Wide blue skies and sun filled days last weekend were almost more reminiscent of the arrival of summer, than of spring. Furthermore, the summery mood was enhanced by fleeting glimpses of two of the returning avian wanderers from Africa. First a lone swallow - yes I know that that single sighting doth not a summer make - perched upon the overhead wires, soon followed by the sighting of an osprey, quartering the waters of the loch. But those two intrepid immigrants, if significant in their own way, may nevertheless make us wary that this could be something of a false dawn. It was and is after all, still March! Summer is yet some way off!
Days earlier, I had heard reports of the arrival of the first osprey at the Loch of the Lowes, further north in Perthshire. It is likely that the single swallow may have been en route for somewhere far to the north too, rather than one of our local birds. In my mind these two birds, the swallow and the osprey, are among the most glamorous of our summer immigrants albeit that the osprey has become one of our most notable birds just within my lifetime, after several decades during which time it was entirely absent from these shores. Historically the last pair of breeding ospreys in Scotland was shot out of existence during the years of the Great War.
However, the osprey finally made a dramatic comeback in the nineteen fifties, when a pair settled and then bred in Speyside. It was assumed that these were birds destined for Scandinavia, their route northwards bringing them via Scotland. Whether because they discovered that Scotland offered exceptional opportunities for such fish hawks, or whether perhaps adverse weather might have delayed them from setting out on the final leg of their journey across the North Sea, remains a puzzle. For whatever reason, they stayed. And from such so-called acorns, have grown many fine oaks! The osprey is once again a bird, which has become increasingly familiar in many parts of Scotland.
In recent years of course, other birds of prey such as the sea eagle and the red kite have been brought back from extinction and restored as Scottish breeding birds. In their cases young birds from Scandinavia in the case of sea eagles and Germany, in the case of kites, were released into the Scottish and British landscapes. These then have been deliberate re-introductions, whereas the ospreys returned of their own volition. However, the appearance of any rare bird, in those days when protection was not perhaps as rigorous as it is today, instantly alerted that band of nefarious individuals who dealt in the eggs of wild birds. In their eyes, the rarer the species the better, for they commanded the exchange of surprisingly high amounts of money in that shady world of the collectors.
Thus it did not take long, once ospreys had started to return here, for these criminals to strike. Eyries were robbed - one of them in this vicinity - and had it not been for a determined band of enthusiastic bird-watchers who in response to these robberies, subsequently mounted watches on osprey eyries, the return of these spectacular birds might never have happened. By coincidence, I was one of those enthusiasts. The eyrie that several volunteers and I subsequently began to guard a year after it had been robbed, was then the only one in Britain, outside Speyside.
The consequence of those early protective measures all those yeas ago in the nineteen seventies, is reflected in the success now enjoyed by successive generations of ospreys. Ospreys have now colonised many parts of wild Scotland, have been encouraged to translocate to some parts of England and indeed are also now well rooted in Wales too.
The establishment of these new generations of ospreys perhaps re-balances a situation which existed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Then, all raptors, not to mention carnivores as well, were regarded as fair game by many of a new generation of folks who were intent on developing sporting estates ... at any cost. The slaughter that ensued, sent the sea eagle, the red kite, the osprey and, among the mammals, the polecat, into oblivion.
Among the birds now restored, the osprey alone is a bird that migrates, in the autumn swapping the lochs of Scotland - and nowadays the lakes of England and Wales - for the mangrove swamps and fish rich coastal waters of West Africa, their home during the winter months. Each year, those of us for whom the osprey remains a very special element in our lives, repeatedly scan the skies as April nears, for a glimpse of that first returning osprey of the spring.
Then at last, there it is, high above the waters of the loch, long wings beating then gliding and hovering as with those amazing eyes it scans the waters, ready to launch itself into a spectacular stoop. That single bird is but the vanguard of growing numbers of fish hawks that will make that journey here with the principle aim of producing new generations of their kind this summer, taking massive advantage of our long summer days.
Their numbers each year are augmented by young birds which, since making their first daunting migratory flight from here to Africa perhaps three summers ago, are now ready to return for the first time to the land of their birth. By now they will have honed their fishing skills during their time in the Dark Continent and so they return harbouring the ambition of perpetuating their kind. But first they must find a suitable territory and then a mate. Some will find themselves competing vigorously with other, more established birds. Therefore there may well be conflict; nature preaches a code that favours only the fittest!
The entire purpose - the raison d'etre - for that three thousand mile flight for most of them is to produce that next generation. Once territory has been re-established or indeed carved out, eyries must be re-furbished or indeed built from scratch. Courtship follows, eggs laid, and then incubation for around 35 days before that new generation finally arrives. There follows a period during which gradually the demand for fish will increase as the youngsters grow. At first it will be the male alone that must be the provider but over the ensuing seven or eight weeks, the female too will have to pitch in and fish before at last the youngsters, after much wind flapping, will take to the air.
They however will find themselves on the steepest of learning curves for they must learn the art of fishing remarkably quickly. Suddenly, usually before the end of August, they will find themselves alone; their parents' summer long devotion over. Meanwhile, from this moment on, the ospreys will, with each successive plunge in pursuit of fish, gloriously entertain us. This is just the beginning of a spectacular summer-long avian experience so many of will feel so privileged to enjoy!