A summer spent with the Osprey.
When I first made the move up to Scotland to get involved in the conservation sector, I was naïve to the way in which the Osprey would fill me with interest, caring and hope. I was delighted to be in the position to live on site with a resident breeding pair, and was keen to get to know the birds I would be sharing a home with for the summer months. I hadn’t pondered on being a raptor enthusiast before, but touching on their ecology during my University studies, my encounters of working with birds of prey in captivity and chance sightings of wild birds had left me wanting more.
I went into this world blind- I had no idea of the scale of the conservation of raptors ‘up North’, nor the persecution they faced in certain parts of the UK. I was introduced to 24 hour nest watches in the Peak District, where a resident breeding pair of Peregrine falcons had settled yearly under the watchful eye of many enthusiasts and conservationists alike. The birds had gathered such a huge following over the years that trying to keep their whereabouts quiet would be futile. Instead, ‘shouting’ about their presence, so to speak, and openly celebrating the enormity of support these birds were given round the clock served to deter those with ulterior motives. I had been under the impression that wildlife crime at the level of egg theft was something of the past. I was surprised at the amount of effort going in to the protection of just one clutch, and at first, I’ll admit, I thought that directing conservation time and effort this way was dubious. However, on hearing stories of raptor nests being disturbed even to the present day, I was convinced of the importance of nest guarding when the chicks fledged successfully, and reflecting on the value of this to the greater population made it all seem worthwhile.
When I made it to Scotland, I quickly became aware of the level of human involvement in conserving raptors, with artificial nesting platforms commonplace due to intense forest management depleting valuable eyrie sites, numerous 24/7 nest patrols both public and secret to protect against egg theft and the strength of campaigning bodies against illegal persecution. I assumed there was a certain level of obligation involved in nest watches on nature reserves, where raptors have been encouraged on site for the enjoyment of wildlife loving visitors, but it is the level of passion for these birds that is clearly the driving force behind such protective measures. And it is easy to see reason behind the passion for the Osprey, a conservation success story followed by a phenomenal number of nest guarding, webcam watching, reserve visiting enthusiasts.
The Osprey, the “fish eagle”, is a diving and fishing specialist adapted for life over water bodies, journeying from breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere to equatorial overwintering sites. They are breeding here in Scotland after making a comeback 61 years ago from extinction in the late 19th century, and numbers have steadily increased thanks to being given the highest legal protection and improving environmental quality. On reading about the species, I was fascinated by its adaptations, with impressive talons, sharp eyesight and ability to carry almost their own weight in fish (a feat for a large, heavily muscled bird!). But it wasn’t until I was able to watch one myself, on my first evening enjoying the view from the hide, that I was taken with their domineering presence over the loch.
And their presence is tangible, whether it be gliding effortlessly over water, diving at such a speed (up to 80mph!) when fishing up to 3 feet below water, or performing violent acrobatics when defending their territory. Getting to know the resident pair on site and hearing stories from the past years, it was easy to acknowledge the birds as true individuals with their own characters (without sounding too anthropomorphic!). Their quirks and habits of fishing, the pair bonding rituals and eventually the squabbles between the three chicks as they grew gave me great insight into animal behaviour in a way that my lectures on sexual selection and sibling rivalry couldn’t touch. It was going to be a very educational three months.
Whilst having Ospreys on site was something to be celebrated in itself, the arrival and fledging of three healthy chicks was the highlight of the season. The webcam setup on the nest was providing a means of 24/7 surveillance and also a priceless close-up encounter of watching the family grow, with comical moments (like live fish flapping and knocking about the chicks on the nest in a bid to escape their fate!) making their progress even more watchable. The enjoyment of this viewing pleasure was best shared with visitors and followers from all over the world, and that following was truly inspiring. People who made it their mission to track the progress of all Scottish Osprey chicks of the season, to report any worries to the ranger team after seeing a rough quarrel between the chicks or the parents having a tough time warding off intruding buzzards, who travelled the length of the country to tour the Osprey sites of the highlands. I take my hat off to those who have such drive and passion for safeguarding this species, even when they can’t make it their life’s work.
The lead up to fledging was as tense as it was exciting, and being able to report a happy ending gave us all a shared relief that built up into a great feeling of pride and achievement. There was a heavy sense of protectiveness when the family, led by the female one by one, left for their migration, and the anticipation of receiving data from the chicks fitted with SAT-tags to map their route was gripping in the first week. The relief returned when the chicks made it to West Africa, hopeful that because they’d made it there they would be able to thrive on the plentiful fish to see them through their first winter. But at the end of the day, these were wild animals, and while they weren’t anyone’s to own, they had me hooked with just a season’s snapshot of their hopefully long lifespan.
Conservation work can be a bit doom and gloom in the present day, jaded by a ‘glass half empty’ attitude. Like many news stories, the bad often seems to override the good. But it has been the Osprey that has fuelled my eagerness to contribute to ecosystem-level conservation, on which Scotland is spot on, as this bird is showing us a resilient and responsive comeback due to the attention we are paying its habitat and worthy cause.
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