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This edited article about birds originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 899 published on 14 April 1979.
The osprey’s piercing yellow eyes, six times more powerful than a man’s, scan the smooth waters of the Scottish loch. The bird looks nothing but wings as it hovers high in the air, its white head and cruel, curved beak bent down.
Suddenly the hunter glimpses its prey, a trout swimming just below the surface of the water. Hurtling down in a power dive, dark wings sharply angled, the bird’s huge feet shoot forward for the plunge as the osprey closes on its quarry. At this moment, the bird is travelling at about 75 kilometres an hour. Special membranes close over its eyes to protect them from the violent impact.
A great plume of spray is sent up and the osprey re-emerges, beating its mighty wings in a supreme effort to lift itself clear of the water. The trout writhes in the grip of fierce talons.
The vice-like grip of the osprey is legendary, although experts are sceptical of some tales told about it.
One story relates how a carp caught in a German lake had the skeleton of an osprey still clinging to it. The bird had drowned, unable to lift the huge fish or to let go.
The spectacular appearance and habits of this fearsome predator have brought it a great deal of attention in Britain, yet it is rarely seen here. The only British breeding grounds are in Scotland.
The male osprey arrives early in April from Africa, and begins his solitary sky dance in order to attract the female. When she arrives, a site is chosen for their nest, the eyrie. This is often a wind-swept pine with a fine view of the fishing territory. Now begin two weeks of hard work. The osprey’s nest is one of the largest in the world, and often reaches the size of a double bed. Clearly it would take the pair months to build it with twigs. Instead, sticks are used, with a lining of grass.
Sometimes dead branches up to two metres long are torn from trees. These are then borne aloft in the talons back to the nesting site. If they survive the winter storms, the nests are used again and again, often by the same pair, which mate for life.
In late April, the female commences her vigil incubating her eggs, usually three. It will be early June before they hatch.
The beautiful creamy eggs, with their dark splashes of deepest red and chocolate brown, were much sought after by unscrupulous egg-collectors in the 19th century, who risked their lives to possess these, among the loveliest of birds’ eggs. Their relentless raiding drove the bird from Scotland for 50 years, and it still presents a threat today.
When the helpless chicks hatch, the male must redouble his efforts to find food. In addition to the loch trout and river pike already caught, he scours the shore and sea inlets for sluggish flounders. By the time the chicks are almost fully grown, he will have provided as many as six fish a day to feed his growing family.
Despite the osprey’s hunting skills, this is no easy task. The bird’s keen eyes are of no use when rain comes to ruffle and dimple the surface of the lake, and fishing becomes impossible. Then the chicks, huddled under their mother’s mantled wings for warmth and dryness, must go hungry. The instant the rain ceases, the osprey’s hunting must begin again.
By the time the young are ready to leave the nest – around mid-August – the male osprey will have caught about 200 fish. But as the autumn winds start to blow, the family leave, one by one, to fly 5,000 kilometres to the tropical heat and abundant fish of West Africa.
The long migratory journey south is full of dangers. Many ospreys are shot for sport in Italy, and a quarter of the young birds never reach their destination. Those who do will remain for two years. Then they will leave the warm shores of West Africa, embarking on a two-month journey north to the still icy lochs of Scotland to breed – if they survive.