different osprey pair). Starting in February, I watched their courtship, mating, and nest building, eventually culminating in the hatching of three chicks in late May while I was in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). By the time I was able to visit the nest upon my return, the three chicks were already approximately two weeks old.


I watched them grow until they fledged in mid-July, at which point their gradual scattering about the area made it too difficult to follow and identify them among the island’s multiple other young and growing juveniles. 



In August, while driving by the nest site, I saw that the utility pole was completely barren and no remnants of the nest remained. While it is certainly possible a storm claimed the deteriorating nest as its victim, it is very rare for all vestiges of a nest to completely fall during the off season. I do not know if it was a natural occurrence, or if humans were involved.


I was already hoping in 2022 that the ospreys would return in 2023 for nesting season and reuse the nest, but this certainly added some uncertainty to the situation. Building a nest from scratch is a lot of work, which is why so many birds gladly occupy and reuse a nest (regardless who built it). Owls are notorious for claiming old osprey nests. Not to create a lot of manufactured drama like seemingly all nature documentaries do a great job of, but this time of year can be tough on birds. Migrating, molting, mating, competing with other birds for resources, create great demands in an area with limited natural resources thanks to overdevelopment. An inability to nest or at least nest “easily” could force ospreys to move along and search elsewhere for a new breeding ground. 


Fast forward to the spring of 2023, and more ospreys started appearing in the area. Here in the panhandle we have ospreys year-round, but we also have quite a few that migrate here for breeding season. I have no way of knowing if this particular osprey pair is migratory or not, but, fortunately, I started seeing ospreys hanging around the same utility pole that housed last year’s nest, and eventually I saw ospreys building a nest on that exact pole.


I knew at this point that the odds of this being the same pair from last year were very high, but I needed confirmation. 


For me, the easiest way to identify ospreys is by their eyes. While not all ospreys have them, many have dark spots on their iris, or “iris dots.” The bright yellow color of their eyes make them easy to see.


I have quite a few (understatement) shots of last year’s adults and chicks taken with my 600mm as well as with a 2x teleconverter for a total of 1200mm reach, so it didn’t take long for me to find clear shots of the adult’s eyes to compare to the 2023 adults. 


Referring to the left eyes of both the male and female… The female has an iris dot at approximately the 4:00 position, and the male has a dot at the 6:00 position. Here are some photos of each from 2022 (male followed by female):



And here is a shot from 2023, with the male departing the nest after dropping off breakfast for the family (followed by crops of the male and female):





Needless to say, I was very excited once I confirmed that the female and the male are the same adults as the pair that nested in this exact spot last year.


Watching them for the second year in a row has been a blast. As I mentioned, most all animals have their own unique quirks, and these two ospreys are no different. 


The male has always been the earliest hunter on the island; I’ve seen him hunting and already eating a fresh catch before sunrise on many occasions. In my experiences, most ospreys wait until light begins hitting the water to hunt, but not him. In 2023, he is hanging out on the same beam on the same nearby utility pole that he favored in 2022. 


The female is quite aggressive, perhaps more so than many other females I’ve been able to observe closely. This should be no surprise, however, as she is proving herself quite worthy of successfully raising multiple chicks each year. Here's a photo of her chasing off a much larger bald eagle in 2022:


Just like 2022, this pair has three chicks again in 2023, and they are seemingly very healthy and probably four or more weeks old at time of writing this entry. 


While enjoying photographing this growing family, I’m trying not to be greedy by thinking ahead to 2024, wondering if this pair will be present and make it three chicks for the third year in a row…

June 11, 2023 — Zach Jones
Tags: osprey