There is no respite for the fish in our local loch. Once lockdown was announced they were at least offered some relief from the human anglers pursuing them with all manner of artificial flies. Now that the lockdown has been eased, the fisher folk are back wielding their rods with even greater enthusiasm and tempting them with an even bigger range of flies.
There is no rest for the wicked or for the scaly occupants of these waters! Not that the tweed-clad anglers are the only threat the fish face. Out there are any number of fishers, some of them clad in feathers and some in fur. And it matters not how big or small those fish are, there is always something after them!
The grebes and goosanders that populate the loch. specialize in small fry, their submariner tactics enabling them to operate blithely underwater. I once had the pleasure of watching a great crested grebe from a cliff top high above the waters of a beautiful wee lochan. Those waters were crystal clear and so I was able to watch every nuance of the bird’s technique as it hunted for small fry in those pristine waters. It was an education to see how deftly it manoeuvered and how quick it was in running down those small fish.
After rather bigger prey, herons lurk around the edge of the loch at times statuesque as they exhibit such infinite patience waiting for fish of varying sizes to come within reach of that long, dagger like beak. Then in a flash they are pinioned and slide down that long neck. You can see as the caught fish slithers down towards the bird’s stomach. Then, a swirl in the water tells of the hunting otter in pursuit of larger prey. As nocturnal hunters they are seldom seen but, nevertheless, they also take their share.
But there are bigger fish and much larger hunters. Perhaps the most spectacular are the ospreys, now well established around these waters and taking their share of the trout so eagerly sought by the angling folk. Ospreys are, of course, mighty hunters. First, they scour the waters of the loch from on high for fish before setting their sights on a likely target, probably a fish innocently languishing close to the surface completely unaware of the danger that comes from above. The bird pauses, goes into a short hover, then begins its dramatic descent, a shallow dive. Gathering speed, it homes in on its target and hits the water feet first with a mighty splash. Then it grapples with its slippery prey before its mighty wings thrash, as slowly it lifts itself clear of the water, clutching its victim, often with one lethally taloned foot. As it rises clear of the water it adjusts its grip, securing the fish with both feet, shakes itself free of surplus water and makes a beeline for its eyrie where its mate and a bevy of youngsters await.
The ospreys may be lethal and sizeable hunters but now on the horizon is another even mightier hunter, a sea eagle. Here we are looking at a bird with an enormous eight-foot wingspan, colloquially known as a ‘flying barn door’. The presence of a sea eagle over the loch and possibly two of them, came to light when the wildlife photographer Gordon Buchanan was filming a pair of ospreys on their eyrie for the “Springwatch” television programme. Since then, there have been several sightings although as yet I have still to see them.
Sea eagles don’t so much take the plunge in their quest for fish, as take them from the surface or near it. They are perhaps fish snatchers but are equally adept at taking large trout which, as the loch is stocked for commercial fishing, provides really good feeding for both ospreys and sea eagles. However, it remains to be seen if the sea eagles settle here as I suspect these are likely to be young birds exploring the area for a suitable territory. Their choice, should they stay, is sure to be beneficial to them although I’m not sure how the presence of these mighty fishers will go down with the anglers.
The sea eagle was once commonplace throughout Britain but during the killing years of the early twentieth century, they were perceived as a threat to anglers and as a result were so severely persecuted that they became extinct as British breeding birds. The last ones were exterminated in about 1916 at around the same time as the last pair of breeding ospreys were similarly eliminated. During the past few years, sea eagles have been restored to parts of Scotland and more recently to the Isle of Wight off England’s southern coast. One of the more recent releases of birds brought in from Scandinavia was in Fife and this pair may well have travelled from there as they prospect for territory.
How the ospreys might react to sea eagles is hard to predict but there are plenty of fish to go around as the loch is well stocked. The real difference between the ospreys and the sea eagles is that the ospreys are migratory birds of course, so once they have departed by September, the sea eagles would have the loch to themselves. Meanwhile the ospreys’ fishing also has a sense of urgency, for at present they are nurturing two chicks but by the end of August the adult birds will instinctively turn their heads southwards and leave for the winter.
The young ospreys have just about reached the stage when they are beginning to station themselves on the edge of the eyrie and exercise their wings. Eventually, and by the time August is on the calendar, they will finally take to the wing. However, time is short as the parents will then have to teach their two youngsters to emulate them and pluck fish from the waters of the loch. As said, time is of the essence for come the end of August the parent birds, having lavished so much tender loving care on their brace of young, will abruptly leave, setting out on their several thousand-mile journey to West Africa. The youngsters will suddenly find themselves very much on their own. No more nurturing, no more training, but ahead of them that enormous journey across continents and oceans to reach the same destination as their parents.
Thus, there is a lot of learning to do before the end of August. However, for the time being they can at least rely on the guidance and efforts of their parents. The learning curve is certainly steep so this is probably the most important period of their lives and one that is utterly vital to their survival. Their first efforts to catch fish are likely to end in disaster but they will have no more than a month in which to sharpen that skill sufficiently to enable them to maintain themselves and sustain that flight of thousands of miles.
Significantly, when Spring arrives, these youngsters will not return to Scotland. Indeed, it may well be three years before they undertake that journey. In the meantime, they will stay in West Africa, properly honing their fishing skills in the fish-rich waters there. How hard it is to survive is emphasized by the fact that even experienced adult birds do not succeed every time they dive for fish. Indeed, when conditions are hostile and visibility hampered by rough water, they make take several sorties before they meet with success,
So, now we enter the last vital chapter in the story of this year’s young ospreys. They must learn and learn fast to be self-sufficient. This is ‘gone fishing’ with a real purpose. Otherwise they will pay the ultimate price.