The ospreys have gone. I went away for a week and when I got back, the strath had slipped into autumn and the eyrie above Loch Insh was empty. On the same day, my two sons returned to university. Their courses will be online, but after five months of being back under parental wings they are ready to stretch their own again. They came back to our Highland home at the start of lockdown and two weeks later, the osprey arrived, flouting all restrictions in their 6,700 kilometre journey from west Africa.
The male came first and began to ready the nest, a large twiggy crater the size of a truck tyre. Balanced precariously at the top of a tree on a small island, it has commanding views of the Cairngorms to the south-east, the Monadhliaths to the north-west and the River Spey between. Their arrival always speaks to me of Mark, a wildlife guide friend who first told me their story on these shores five years ago; he was diagnosed the following April with a brain tumour and died in April two years later, leaving a wife and three sons. As he was lowered into the earth of Insh churchyard, the newly returned osprey soared above.
Most osprey pair for life, only coming together during the breeding season when they return to the same place. The female arrives a week or so after her mate and my diary note from April 16th says: ‘Both perched on the nest, looking at each other from time to time and touching beaks.’ As the female adds to the eyrie, the male woos her by delivering trout. One of the few birds of prey to live almost entirely on fish, osprey can see their underwater catch from 40 metres up and have reversible talons that help them grip. Working from home this year, I paid closer attention to my near neighbours. I saw the male perform his sky dance, crying out as he rose in sweeping circles above the nest with a long reed in his talons. The female sat on the spear tip of a dead tree nearby, motionless and haughty as Horus.
By the beginning of May, she had settled down in the nest, presumably won over and incubating eggs, and I watched and waited through the lengthening days and the greening of the strath. At last, in early June, tiny heads appeared above the twigs – one, two… three! A beautiful, bumper brood and the most an osprey is likely to hatch. I caught glimpses of the mother feeding them and the gradual rise of their small, fluttering bodies.
One evening, a large heron flew up the river towards the nest and the male osprey bore down on it with vicious shrieking and flapping of wings. To my astonishment, the heron did not beat a hasty retreat but kept circling, evading the ever-more strident attack. Finally after several minutes of this aerial dogfight, the heron – twice the size of its assailant – made its stately way off down the loch.
Summer swelled and the loch thickened with green rushes and the growing company of birds: curlews, oyster-catchers, martins, geese, ducks and swans, many trailing flotillas of young in their wake. Both my boys were summer babies and these long, light days remind me of that ecstatic, exhausted time. By mid-July the osprey chicks were stalking the rim of the eyrie, stretching their wings and lifting for moments into the air while the parents sat in nearby trees calling. To urge their young to fledge, osprey gradually reduce the fish they deliver, literally starving them off the nest. We have not resorted to such ploys but, like all parents, we know the push and pull of need and independence.
Who can know if they have witnessed the first flight of a bird? I cannot, but I thrilled to see them gradually take to the skies, their voices ringing in the amphitheatre of this hill-bordered loch. Who can hold onto life? It was at this time that our beloved friends, Mark’s family, moved away.
All five osprey were in the nest when I looked in late August, but within two weeks, they were gone. The mother goes first, travelling up to 400 kilometres a day till she is back in Senegal. The father follows and then the young, flying all the way down over the Sahara. They travel alone. No one has fathomed how they know the route or the destination or how, three years later, they know the way back. It is mystery and miracle. All I know is that in the great, thick hush of these five months, when my own dear ones came and left, the osprey’s journey has passed right through my heart.
This article first appeared on Elsewhere A Journal of Place