Updated: Mar 22, 2020
Some of you may have heard me mention a place called Scotland and a bird called Osprey….
The osprey is a remarkable bird of prey which overwinters in west Africa and southern Europe and flies north as far as Scotland to nest and rear young between March and August. It is the only bird of prey which exists solely on fish and it was hunted to extinction in the UK by gamekeepers and egg-collectors by the early 1900s.
In the early 1950s a British WWII POW named George Waterston returned to Scotland after internment in a camp on Crete, where he had maintained his sanity by bird-watching. Despite his notebook being periodically taken in case it was an escape plan, he managed to make original observations of bird migration which were submitted to both German and British scientific journals. (Birds in a Cage by Derek Niemann tells the full story.)
After repatriation to the UK, Waterston continued research into nature and spotted returning ospreys at Loch Garten in the Cairngorms. The birds started to nest but the eggs were promptly stolen, one bird was killed and the nest was vandalised. Waterston enlisted the help of his army friends to guard the nest around the clock and decided that instead of hiding it they should tell the public about it. In that first season 14,000 people travelled to look up at the vast nest in the forest, miles from the nearest train station. This excitement generated by word of mouth and daily newspapers, before the days of everyone even having a television and forty years before the arrival of the internet, is credited with being the beginning of popular nature tourism, the birth of the RSPB and the idea of nature reserves. The Osprey Project is a wonderful success; Loch Garten is known as the ‘Osprey Village’ and there are now 400 pairs in the UK at last year’s count.
The original nest site is still in use and I have had the privilege of volunteering there at the Abernethy reserve for the last three summers, where I helped to monitor ‘EJ’ - the bird shown in the image below (photo credit The Times, 2019). She returned to Loch Garten each spring for 16 years and successfully hatched 25 young during her lifetime.
The whole story resonates with me always – obviously even more so today. Why am I telling you about this? Because you can now see these amazing birds for yourself and soothe your soul by bird-watching on your sofa. You don’t even have to go to Scotland, I am bringing Scotland and ospreys into your home via nest cams.
This is a live feed from a protected osprey nest – the footage is used for monitoring, protection, research and general adoration. What you are looking at is a 2 metre diameter nest of branches. Don’t be fooled by the perspective – it’s 2 metres across and 4-5 metres deep. And it’s very high, on the top of a scots pine tree. Look at the thin trees in the bottom right hand corner of the screen and you will see the ground, a long way down. Look at the top of the screen, left to right and you will see water – the Loch of the Lowes. In the centre of the nest is grass – the nest has not been used since the resident pair left last August and you can see highlights of their story from last year on the same link above.
Ospreys have been sighted in the south of England over the last two weeks and they have been tracked northwards – with growing excitement from osprey-watchers like me – being sighted in Scotland in the last two days. Any minute – ANY MINUTE!! – now we will see the arrival of the females who will come and weed out the grass, add some more branches and await the return of their mates. If you have this on continuously, like I do, you might just be watching at the magic moment when the owner of this nest arrives ‘home’ from her winter in Ghana or Portugal and folds her 1.8m wingspan away. She will defend the nest, then her eggs, then her young from snow, rain, hail, wind, sun, buzzards, golden eagles (2m wingspan) and white-tailed sea eagles (2.2m wingspan,) other ospreys who want to take over the nest and crows trying to pinch fish from the fledglings. She will be totally reliant on her mate to bring enough fish to feed her during the incubation of the eggs and then they will co-parent the young.
Whilst we await the female’s arrival, I invite you to watch this live-cam ‘ospreyless’. Just leave it on in the kitchen as you prepare food, have it on as you work in your home office. Turn the volume up and listen to the wind in the trees. Off-camera you can hear the cawing of the crows, the honking of the geese, the ‘pink!’ and descending warble of the chaffinches, the ‘chack!’ and drumming of the great spotted-woodpeckers.
On-camera – you might glimpse crested tits. Grey and white with a black crest on top of their heads – they are tiny and sound like they are laughing all the time and this is the only part of the UK in which you can find them. If you are extremely lucky, in the surrounding trees you will see red squirrels - the far daintier version of the grey interloper we see everywhere in London. This morning I have seen a coal tit on the nest, then three swans flew underneath - I was alerted to look at the screen when I heard them calling and just saw them fly over the water on the left of the nest. You might see crossbills - tiny grey or orange parrot-like birds – especially at sunset and at night you might see the elusive pine marten – they are specialised tree dwellers and egg thieves and will visit nests daily. Finally, there is a prize for anyone who can tell me what is sitting on the camera making a whistling noise which I can’t identify!
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The peregrines on Chichester Cathedral are already back, the kittiwakes on the Baltic building are paring up, the other cameras (pufflings, anyone?) will come online as the season progresses.
In these strange and unsettling times, a window on the world of these birds reminds me of the cyclical nature of life, permanence vs impermanence and the joy of small things.
Enjoy the view and be prepared to get addicted.
(Photo Credit The Times 2019)