Loch Arkaig Ospreys

What can I say? Spring is in the air everywhere and the folks in the United Kingdom are anxiously awaiting the arrival of their beloved Ospreys. There are now sightings for some of the nests and, we are, like them, getting ready for World Osprey Week. Today, the focus is on Loch Arkaig.

The staff at Loch Arkaig were shocked – pleasantly so – when the numbers of viewers of their streaming cam jumped from 60,000 to 400,000. Can you imagine? Many of the viewers during the pandemic were first time visitors to streaming cams. It is delightful because so many who began watching in the spring of 2020 now realize how much they enjoy the birds and how precarious their lives are. The people advocating for safety measures and donating to streaming cams has increased significantly. Many fell in love with the Scottish wilderness and the beautiful Osprey. Loch Arkaig is located in one of the only remaining Caledonian pine forest. These trees are part of the very first pine trees to be brought into Scotland during the Late Glacial period, about 7000 BCE.

Despite the fact that the Loch appears to be far away from Glasgow, it isn’t. If you travel to Scotland and like hiking, this area is a place not to miss. There are no less than twenty different trails near Loch Arkaig ranging from an easy walk of 9.5 km or 6 miles to a very hard walk of 224 km or nearly 15 miles. There are moors and there are hills, some of the highest in the area. And if you are a Harry Potter fan, you can catch the Harry Potter train at Fort William.

“LOCH ARKAIG: Forest road above the loch (5/16 an038)” by Ted and Jen is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“File:Beinn Bhan from Loch Arkaig woods.JPG” by Mick Knapton is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

As elsewhere, the Scottish Osprey disappeared during the twentieth century. In Scotland, the game keepers of the large estates killed the Osprey because they believed they were a threat to the wildlife on the grounds. The other major destruction came from egg collectors. Breeding pairs were seen before World War II at Loch Garten but it was not until 1954 when a pair of Scandinavian Ospreys arrived at the Loch that the modern era of Ospreys began in Scotland. In 2011, there were 202 known pairs and a decade later, there are more than 300 breeding pairs. Today, the Osprey is a Scottish icon.

In the United Kingdom, the ospreys grow to about 55-62 cm or 21 to 24 inches in length. Their wings span ranges from 145-180 cm or 57 to 71 inches. Their heads are white with the tell tale brown band running from the gorgeous yellow eyes. The breast of the female has a darker apron than the males with beautiful brown plumage on the backs and wings. They weigh 1.2-2 kg or 2.6 or 4.4 lbs. They have Reverse sex-size diamorphism meaning that the female is larger than the male.

The Scottish Ospreys are a migratory species. They return to Scotland in late March (or early April) where they will stay til September raising their young before returning to Senegal or The Gambia for the winter. The clutch has an average of three eggs which are incubated for five weeks (35 days). The female does most of the incubation and brooding while the male provides the food and security. The Osplets will fledge between 51-56 days. About 21 days after the young fledge, the female leaves the nest for Africa. The male remains feeding any chicks for another 7-14 days. Then the male leaves for Africa. The juveniles also go to Senegal or The Gambia although some have been noted to remain on the southern coast of Spain and Portugal. The juveniles will not return to Scotland until they are two years old. To avoid interbreeding, the males tend to return to their natal nest area while the females go elsewhere.

The return of the Osprey is being celebrated during World Albatross Week from 22-26 March – the return of the Osprey to Wales, England, and Scotland! It is a joyous time with birders tracking the bands from the south of England and posting the notices on various FB pages. Indeed, it appears that the Ospreys in Scotland could be arriving back early. The bands on the Perth and Kinross Osprey were seen at Glen Shee flying west today, 21 March 2021 at 15:54. Wow!

Last year I marvelled at Louis and Aila at the Loch Arkaig Osprey nest. Louis first appeared in 2017 and was later joined by Aila. Their first Osplet was named Lachlan by the public and hatched in 2017. They lost their clutch in 2018 to Pine Martens (many sites are putting up protections for the Osprey from the Pine Martens) but fledged two in 2019, Mallie and Rannoch. And in 2020, nearly half a million people watched Doddie, Vera, and little Captain. To aid in identification, Scottish Osprey have a blue/white Darvic ring (blue band, 3 white letters/numbers) on their left leg and a metal British Ornithological band on their right. This is reversed for Welsh and English Ospreys. In Scotland they are called tags and in North American, they are called bands.

The unique letter and number code for Loch Arkaig Ospreys is:

JH4 – Lachlan, male, fledged in 2017
JJ0 – Mallie, female, fledged in 2019
JJ2 – Rannoch, female, fledged in 2019
JJ6 – Doddie, male, fledged in 2020
JJ8 – Vera, female, fledged in 2020
JJ7 – Captain, male, fledged in 2020

The family keeps Louis busy fishing. Loch Arkaig is 19 km or 12 miles long. Louis has brought in both fresh and salt water fish meaning that he also fishes at sea. That is apparently a little farther distance than if the fished at the very far end of Loch Arkaig. The favourite fish on the nest appear to be Brown Trout and Salmon.

In 2020, Louis brought in 553 fish. Ailia fished and brought 26 to the nest late in the breeding season. Breaking this down, information from the Loch shows that of those 579 fish there were 459 trout, 64 flat fish, 34 mackerel, 11 sea trout and grilse, 7 Arctic Char and 4 pike. Impressive.

Here is a video of the highlights from the 2020 season:

And another. Enjoy!

None of the offspring of Louis and Aila have been spotted except when Doddie stopped in at Somerset on his first migration in the fall of 2020. The journey of more than 6400 km to migrate is treacherous. They get in storms, the winds, they can be shot, there was Avian Pox in Senegal in 2021, there are droughts, water shortage, and they can simply starve to death being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The little ones are young when they leave the nest. They have a long way to travel and find food and manage on their own without their parents or siblings there to help. Let us hope that some of them are spotted this year. That would be grand. It is heartbreaking to watch them hatch, grow, and fledge and never hear another word. It is one reason I am very grateful that some of these birds have satellite trackers like Solly from the Port Lincoln Osprey nest. (The Australian Osprey do not have to migrate but the young ones still have a daunting time surviving to adulthood).

I have to admit that the Osprey have become one of my favourite birds to watch. While I am counting down to World Osprey Week in the United Kingdom, I will also be looking forward to the arrival of the Osprey in Manitoba. More on that in the late spring.

Thank you for joining me today.

Cover photo credit: “Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)” by Allan Hopkins is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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