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Bird of The Month: The Osprey by John McEwen and illustrated by Carry Akroyd

Blog | By John McEwen | May 16, 2023

All places yield to him ere he sits down;

… I think he’ll be to Rome

As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it

By sovereignty of nature.

William Shakespeare, Coriolanus,

Act 4, Scene 7

The osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is avian royalty. Few sights are more magnificent than this fish-eating eagle crashing into water from 150ft. The monarchy brings millions of tourists to Britain. And birdwatchers have travelled in millions to the British osprey HQ, Loch Garten in Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park.

Restoration of the dynasty, once banished by egg-collecting and taxidermy, began at Loch Garten in 1955, which witnessed the first nesting in Britain since 1916.

The osprey, one of six land birds with a global range, has a European summer population, which migrates from West Africa. Initial Loch Garten hatchings were thwarted by egg thieves.

The pioneer conservationist George Waterston (1911-80), director of RSPB Scotland, outlawed the thieves by replacing secrecy with publicity. In 1959, Operation Osprey founded the Loch Garten Visitor Centre. By its 60th anniversary in 2019, it had received 2.75m visitors.

Loch Garten juveniles bred at other sites, encouraged by chick relocation and nest provision. Ospreys will inhabit artificial nests, as demonstrated in the USA, where these are successfully built, even in public places. British expansion has been led by conservationist Roy Dennis who, inspired by Waterston, founded the Roy Dennis Foundation.

Today, Britain has 250 breeding osprey pairs, mostly in Scotland but also in Wales and England – since 2022, as far south as Poole harbour.

Ospreys, even juveniles, migrate singly. Dennis challenged Sacha Dench, the UN Ambassador for Migratory Species, to do for ospreys what she had famously done for Bewick’s swans – accompany them on migration by paramotor.

In 2021, on a trans-UK project, she survived a fatal airborne collision that killed her cameraman, Dan Burton. Severely injured, but spurred by Burton’s death, she led her 2022 Flight of the Ospreys expedition in a convoy of trucks from Scotland to Africa.

The expedition kept tabs on three satellite-tagged Scottish juveniles (Glen, Kirk and Tweed) and 4K, born at Rutland Water in 2013. Of the juveniles, Kirk drowned, Tweed was killed by a goshawk in Portugal and Glen, having hitched two rides on ships, survived.

An average one in three migrating ospreys dies. Ospreys use energy-saving thermals to soar and drift along. Sea creates no thermals. The 8¾-mile Strait of Gibraltar presents an ultimate challenge. Other enemies are predation, hunting, poisoning, property development, pesticides, power lines, wind turbines and, notably in 2022, drought.

4K survived and was renamed Dobire after the Guinean fishing village near where the team sighted him at journey’s end. Having left on 9th September, he had covered 3,280 miles in 26 days.

The 2022 Flight of the Ospreys, broadcast on Radio 4, has led to a forthcoming documentary film. The Roy Dennis Foundation website includes how to build your own osprey nest.

In April’s Bird of the Month, David Long was misnamed. My apologies, JM