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Up Close With Ospreys
The osprey nest towered above me, just visible through the sparsely clustered pine needles. It was a man-made nest with planks of wood supporting its structure, but the nest itself was made from moss-clothed branches and twigs.
The tree was about 15 metres tall and leaning downhill. This is the tree I was going to climb to reach the nest and watch the ringing of the two osprey chicks occupying it.
We were at Loch Arkaig, home to one of the last remnants of ancient Caledonian Pine forest.
The nest is being used by osprey pair Louis and Aila for the third year in a row. In 2017, they managed to raise a single male chick named Lachlan.
Last year Louis and Aila were not so lucky. One night in May a pine marten scared Aila off the nest and stole the three eggs she was incubating.
This was a blow, but just like raptors, pine martens have to eat and it should not be seen as a villain. It was taking advantage of an easy opportunity for a good meal.
This year Louis and Aila are bringing up two osprey chicks. Myself and raptor expert Lewis Pate were going to climb up the tree and ring the chicks, as well as take measurements to determine the sex of the birds.
Lewis rigged up the ropes and we used a foot pulley system to climb up the tree. When I reached the nest, it was incredible to catch my first glimpse of the birds. The two chicks seemed identical.
A delicate hooked beak lead onto a brown feathered head and back, flecked with cream and gold edges. They had large, scaly, yellow feet with large talons, shaped perfectly for gripping fish. The chicks have been colour ringed as ‘JJO’ and JJ2’, although suggestions for proper names are being sought.
Ospreys are primarily fish-eating raptors with an average weight of 1.5 kilograms and wingspan of 1.6 metres. Every year, they make the migration from Britain to West Africa for the winter and have been recorded flying just under 450 kilometres in one day.
Ospreys were considered extinct in England in 1840, but managed to cling on for a bit longer in remote locations. They continued breeding at Loch Arkaig until 1908 but became extinct in Scotland in 1916.
The main cause of the ospreys’ extinction was the ruthless persecution from egg and specimen collectors.
There are no reports of ospreys breeding in Scotland again until 1954, when a pair bred at Speyside. After 20 years the number of breeding osprey pairs had only increased to 22.
But now the RSPB estimates that there are around 300 nesting osprey pairs in Britain. Hopefully their numbers will swell to become a thriving population and future generations won’t look at them in picture books and ask: ‘Did you really used to get those here?’