Reading my Facebook newsfeed on a lazy Saturday morning, my jaw dropped at seeing this fantastic photo posted by the Facebook Page of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge.
We see here an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) beating its powerful wings and carrying off a sizable fish in its hook-like talons. Ospreys are birds of prey that specialize in feeding on fish, circling high over inshore waters until they spot a target — at which point they hover in mid-air to steady their position — and then suddenly dive-bomb towards the water surface, plunging in talons-first to strike and grab the target fish. It’s quite the sight to see.
In the clutches of this osprey is a large, beautiful spotted seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosus). For some size perspective, ospreys measure almost 2 feet (60 cm) from beak to tail but top out only around 4 pounds (1.8 kg). This spotted seatrout is nearly the same length and possibly twice that weight. [Note: as a reader pointed out in the comments, the trout is probably not as large as I originally guessed. Let’s say, 4 pounds?]
This moment in time was captured by nature photographer Al Hoffacker of Fort Meyers, Florida. Mr. Hoffacker generously allowed me to reshare his photo on Better Know a Fish, and I asked him to share the story behind this action shot:
Was in my flats skiff idling out my channel to sight fish Snook and Redfish, when the bird appeared off in the distance. Noticed it was carryin’ a very large Spotted seatrout. I immediately grabbed the camera and took the shot and watched as the bird began a landing on a perch in a Red Mangrove tree. Just before landing, the fish fell out of the birds talons and into the Mangrove understory.
The bird studied the wounded prey for a minute or so, as it couldn’t get to it again because of the thick vegetation. The bird then went back to feeding on the adjacent grass flat. Went over to the area where the fish had fallen, and saw no trace of it. It was a really cool way to start off a beautiful morning. By the way, we had a banner day of sight fishing for Snook, Redfish, and baby Tarpon.
In his website biography, Hoffacker professes that since he was “blessed to be on the water and in the woods almost every day, why not capture and share the beauty with others what ‘The Big Guy’ created for all of us to enjoy and conserve.”
Hoffacker says that he enjoys sharing his photos with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other folks who appreciate the wildlife moments in life, and that he puts his photography earnings into better camera equipment and to help his daughter though college.
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The spotted seatrout is now the third member of the drum family that has been featured on this blog. I seem to have an accidental fondness for drum.
But once again, it is fascinating to note the diversity of shapes and forms that the Sciaenidae body plan can evolve into. The white seabass (Atractoscion nobilis) is a very large predator that schools in the cold, kelp forests of California, whereas the spotted drum (Equetus punctatus) is small, bottom-dwelling forager in the warm coral reefs of the Caribbean.
In contrast, the spotted seatrout is more of a shallow-water predator, hunting fish prey in seagrass beds and oyster beds in estuaries and coastal waters of the eastern United States and Gulf of Mexico. Spotted seatrout have a pair of sharp, dog-like canine teeth at the tip of their upper jaw — a feature recognized in their genus name, Cynoscion, where Cyno- comes from the Greek word for dog.
Also known as “speckled trout” or “speckled seatrout” or “spotted weakfish”, Cynoscion nebulosus isn’t just eagle food — it is also highly sought after by humans as a food fish and gamefish wherever it occurs.
Spotted seatrout is of such importance to the recreational fishing industry that many state government agencies in the U.S. study seatrout ecology, so as to understand how to manage seatrout numbers to sustain both wild populations and recreational fishing harvests.
Watch this video from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on spotted seatrout breeding ecology studies in Tampa Bay, Florida — in which we also find out how to tell if a spotted seatrout is male or female:
And watch this video by North Carolina State University researcher Tim Ellis on the vulnerability of spotted seatrout to extreme cold snaps during winter seasons — a phenomenon documented as far back as 1709. Ellis describes the tagging research used to study the movement of seatrout within estuaries and to investigate this vulnerability:
Cynoscion nebulosus (Cuvier, 1830)
Spotted Seatrout (click for names in other languages)
FishBase Page: http://www.fishbase.org/summary/405
My thanks again to Al Hoffacker for permission to share his photo.
– Ben Young Landis