OVER the next week or so ospreys will be winging their way into Scotland after a long migration from their wintering grounds in West Africa, with the birds liable to turn up pretty much anywhere as they soar across the country on this final leg to their nesting sites.
It is one of the most exhilarating sights of a Scottish spring and their annual return is a poignant reminder of a truly remarkable conservation success story.
Some time ago, I became well acquainted with several pairs of ospreys that nested in a particular part of Perthshire and I could pretty much guarantee that my first sighting of the year would be in the last few days of March. It was always a heartwarming moment, watching the characteristic floppy white-winged flight of these first arrivals, occasionally battling into the teeth of a gale across the steely-grey waters of an upland loch.
Following the appearance of this advance guard, other ospreys would gradually filter into the area and begin the process of renewing their acquaintance with their mates from previous seasons, or size each other up for the first time if they were young birds, filling the air with their distinctive high-pitched staccato chattering.
It was always hard to imagine, when watching these birds wheeling in the sky and carrying sticks to rebuild their storm-damaged eyries, that it was not so long ago that the osprey was only an occasional visitor to our shores. Once tolerably common in the Highlands, relentless persecution by Victorian egg collectors and specimen hunters pushed the osprey into virtual extinction as a breeding bird in Scotland by the early 20th century. These collectors went about their business with ruthless efficiency, often at the behest of armchair collectors south of the Border. Take Lewis Dunbar, for example, who from 1848 until 1852 robbed one Speyside nest five times in succession, swimming naked each time across a freezing loch to reach the eyrie.
Although it is likely that one or two pairs still managed to breed in some years after the First World War, the first meaningful recolonisation didn’t begin until 1954 with the discovery of a breeding pair at Loch Garten near Aviemore, which were soon catapulted right into the forefront of media awareness in the years that followed after their nest was targeted by egg collectors. For conservationists, the osprey was turning into something of a cause celebre – a battle they were determined to win.
And win they did. Slowly but surely, and thanks in large part to the round-the-clock guarding of nests by dedicated enthusiasts, breeding success increased and today there are more than 200 nesting pairs, not just in their former Highland strongholds but also in several parts of southern and central Scotland. In recent decades, the construction of artificial nest platforms in safe locations has been used as a successful ploy to attract breeding ospreys to new areas of Scotland, and has proved particularly useful in attracting young first-time breeders.
Although ospreys often build their nests next to water, this is not exclusively the case, with the overall strategic location being the most important consideration as the birds wander far and wide in their search for fish, often having a preferred route where they check out a series of lochs in a fairly predictable sequence. In some parts of Scotland, it is possible to see ospreys fishing in shallow estuaries for flounders, sea trout and grey mullet. The most frequent prey items, however, are brown trout and small pike that are caught in the talons after a spectacular water-thumping dive from which the bird pulls away in a glittering shower of water droplets. One can only wonder at the intensity of the eyesight that is able to discern the shape of a camouflaged fish underwater, and the skill and co-ordination then required to seize one.
The one to three young are fledged by late July and from then until the middle of September it is often possible to see several ospreys in the air together. I saw this last year when fishing on Butterstone Loch near Dunkeld, presenting the tricky dilemma of whether to concentrate on casting the fly, or simply give up and enjoy the wonderful soaring ospreys. Needless to say, the ospreys won.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
Temperature: 2 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 21 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 5 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West