Keen-eyed, fast-diving, and deploying what Peter Dunne (in the classic Hawks in Flight) described as “a four-cornered net of talons,” that cosmopolitan bird of prey known as the osprey is many a fish’s worst nightmare. As much as 99% of this lanky raptor’s diet is of the piscine variety – hence nicknames such as “fishhawk” – and given its fondness for lakeshores and seacoasts, beachgoers and boaters often enjoy front-row seats to osprey fishing exploits.

And you can never be sure what you might see this handsome bird haul out of the water column after it executes its pinpoint talons-first plunge. A case in point is this clip we recently stumbled across:

The osprey itself looks a little perplexed at what it’s clutching, which looks rather like a runty sea serpent. The raptor’s apparent surprise, though – those repeated glances at the writhing, snakelike catch – may be better understood simply as careful airborne prey management. Indeed, the osprey’s quarry appears to be a not-unheard-of menu item: likely an Atlantic cutlassfish or largehead hairtail, sometimes colloquially called a “ribbonfish” (though belonging to a different family than the true ribbonfishes, Trachipteridae) and periodically photographed in the midst of such unasked-for air transport.

One dietary study on ospreys in Chesapeake Bay identified cutlassfish among the birds’ seafood cuisine, although such species as menhaden, white perch, and Atlantic croaker were much more heavily consumed. The largehead hairtail commonly inhabits shallow nearshore waters, which would put it on the osprey’s radar: These “fishhawks” can only effectively dive a few feet after fish, so they mainly target either shallow-dwelling or surface-shadowing varieties.

Most of those snatched fish are well under a pound, though ospreys sometimes try for bigger prizes. While the birds tend to boast a pretty respectable success rate in the angling department, heftier fish are definitely sometimes too much to handle:

Even when ospreys can successfully hoist their prey from the water, they’re vulnerable to kleptoparasitism from such bullying pirates as bald eagles, frigatebirds, and even great blue herons.

Spotting an osprey toting such a striking-looking trophy as a cutlassfish is a coup. And some shutterbugs have even managed to capture multiple rungs of a food chain in a single shot when photographing successful ospreys: such as one that ended up with a small shark, which in turn clutched a fish in its jaws, and another which, in similar fashion, had plucked from the water a catfish with its own prey half-swallowed. Karmically bad luck from the shark’s or catfish’s perspective, but for the osprey a prime example of a good old-fashioned “twofer” deal.