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From Fox's Earth to Mountain Tarn
Osprey, Tern and Gannet


THE tale I have to tell of the osprey is, on the whole, a sad one; but no sadder than we look for in a bird so rare, so charming, and so full of interest. The demon of slaughter pursues all we most wish to live. There was when it needed not to be sought for in vain. It is scarce too much to say that the loch which met its wants was exceptional where was no osprey. The young grew up to seek out fresh scenes for themselves. New sites were occupied; other lochs were brightened.

A fishing eagle, the osprey seeks trout. Where they abound it will take pike. A less agile fish, lying in wait through long intervals of sluggish inaction, the pike is more easily caught. In Scotland, where trout are commoner than coarser fish elsewhere, we prefer to think of the osprey as a trout fisher. Doubtless, too, it has the spirit of a hunter, preferring the quicker fish and the cleverer catch. With pike and trout in one view, it will dash on the trout.

Poising above, it mirrors itself below. An intense speck where all is vague, it arrests the eye which was wandering over the abounding life. The circling in the air, the downward bend of the head, between the beating wings, are heart-stirring and dramatic. The few trout taken during the summer months are no loss. The most conservative of landlords has no charge. So far as I know, more than one pair do not fish the same sheet; and a loch is a big place for two birds.

Nevertheless, the old scenes are dull, the old sites deserted. At the distance of sixty years from the heyday, it is the exception to find the lake that boasts of an osprey. The vandal was not the proprietor. The greater part of the blame attaches to the naturalist. In Sutherland, the same series of events passed, in like order, on to the same issue. All was done in the light there, so that we can follow it more clearly.

The idyll of our wild life is the osprey, if only for the sake of Charles St. John. It is the brightest vision that passes over his fascinating page; appears in the brightest episodes of a delightful tour. The other birds of prey might have been gathered round, but to show how this form excelled. The golden eagle has none of the glamour; the peregrine lacks the intense moments of pause and movement; there is no repose. On the passing of the osprey, dullness descends, the light goes out, the charm vanishes. For this reason the earlier or osprey chapters are the brightest and most attractive.

Seems as though St. John felt the spell. A gleam of sunshine falls on the record of that particular morning when he sets forth for its haunts. An added vivacity, as from the growing excitement; an elevation in the lines, as in one who rises on tiptoe to catch an early glance, tells of a near approach and the breaking of the scene. "I was delighted beyond expression to see two ospreys, one on the nest, the other soaring over the loch."

In 1848, Sutherlandshire was the home of the osprey for Scotland. Many things were there to attract it. A land of lakes caught the eye of the lake lover. These lakes teemed, as they still teem, with life. A third feature, which lends a strange picturesqueness to the scene, was potent as the other two. To some eight or ten feet above the surface rise certain characteristic truncated cones, as though waiting to be crowned. These cones determined the nesting site for the area. In the centre of action, the sitting bird could watch the diving of her lord, or look down where the trout darted from the ominous shadow, or drew near with a certain fearful curiosity.

The scene was infinitely remote and quiet. Much of it was rude, with sparsely scattered game, which offered few attractions to the sportsmen of the day. Tourists had not yet found out Sutherland, nor naturalists. Both are common now. It is the birds that are rare. Only one sportsman-naturalist, who went, not as a sportsman to kill grouse, but as a naturalist to be among the wild life.

St. John was a pioneer. His were fresh foot-marks; almost first prints in a virgin soil, like those Robinson Crusoe saw in the sand. He was a prince of pioneers. In its simplicity and detail, his story recalls the pen of Defoe. Delightfully unselfconscious is the manner of telling what he met in the terra incognita. The freshness of the style adds freshness to the scene. The charm affected the curious, and may have led to much that came after. Under such guidance, at the distance of sixty years, the reader crosses a land yet unblighted and teeming with wild life under natural conditions. If judicious, he will be satisfied with this; he will not care to go. He can scarcely have both. The new Sutherland he can acquire only by the loss of the old.

Over these summer lakes the osprey reigned on high. Multitudinous wild-fowl nested along the shore. Red-necked phalaropes ran lightly over the broad leaves of the water-lilies, or called to each other from their hiding among the weeds. These were among its subjects. The depths were its dim hunting places, the trout its game. We owe the knowledge of its reign in Sutherland, with all its delightful attendants, to St. John. Mark how the story runs.

"We could distinguish the head of the female on the nest. It was determined that I should remain concealed near the loch, that I might have a chance of shooting the old osprey. At last I fired, and the poor bird, after wheeling blindly for a few moments, fell far to the leeward of me. We found two beautiful eggs in the nest." In the previous chapter occurs, "Why the poor osprey should be persecuted I know not, as it is quite harmless." Harmless, certainly in Sutherland, where were trout enough for all; harmless as beautiful. It reads very strangely, the deed and the sentiment. A naturalist who has lived on the shore for years writes me: "I know the lake well and every bird on it. There is no osprey, nor, so far as I know, has there been one since that shot by St. John."

Much the same may be said of other Sutherland lochs visited on the tour. There is no fishing eagle. Long since have the winds scattered the nests on the truncated cones. The osprey is a shy bird. Easily driven away, it does not readily come back. Sutherland has lost the old spell. Its attractions have vanished, save the quaint sites, and these are not enough in themselves.

Loch Assynt has a ruined castle standing on a peninsula, once an island. On the highest part of the wall was a pile of bleached sticks, which, two years before St. John’s visit, had been an osprey’s nest. In the absence of the truncated rocks of other lakes, this is as near an approach as could be made. Nor is it an isolated instance.

The centre of interest was removed further south, to a singularly wild and picturesque little loch in Strathspey. An island bears a ruined castle. As at Assynt, on the high part of the crumbling wall, the osprey built. From the shore the nest could be seen. Season after season the female sat there. The diving of the male, and the bringing of his catch to the nest were interesting dramas in a charming environment, at once so quiet and so remote. How long the tenure lasted were hard to fix with any certainty. A tradition, of which the natives are not a little proud, enables us to carry it pretty far back.

Ronaleyn Gordon Cumming, of lion-hunting fame, once swam across, breaking the ice by the way; and, with nothing more serious than the loss of a little blood, brought the eggs ashore. This mild adventure and instance of pluck and endurance are interesting in the story of one who was to do so much more stirring deeds. He died in 1866. And as this bears the mark of youthful adventure, more than likely the ospreys of Aviemore were contemporaneous with those of Sutherlandshire. It must have been a late frost that sealed the lochs so far on in spring, and a reference to weather records might fix the date. Were the story apocryphal, it still bears out that the osprey of this lake is not a thing of yesterday. Where are traditions is a history; and the history is older than the life of the oldest inhabitant ere it shades into tradition. In a note about 1860, John Colquhoun relates how the ospreys of this aerie "have been wantonly destroyed within the last few years." This can scarcely refer to the Gordon Cumming episode, in which is no talk of the slaughter of the birds; and shows that the vandalism was not infrequent. On the whole, they have been wonderfully faithful and forgetful —for ospreys.

On the 3rd or 4th April the birds came back. It was a beautiful sight to see them sail on to the loch, and, after flying round it several times, sweep down on the water. It was the first kill for the season. So charming, so idyllic was it, that it became an asset of the place. Those interested largely advertised the home of the osprey, and tempted the curious north, even at the forbidding Easter season. Among the aesthetic who loved to watch the evolutions, came naturalists, covetous of skin or eggs. Therefore the somewhat chequered history of the haunt. A hint to all true friends to keep these matters as quiet as possible.

The old birds set about repairing the nest. Therein the eggs were laid, roundish of shape, white of ground shade, blotched with a rich red-brown. One brood was raised each year. Only one pair returned. It is usual for the old birds to claim the old site. What of the young? An element of variety was lent to the story of this haunt. Some years the birds did not return to this loch, nor build on the castle, but came to a smaller loch at a little distance, and built up a fir-tree on the shore. It may have been that they were disturbed and yet loath to leave, or mere caprice. Or the young birds may have built as near their native water as possible. Never, as far as I am aware, were the two sites occupied in the same season.

Some ten years ago a strange thing happened. Three came back, of which two were cocks. The hen set to work. The cocks spent the time in fighting, and fought on for days with dire intent but varying fortune. So equally matched were they, that neither would acknowledge defeat, nor yield up the prize. And still the hen worked on. It would have made an attraction of the first order had there but been time to spread it abroad; a change from the calm sailing on to the lake. In stern quiet the drama went on, with but a few curious natives peeping from among the trees. It was which would hold out the longer. The crisis came at length.

Reeling down together, one got on the top and drowned the other. It was a fitting end for the lake eagle. The conqueror gathered himself and rose painfully into the air. Then a second curious thing happened. The female, that had been so busy while the fight lasted, stopped building, as though she had no further interest in her work. Her leaning was to the conquered, an unusual thing in birds. Her heart was with the drowned osprey. The torn victor approached her in vain; she would have none of him. She flew away, and that year was no nest.

The old castle remains with the site, but no sitter is there. The loch offers the olden picturesque environment, and much of the olden remoteness and quiet, but no bird poises in the air or breaks the stillness of the water.

By these lochs in the olden (a letter would make them golden) times, a double picture might often be seen. The kestrel moved round in a circle to scan the ground. With wing pulsations, slow or quick, but always intense, it poised over one spot. It dipped or rose for focus. Then it dropped on the vole. So wheeled the osprey on the lake. So it hung suspended over the trout. So it dipped or rose, till the blurred outline became clear enough for the stoop.

On the close of nesting, the osprey, like the peregrine, becomes a wanderer. Then it follows the course of streams, which may issue from the lakes. It poises, startling the solitary angler as it breaks the stillness of the pool. Emerging, it shakes its plumage, raining down the drops. The dart of the kingfisher from an overhanging bush on the minnow of the shallows, brings out the contrast between little and great, charming and sublime. From the surface dip of the waterousel, through the flash of the kingfisher, to the stoop of the osprey is a wondrous ladder in diving. Many touches of beauty or drama hang in the mental gallery of the wanderer by the stream.

Some twelve years ago an osprey followed the curves of the Tay, in its passage across Strathmore, scanning the water as it went. For three weeks it poised in the air of Stanley, and stooped on its deeply shaded pools. Another year it came not back, nor has it been seen since. The running water, as well as the lake, is impoverished. So the osprey passed the later summer and early autumn until it was time to go. For, unlike the peregrine, it does not stay the winter.

The manner of diving is interesting, and differs in many curious ways among the divers from a height. Suddenly, closing the wings, the osprey drops like a stone. Sometimes it plunges completely under, and again appears only to break the surface. So the tern poises, so it rises and dips. So it searches the water just beyond where the ripples are blurring the margin of the sea. It never wheels like the hawk. Its beat is one fretted line—length without breadth—not a still wide expanse.

The tern grasps its prey with the bill and dives head first. The osprey uses its feet and drops, so that it may have them ready. The tern’s dive is clean, and with a minimum of splash, the water rising over it in a bell-like arch. The certainty with which either strikes, after the measurable time of passage through the air, and the large proportion of catches, lead one almost to assume a species of fascination, as though the quarry were paralysed by the impending fate. A shoal of sand-eels will broaden the mark for the tern. The trout will poise, as the osprey in the air, and remain suspended.

Say the fish has moved and goes out of sight, or beyond the direct reach of the stoop, or such swerve as is possible, the osprey will arrest its motion within a yard of the surface and avoid the dive. All this is done by the tern. And with a still more marvellous dexterity, inasmuch as the difficulty of catching itself up, in a bird going down head first, is necessarily greater. Slightly loose and pointed back, the wings are ready for instant use, in case of the plunge being needless.

The environment of the tern, if less idyllic than that of the osprey, less restful, less varied, undefined by a charming circle of shore line, Unshadowed by the smooth outline of investing hills, has still the blue-grey water breaking in Silver ripples on the yellow sand, the weird dunes, the beetling cliffs, the deepening purple of the horizon where sea approaches sky. As the osprey of the inland sheet, so is the tern the idyll of the shore.

Neither reaches very deep. No impetus is there to bear them, save the fall of so many feet. By a sort of nervous eagerness the tern seems to force itself down, and it has all the advantage of the cleaner dive. Still it must grade its force where the sand almost kisses the surface. The osprey may make up for the less clean impact by the greater height of its poise. Seldom does the tern dive from more than thirty or forty feet. Both are migrants, idylls of the summer waters. Like the osprey, the tern leaves for the winter.

Different from either is another bird. The solan goose is a native. It lights the grey atmosphere, and breaks the grey water of winter. Perhaps the light and flash are more marked against the sombre background. It is the idyll of the deep, as the tern of the shallows, and the osprey of the lakes. It is the idyll of the dark months, as they of the bright ones.

Ample is the area. The solan goose fishes after a manner of its own, adapted to the sea. There is no slow circling search. It comes on at a great rate, looking down by the way. No poise nor focus is there. Nor does it simply close the wings and drop. The glitter that catches its eye may be fathoms deep, and it must get down that length. Without abatement of speed, it swings round in a mighty curve, returns to the spot in a powerful descending spiral, and vanishes head foremost. The dive is cleaner than the tern’s—above it rises a shapelier, mightier bell. All the force used up in the dive it gets from the flight aloft, nor in any way does it try to force itself further down.

The surface divers, the ducks and grebes of the lakes, the guillemots and razor-bills, the red-throats and black-throats of the sea, turn up their tails, and go down unnoticed or only seen by the curious. But the poise, the dip and rise, the sporting element, the eagerness often breaking out into a scream on sighting the game, the boltlike descent, the splash, the bell-like rise of the broken water arrest the preoccupied wanderer by lake or coast, waken the dreamer rocking out in the boat. The divers from a height separate themselves from the rest, are the idylls of the scene.


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