I made a pilgrimage in July. It was to the Osprey Centre at Loch Garten in Speyside, a site with huge significance in the story of British conservation. By 1954, the osprey had been extinct in the UK for decades, when one or two birds began to be seen again.
Ospreys are migratory, overwintering in Africa and returning to Europe each spring. These returning pioneers of the 1950s chose Loch Garten as their base, much to the excitement of locals and the wider public. There was national media coverage and they were given round-the-clock protection – even the army were involved. The breeding pair became the cause célèbre of conservation, a totem of nature’s powers of recovery.
The osprey’s wider return to the UK progressed slowly; the location of new nests were often shrouded in secrecy. Fast-forward half a century, and these magnificent birds of prey have reclaimed locations the length and breadth of Scotland – but did you know that breeding pairs are beginning to explore further south, adopting new nesting locations in England and Wales and using our waterways as feeding stations along the way? They’re surprisingly versatile when it comes to catching their piscine prey. They don’t just high-dive into Scottish lochs and Lakeland meres – a fish-filled river and canal will do just as well.
“Ospreys usually nest by lakes or river estuaries,” says Stuart Moodie, the Trust’s National Ecologist. “But if you are very lucky you can see them during the spring or autumn migrations catching fish on lakes, reservoirs or large rivers anywhere in the country, including those owned by the Canal & River Trust. Seeing an Osprey catch a fish has got to be one of the most spectacular sights in nature!”
The southward expansion of the ospreys’ breeding range looks set to steadily continue – and migrating birds need places to rest and feed on their long journeys each spring and autumn, which means they can turn up in unexpected places. I’ve been lucky enough to see ospreys fishing in a pond not much bigger than half a football field. The owner of several trout-filled lakes near Rutland Water has turned the arrival of ospreys to his advantage, building hides into which birders can watch the spectacle at close range. Another time, I’ve witnessed an osprey passing high over a large town in north Scotland. I was alerted to its presence by the reaction of a nearby gull, which cowered and uttered a strange warning call (although, in truth, other birds have little to fear from ospreys). I looked up in time to see this great, bow-winged raptor dark against the clouds. I had the presence of mind to mention to someone nearby that this osprey was following the course of the river below it, and might well be on the point of a plunge. Sure enough, it began a steady descent, part-closing its wings, until eventually it dropped gently into the water, emerging a few seconds later with a plump salmon wagging beneath it.
Keen fisher and Trust Lock Keeper James Buckley, who writes a regular blog for the Canal & River Trust about the ‘magical things’ he sees while on the riverbank and towpath, has also been lucky enough to have an encounter with this magnificent raptor.
“We suddenly heard a shrieking sound we all thought was a buzzard,” he writes. “The noise got louder and louder, and opposite the weir pool above the trees an osprey came into view. It flew over the pool and dived. It stretched its talons out forward and its wings were back as it dived into the water. It lifted without a fish, and flew away. That, we thought, was the last time we would ever see that handsome bird…” Fortunately for James, the bird was not to be denied. “The osprey flew back and tried again,” he continues. “This time being successful, and flew off with a small fish. That graceful bird was the best wildlife experience I have ever witnessed.”
Sixty-four years after the osprey announced its return to the UK, you no longer have to go all the way to Loch Garten to pay homage to these impressive birds of prey. Happily, it’s now possible to spot one almost anywhere along our network of canals and rivers. It’s still an incredibly rare sight, of course, but one that would stay with you for a lifetime.