Loch of the Lowes ospreys

By Bethany Walsh

With dark brown plumage, a distinctive dark eye mask, and powerful blue-white talons, the osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is one of the most easily recognisable birds of prey found in the UK. It is the only member of the Pandionidae family and, unlike other raptors, feeds almost entirely on fish. Many are captivated by the vast distances they migrate, flying from their wintering grounds in West Africa to UK every year to take advantage of the long daylight hours for hunting and raising chicks.

By the early 20th century, ospreys were driven to extinction in the UK through persecution and egg collection. However, a pair of ospreys returned to Loch Garten near Aviemore in 1954, though it took a further 5 years before successful breeding in 1959. Thanks to targeted conservation efforts the species has slowly been increasing its range ever since. There are now around 300 breeding pairs nesting in the UK. Recently, Poole Harbour Osprey Project announced the first successful breeding attempt by ospreys in southern England for nearly 200 years!

Osprey flying. Credit: Bethany Walsh

After graduating last year, I was lucky to be able to find work in the environmental sector. This April and May, I have been living in Dunkeld at the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Loch of the Lowes Reserve. Perthshire is now a stronghold for breeding ospreys, and there has been an active nest at Loch of the Lowes since 1969. Due to the unparalleled close-up view of the nest from the hides, and the celebrity osprey known as ‘Lady’ who nested there for a remarkable 24 years, the ospreys at Loch of the Lowes have gained quite a following. The live webcam enables raptor enthusiasts from around the world to follow nest activity as it unfolds.

As a Species Protection Officer (SPO), my role was to monitor the ospreys’ behaviour as they built their nest and incubated the three eggs which were laid. Most importantly, I worked with three other SPOs – Katie, Dani, and Charlotte – and the Ranger, to prevent the nest from being disturbed by human activity. Ospreys are highly sensitive to human disturbance, which risks causing the nest to fail. The 24/7 ‘Osprey Watch’ at Loch of the Lowes has been carried out for several decades, with the goal of providing intense protection of the nesting ospreys. While egg collecting has gone somewhat out of fashion, ospreys continue to be easily disturbed by human activity around the nest.

View of the nest. Credit Bethany Walsh.

Ospreys are protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) (as amended), which means that it is illegal to recklessly or intentionally disturb them while they are on or near an active nest. Ospreys nest in spring and summer – peak tourist season – and many people are unaware that special protections afforded to particular species supersede the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, or the ‘right to roam’, at certain times of year.

The most exciting part of my role was watching the three eggs being laid by resident female osprey, NC0 (as seen on her coloured leg ring). Thanks to efforts by SPOs, volunteers, and the Ranger, human disturbances were avoided, and the eggs hatched successfully in May! Since then, one of the chicks unfortunately died for natural reasons, having been outcompeted by its siblings for food. Osprey chicks are almost full sized by 5 weeks old and will start flying at 7-8 weeks. By 12-14 weeks, they are ready to set off on their first migration.

I found it particularly interesting keeping track of ‘intruders’ – other ospreys who sought to claim the nest. Ospreys are notoriously lazy about nest building: if there is a pre-made nest platform available, they would much rather save the effort of building one from scratch! It is for this reason that artificial nests have been such a successful conservation method. The eyrie at Loch of the Lowes is well-established, and of interest to many ospreys in search of a suitable nesting site. Therefore, it was possible to monitor which birds were in the area.

Many ospreys now have coloured leg rings, which display a short code that can be used to track them. Thanks to the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, it is possible to report sightings of ringed ospreys, and if you do so, you will receive more information about that bird, including previous sightings. Be sure to take a photo of the leg ring if you see one!

Living at Loch of the Lowes was a wonderful way to be immersed in nature as spring became summer. As well as being able to better understand osprey behaviour, we were lucky to see lots of other wildlife species, including beaver, tawny owl, hedgehog, pine marten, red kite, and even a marsh harrier! I would thoroughly recommend a visit to the centre, but if you are unable, you can watch the webcam here. If you are interested in finding out more about osprey conservation, visit the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation website here.

Sunrise, with great crested grebe on the water. Credit Bethany Walsh

Bethany Walsh grew up on Arran, and graduated with a degree in Sustainable Development and Geography from the University of Edinburgh last year. Featured image shows the osprey nest at Loch of the Lowes. Credit Bethany Walsh.

Many thanks Bethany for sharing your recent experience at Loch of the Lowes with the Voice!