My love of birds, bird watching and supporting the RSPB spans my 34 years on this earth. Every now and then, I encounter something that weaves a thread back to my youth and all the way forward to the present. One such thread is an Osprey called EJ…
My first stint as a volunteer warden for the RSPB was at the Loch Insh reserve up in the Highlands, adjacent to the A9 and between Kinggussie and Aviemore. I was there June to July of 2005, approaching thirteen years ago. Looking back, I realise this trip had a huge impact and was something of a watershed for me. I got to see the landscape-level management required for a reserve like Loch Insh, the resulting benefits to birds and other wildlife and also saw many ‘firsts’; my first Red Kite on the Black Isle, my first Crested Tits in Abernethy and my first Osprey nests.
During a Spring clean I found some surprisingly detailed notes - surprising given both my youth and penchant for Tennents on that trip. The notes include those for warden duties and also wider bird watching. They also include several Osprey sightings. I omit nest locations except for the known Loch Garten site:
Whilst I cannot say, categorically, that I saw EJ, the female Osprey currently on territory at Loch Garten, during my time at Loch Insh, there are sufficient Osprey sightings from the Spey Valley to make it possible - if not likely.
EJ returned to Loch Garten on Wednesday 21st March this year and is the reserve’s most successful Osprey, having bred there for 15 years and raising 25 chicks. I saw her on the 31st March. Our visit was timed well to see her fly in as we approached the Visitor Centre and then holding court on her nest. She was at that time, un-paired as her partner Odin ‘disappeared’ last year. It is not known if there was foul play involved, such as persecution, or more natural causes. I did hear, during our visit, that a rival male could have dispatched Odin last year. It was unfortunately timed mid-breeding season. As I type this, I see EJ has attracted a new male - so here’s hoping for a more successful breeding season in 2018.
EJ - Loch Garten, 31st March 2018
EJ - Loch Garten, 31st March 2018
Whilst Odin was not there during my visit this year, he was back in April, 2011. I have photographs of potentially both EJ and Odin, but certainly of one adult Osprey from that visit. Little did I know that I would be looking at the same individual seven years later. EJ was hatched in Cally, Perthshire back in 1997 and summered at Loch Garten in 2003 before commencing breeding there from 2004. She has a ‘darvic’ white ring with the initials EJ on her right leg and a standard BTO ring on the left leg which has allowed the RSPB to keep track of her.
EJ or Odin - Loch Garten, 11th April 2011
EJ or Odin - Loch Garten, 11th April 2011
Whilst I am fourteen years EJ’s senior, she has been alive for over twenty years of my life and a part of it, however small that part, for thirteen years. EJ, by my calculations has completed a conservative 80 000 migration-miles since 2003. Since I first saw her in 2005, I have graduated, worked nine years in the private sector and now two and half in the public, met my girlfriend now fiancée, devised and executed three Dove Step journeys and moved from Sheffield to Suffolk. It is gratifying that when the threads of our lives cross - I can trace all the way back to my younger self and the beginnings of EJ’s long rein at Loch Garten.
I love that her longevity and my love of the Highlands has allowed for repeated sightings and I hope to see her again later this year, ideally paired and with fledged chicks…
I have just returned from a trip to the Highlands with my good friend Malcom Fairley. Mal and I set off on the evening of Thursday 29th March, driving through the night to arrive at the Corran Ferry pre-dawn. Having crossed, we travelled with the moon hanging in the valley head and its silvery light reflecting off the snow-capped tops. We were at Strontian and searching for the fabled Black Duck before dawn. Whilst we did not locate this mystical beast, we did walk nine miles up and down the river and loch side in pursuit of our quarry. Beautiful surrounds with plenty of birds to look at, the unfamiliar Hooded Crows a pleasure beyond more expected birds. Post-Strontian, we looped to see the Acharacle Ring-necked Duck, a worthy consolation having missed one American duck. On the return ferry we had the Black Guillemots at Ardgour - frequenting metal work on a decaying platform. It is always a pleasure to see this west coast special, especially in breeding finery.
Hooded Crows - Strontian
Black Guillemot - Ardgour
Early morning on the 31st saw us walking into the darkness and Rothiemurchus Forest in pursuit of Capercaillie, our second and most sought after target of the trip. It is the huge grouse of the forest which can fan its tail like a black peacock, whilst wielding an ivory bill and blood red ‘roses’ above each eye. Despite the sheer bulk of the bird - wild males reach 5kg and 85cm in height - they are highly elusive, elusive to the point of the ridiculous given the size of the bird. In the absence of the RSPB’s ‘Caper Watch’ at Loch Garten, the only reasonable way to encounter one is to walk their Caledonian Forest via public routes in the hope of encountering one.
The native Scottish population, became extinct between 1770 and 1785 and remains vulnerable. Following extinction, the birds were re-introduced and bred again in 1837. Whilst there was a 1960’s high of up to 10000 pairs, this dropped to less than 1000 birds in 1999 - with predictions of extinction (in a UK context) by 2015. This extinction has not yet come and as of last year’s State of the UK Birds Report, there is an estimated 1114 individuals remaining - albeit spread across a huge swathe of the required Caledonian Forest habitat.
Mal has never seen a Capercaillie before, whilst I have had distant views from the RSPB Caper Watch back in 2011; this was within the contained environs of the Visitor Centre with video relay to screens and distant views. To see a bird in the ‘flesh’ and in its natural environment was a worthy pursuit and one I was keen pursue with Mal. Mal supported the last two weeks of Dove Step 3, a 704.5 mile crossing of Spain, completed in just 28 days. As such we share the same ability to persevere in pursuit of a goal. To this end, our three day trip included 35 miles of walking across the three days aside from the required car travel.
In the pre-dawn gloom, we did hear a ‘clicking’ male in an area of fresh pellets. During the winter, Capercaille can feed almost constantly, producing a pellet nearly every 10 minutes. To hear a Caper and so close, was tantalising. We then spent our remaining daytime in the Loch Garten area enjoying; Whooper Swan, Osprey, Crested Tit, Black and Red Grouse and even White-tailed Eagle amongst others.
Whooper Swan - Loch Pityoulish
Crested Tit - Loch Garten
White-tailed Eagle - Avielochan
Our focus, however, remained Capercaillie, ‘Capull Coille’, the Horse of the Woods. When in pursuit of such specialised and indeed special species, the objective must be absolute. To this end we reconnoitred viable habitat past sunset with friends Cathy and Lee Gregory. This, as is the case for us gentlemen birders, was followed by many ales and much merriment. This indulgence did not, however, compromise our target and the 05:00 a.m.alarm on the 01st April presented itself rudely and coldly. We walked into the night, with an icy full moon illuminating our steps across frozen ground. In the silvern pre-dawn, the moon presented itself variously through the lines of pines, dawn grew in the east and it seemed to get colder the deeper into the forest we marched. Condensation formed and froze on my beard; Mal’s un-bearded face chapped. We continued, deeper and deeper, into the forest in the hope of encountering our quarry. With the orange glow of the dawn meeting the cold air we had all but given up. We re-doubled our efforts and walked already trodden ground. With hope, time and enthusiasm waning we resorted to re-orientating towards breakfast. Upon a cross roads in the tracks I caught movement in my peripheral, a shape forming in the dawning light; a horse in the woods!
A male Capercaillie posed, Lemmy-like, with its ivory bill skyward on bare-ground amidst the pines.
I used Opticron Traveller ED binoculars, MM4ED60 travel scope and USM2 smart phone adapter on this trip. For more details on each - see the Opticron website.
All photographs © Jonny Rankin, 2018.