One of the most beautiful sights a birdwatcher looks forward to is an Osprey hunting for fish, its exclusive diet, over the serene surface of a lake. As the boat meanders through the backwaters in Kabini, you can’t help but scan every bare tree stump jutting out of water, in the hope of spotting this unique bird of prey.

Osprey

Osprey – Photograph: Gowri Subramanya

 

It is, indeed, one of a kind, taxonomically filed under the family Pandionidae and genus Pandion as the only extant species. When Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, described it first, he called it Falco haliaetus, but in 1809, Marie Jules Cesar Savigny, a French ornithologist noted its unique features and assigned it its own family: Pandion, after the ancient Athenian king whose son Nisos turned into a sea hawk (haliaetus as the ancient Greeks called it) after his death. 

With a hawk-like face and the wings of an eagle, a reversible outer toe like that of an owl, glossy chocolate plumage, a pirate’s eye mask that belies the eyesight that can piere through ripples of disturbed water, this master of the lakes and seas has the best features of all raptors. Consider it high praise when your worst enemy compares you to an Osprey, which is what Aufidius, arch enemy of Coriolanus did, grudgingly.

 

All places yield to him ere he sits down;…

I think he’ll be to Rome

As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it

By sovereignty of nature.

Act 4, Scene 7, The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Shakespeare 

 

The Osprey is a ubiquitous bird and finds itself in every part of the world near freshwater and marine habitats. So for centuries, humans across the world have observed the Osprey fly close to water, swoop down, its face hitting the water with a splash, grab a fish flailing helplessly and flap its heavy wings to a perch, showering the path with droplets of water.

 

Osprey

Osprey – Photograph: Gowri Subramanya

 

And for centuries, humans have wondered at the precision and elegance of this act over and over, some attributing magical powers to the bird, and others blaming it on the victim’s lack of spunk, like Aufidius, who claims that the fish simply surrender to the Osprey’s will and give up without a fight.

Only recently, science lay bare, in its quintessential style of dry logic, the secret of the anatomical features that make an Osprey so successful. The sharp vision helps to locate the prey; the nostril shuts off as the bird braces for impact with the water surface, protecting the bird’s breathing passage. Its long talons help to grab its victim no matter how big, its rounded claws holding enough space between them as the reversed toes with barbed pads grab on the slippery fish in an iron grip. But the human mind continues to wonder about the grace and beauty of this spectacle that is beyond the articulation of logic.  And that’s how we continue the longstanding tradition of birdwatching — in pursuit of the aesthetic in winged masters of the skies and the seas.