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W. up to 72 inches
Talons sharp, with scutes for holding slippery prey.
Except for breeding in Australasia, this species breeds in the northern hemisphere and migrates south in winter.
Breeds from western Alaska and across much of non-Arctic Canada, and in the USA over much of the north-west as far as southern California. In the east breeds around the Great Lakes, on the east coast south to Florida and west along the Gulf Coast to Mississippi. Also breeds coastally in Mexico in Baja California, Sonora, Sinaloa and also on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula and in adjacent Belize. Elsewhere in the Caribbean breeds in the Bahamas and on Cuba.
Birds breeding in Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean are resident but further north this is a summer visitor which winters from Mexico, the West Indies and in South America south to central Chile in the west and Uruguay in the east. The Osprey does not breed in South America. A widepread and common winter visitor to Africa from the Palearctic, most numerous in West Africa but also occurs east to Somalia and south to the Cape. Breeding range in Africa is restricted the Mediterranean coast of Morocco and western Algeria and the Red Sea and has bred on rare occasions in southern Africa. However, it does breed on the Canary Islands and Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic. A widespread summer visitor to much of Scandinavia and Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Smaller isolated pockets of range in Scotland, Germany, Poland and the Baltic States. There are also small resident populations further south on the Atlantic coast of southern Portugal, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, the Balearics and on Corsica. Increasing in Scotland since its recolonisation in the 1950s and now breeding in the south, and the first breeding in England for centuries has taken place. One pair bred in Cumbria in 2001 and a reintroduction scheme using birds translocated from Scotland led to successful breeding at Rutland Water. Also in 2002 nest-building occurred for the first time in the Netherlands.
Occurs as a widespread migrant throughout Europe with peak passage periods in April-May and August-September. Migrants do not concentrate at particular sites to cross seas as many other raptors do. Most winter in sub-Saharan Africa but some in the western Mediterranean, in particular on Sardinia, Sicily and North-West Africa, also at the head of the Red Sea and in southern Iraq. Vagrants recorded north to Ireland, Iceland and Faroes, also on the Azores and Madeira. A widespread breeder across northern Asia from the Urals east to Kamchatka, Sakhlain and Japan. Also breeds in the Middle East mainly on islands in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. Northern birds also winter in these areas and in India and South-East Asia from southern China, Taiwan, Hainan and the Philippines south to Sumatra and Borneo. Australasian breeders are resident and occur from Sulawesi and the Lesser Sundas to New Guinea, the Bismarck Archipelago, Solomon Islands and New Caledonia. In Australia breeds on much of the western and northern coasts and in the east on the coral islands of the Great Barrier Reef. Now rare on the south coast but still breeds in the Spencer Gulf and Adelaide areas.
Four to six subspecies are recognised. Nominate race breeds in the Palearctic, carolinensis with paler breast-band in North America, ridgwayi in the Caribbean with whiter head and breast; and the smaller cristatus (sometimes called leucocephalus ) from Indonesia and Australasia. Birds from the Philippines to northern Australia are sometimes separated as melvillensis and those from New Caledonia as microhaliaetus but these races are not universally recognised.
The main subspecies have in the past been seen as full species, and there are some DNA data that support that view. The most likely split will be between Australasian birds (cristatus including melvillensis and microhaliaetus) and the rest; names that have been used for the split species are Eastern and Western Osprey.
Closely tied to water at all seasons.
Among the characteristic behaviors, the one where it hovers over for example a clearwater lake and then splashes in so that the entire bird seems to disappear may be the most spectacular. Quite often, it will come up again carrying a fish, its main food.
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