White pelicans, those gorgeous soaring birds of our inland lakes, are dabblers. They usually travel in pods of 10 to 20, watching their favorite fishing holes for the opportunity to gobble up a meal in a hurry. What's that old rhyme? "The pelican is a remarkable bird, its bill can hold more than its belly can."
If you go to Crane Prairie Reservoir, Summer Lake, and the Klamath lakes before summer is out, you can watch white pelicans in action. They find a school of fish feeding near the surface and slowly surround them, herding them into shallow water where they are more or less trapped.
One of the pelicans gives the signal and suddenly they rear back their huge bills and begin jabbing at the water with gaping mouths. The enormous sack beneath their long bill fills with fish and water, and as they raise their heads, they expel the water and swallow the fish. This cooperative effort works slicker than frog hair, and in a few moments the pelicans bills are no longer holding what their belly can.
Down on the coast, you can watch brown pelicans doing their thing, but they dive straight into the sea after schools of fish, wings folded back and bills wide open as they hit the water.
Diving for fish is a popular fishing style for most birds. Kingfishers, those flashy, blue and white, pointy-headed birds found in fresh and salt water habitat, usually shout their heads off as they plummet straight down, diving deep below the surface. "Hey! Watch this!" or, "Get out of my way!" they seem to cackle, as they patrol their territory.
Cormorants, another fisher bird - the double-crested variety found plying fresh water and pelagic in salt water - are also cooperative predators and dive straight in when in pursuit of fish. Contrary to popular opinion, cormorants found plundering our high lakes cannot live on trout alone. In fact, they actually prefer "rough fish," such as pestiferous chubs.
Some birds actually "fly" underwater after fish and small invertebrates, such as water ouzles, or "dippers" as they are also known, that are found in the rivers and cold streams of the Northwest. Metolius Fly fishers know the ouzles' fishing style. But it's the osprey, that beautiful, hawk-like raptor of our high lakes and rivers that do it with style.
Osprey are found in Europe and the New World, and there are two definite populations. One group migrates north and south seasonally, while others are sedentary. Here in Oregon we see the migratory bunch. The osprey I banded at Crane Prairie Osprey Management Area traveled to Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama and other locations throughout Central America, and one went as far as Volcan, Costa Rica.
Osprey living in Mexico and Florida are residents, they live there year-round, just as osprey do in the Riviera and the Mediterranean in Europe. But osprey nesting in England and Scotland in summer spend their winters in Africa.
No matter where you find them, though, an osprey after a fish (and that's all they normally eat) is a work of art to watch.
Most fishermen and women who ply the waters of the high lakes can tell you that it's mama osprey who, with a lot of screeching, sends dad out after fish to feed the youngsters. Once in the air on long, graceful wings - that allow them to soar over open water - an osprey is in its hunting element. With built-in polarizing filters, they can see beneath the surface and spot a fish quickly. It's more difficult if there's a chop on the surface, but even then, they're good at it.
Once a fish is spotted, the osprey will usually hover over the target to establish the range and best angle for a dive. There's a lot of energy and time expenditure going on, and in Nature it's not smart to waste either if you're going to survive.
With one last adjustment over its intended target, the osprey folds up its wings and plummets. It appears it is going in head-first, but just before it hits the surface, the osprey swings its long legs under its body, and with those large feet open and needle-sharp talons out front, hits the water with wings held straight back.
As the osprey plunges beneath the surface about two feet, the feet slam into the fish and close. The rough surface on the under part of the osprey's feet prevents the fish from slipping through the powerful grasp, while sharp talons usually penetrate the fish's vital organs.
Osprey can't float like a pelican or gull; they have to get out of the water as quickly as possible or they'll go under with their fish. As the bird pops up, the long wings are brought down on the surface of the water and push the osprey back into the air. Once airborne, the fish is shifted in the osprey's feet head-first, so it is aerodynamic, the bird shakes excess water from its feathers and heads back home to feed to kids.
(Once in a while, however, an osprey's appetite is bigger than what's good for them. There are several huge Atlantic salmon in Hosmer Lake that have scars on their backs caused by osprey that tried to lift them out of the water, but due to the fish's bulk, couldn't get the job done. In fact, I had a fisherman tell me he watched a big Atlantic salmon drag an osprey under the surface and drown at Hosmer Lake.
While all this is going on, there is usually a bald eagle waiting for the opportunity to get into the act. Once the osprey is on its way home with its prey, the eagle takes chase. What a sight that is! Osprey and eagle do an aerial dance that has been going on for eons, one that almost always ends in one way: the osprey drops the fish and the eagle either catches it in mid-air, or scoops it off the water, and we're back to where we started this story.