For weeks they have languished hidden from view in the cavernous recesses of the eyrie built some years ago now, but gently tended to by their dutiful parents. I have watched their father come in with plump fish garnered from the waters of the nearby loch, but then torn into easily swallowed strips by the attentive mother. The care with which she proffered those strips to her off-spring belied her fearsome looks, that cruel, hooked beak, those belligerent yellow eyes and those killer talons.
The dedication of osprey parents is simply awesome. As the chicks grew, they sought to re-position themselves, eager to view the world around them but In order to follow the lives of this new generation of ospreys, the young birds are ringed by licensed specialists before they can fly. Soon they were clambering out of those dark, deep recesses and making their way to the edge of what is now a substantial eyrie that has been meticulously added to each spring with extra branches by the parent birds. It is now a large structure albeit, not the tidiest nest I’ve ever seen, newly added branches sticking out at erratic angles, bulky and almost a misshapen mass of dead vegetation offset by strands of meagre growth. In recent weeks, there has been much flapping in preparation for the day, a week or so ago when, for the first time in their brief lives, these young ospreys finally took to the air. The day of that first flight was momentous, a vital step into the unknown yet in its self, a fulfilment. So at last, they could fly! But now vitally, they had to learn to utilise this newly acquired skill as a means to a very important end … feeding themselves.
To learn that essential skill they had to observe their parents as they demonstrated the inherent ability that are endemic in ospreys. They would watch as those parent birds first rose high above the loch on those long powerful wings, and then quartered the silvery waters below scanning them for the slightest movement that would betray the presence of a fish close enough to the surface to make a suitable target. And they would watch and absorb the sudden check followed by a short hover, before suddenly that parent bird would start its deadly descent. Not every hover yields prey. Fish often spend little time at the surface before returning to hidden depths. In such circumstances, the dive is aborted and patrolling resumes. But ospreys are patient. Another fish will present itself and the headlong dive will eventually continue unchecked until, its feet now lowered, it hits the water with a mighty splash its talons grappling for a firm grip of the slippery prey. The youngsters will have observed that their parent seems to stay in the water for what may seem an interminable time – in truth it is only a matter of seconds - before with a mighty swishing of those voluminous wings, it rises at last in triumph.
They will have also observed that as the parent bird rose, it paused at a height of about ten feet to shake surplus water from its plumage and strengthen its grip on its prey. Then, securing its victim with both talons, it rises again to take its prize to a favourite feeding perch, rather than to the now empty eyrie. All this is the most vital part of the young ospreys’ learning process and soon they are attempting to copy their elders, at first with little success. The learning curve is steep but if they are going to survive, the lessons must be learned and they must be learned quickly! If those first flights and the first initial attempts at catching fish are seminal, a greater hurdle lies ahead. After those weeks of devoted nurturing, the young ospreys have a surprisingly short period of learning and practice to absorb the necessary skills upon which depends their ultimate survival. Before the end of August, they will suddenly find themselves seemingly abandoned by their previously dutiful parents. One day, without warning, their parents will lift off and not return. The youngsters will find themselves utterly on their own. Now their practice runs become a stark reality. Furthermore, driven partly by shortening days and approaching autumn and winter but essentially by a driving force from within, they too will find themselves embarking on a journey into the unknown.
They will be impelled by that natural instinct to turn their heads to the south and begin an epic journey of some three thousand miles to their wintering destination on the west coast of Africa. Not only will they be driven to follow whatever their instinct drives them towards but also to keep honing those fishing skills in order to sustain themselves throughout this challenging voyage. The one consolation for them is that they do not necessarily have to keep to any kind of timetable. As they travel ever south through England, there will be places like Rutland Water, where some of their distant cousins have been translocated to, where they can re-fuel before resuming their journey. Not only lochs and lakes but rivers and in-shore waters will provide further re-fuelling places before their first sea crossing, the English Channel. Through France and perhaps Spain, before the next sea crossing, the Mediterranean and then down Africa’s west-coast before finally reaching places such as Senegal and The Gambia, journey’s end at last. In a sense, not only are these youngsters flying blind, but they may also encounter fierce storms, battering rains and winds, rapidly moving weather systems.
The phenomenon of global warming with its resultant increasingly erratic and ever changing patterns of severe weather, adds further hazards to what is by any measure, a remarkably hazardous start to their young lives. Significantly, they will scorn a return to the land of their birth for a year or two, concentrating instead on improving their fishing skills in the fish-rich waters of West Africa. Young ospreys are literally thrown in at the deep end. After being so carefully nurtured, they abruptly find themselves facing the reality of having to learn the art of catching fish and just as they are beginning to get the hang of it, they are cast adrift. They will have absolutely no help or guidance. When they embark upon that marathon migratory trip they have no option but to face, entirely on their own, whatever the weather throws at them on a treacherous journey of three thousand miles. Quite simply, the more we can learn about the lives of our growing population of ospreys, the better can we protect them. Bon voyage