One of Scotland’s wildlife superstars, Ospreys, have us on the edge of our seats every year waiting to delight in their return and the antics that follow. RSPB Scotland’s Jen Mullen shares five extra in-depth facts about these impressive birds.

Five facts about Ospreys

  1. A brief history of Ospreys in Scotland

In the early 1900s, ospreys became extinct as a breeding bird in the UK. Between 1916 and 1954 there were no recorded occurrences of Ospreys breeding in Scotland due to persecution, demand for museum specimens, and egg collecting.

In the early 1950s, a pair from Scandinavia tried to nest at Loch Garten, near Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands, but egg collectors robbed the nest that year, and in the three years following. In 1958 RSPB Scotland helped set up ‘Operation Osprey’. This resulted in round the clock guarding of the nest, and a public reveal of where the nest was allowing the public to view it. Thousands of visitors flocked to the site.

60 years ago, in 1959, the first chicks hatched and fledged in Scotland since 1916.

Gathered around a table at the Osprey camp, Loch Garten

  1. Osprey wings are disproportionately long for their body size

Ospreys are about 2ft long in the body with a 5.5ft long wingspan! In flight, their wings are distinctly kinked which can make them appear gull-like. Their wings are mostly brown with white linings and a dark patch at the bend.

  1. Markings vary between birds

Ospreys have a white head with speckled markings on the top. They have a slight crest, striking yellow eyes and a dark stripe by the eye. Their body is white underneath which contrasts with the brown on the back and wings. Females have a brown breast band.

As well as these features, all birds have their own distinct markings; this means individual birds can still be recognised if they haven’t been ringed. Females are bigger than males by 5-10%.

  1. Their specially adapted features make them more e-fish-ent

Ospreys mostly feed on fish, both fresh and salt water, so they require expert fishing skills! They have several features which enhance their fishing abilities.

They usually dive feet first and grab fish off the water surface, but they are also well adapted for diving – they have built in swimming goggles in the form of a third eyelid! They have a semi-transparent membrane that has a kind of goggle effect when they dive into the water. The ability to close their nostrils and their dense, oily plumage also help Ospreys to dive unphased by water.

That’s not all! Ospreys have a strong curved beak with a long, sharp pointed hook and a reversible outer toe which helps them when catching and carrying fish. They also have short and sharp spines on the underside of their feet which improve their grip on those slippery wriggly fish.

  1. Their long migration can take up to two months

They travel to the UK from North West Africa to breed. This is an epic journey which can take between 1-2 months. Males perform an aerial display to win over a female which often includes a mournful sounding whistle. Ospreys will nest in areas with nearby water sources. They like to pick big tall trees to nest in, usually conifers. The trees they use are usually rather prominent. In some areas Ospreys will branch out and nest on cliff ledges, coastal rocks, buoys and even electricity pylons.

When first built it can take the birds 2-3 weeks to complete the nest, known as an eyrie, which might end up as long as 1.5 metres, growing as large as 2 metres as it gets added to each time it is used again.

If breeding fails, a second ‘frustration eyrie’ might be built, the pair may use this for nesting the following year.

To help youngsters prepare for the massive migration journey to Africa, they will remain with their parents for around 3 months, staying on for a month or two beyond when they are first able to fly.

This summer you can learn all about the history of ospreys in Scotland at RSPB Scotland Loch Garten Osprey Centre’s special anniversary exhibition. The exhibition is on display in the centre until the end of September.