The name ‘Loch Garten’ has long been synonymous with ospreys, since that first pioneering pair flew over the bog woodland and, as luck would have it, decided to build a nest here in the 1950s. This fortuitous moment began the recovery of the osprey as a breeding bird in Britain and as a species, they have gone from strength to strength across the country. Since 1959 this site has been pretty much as reliable as rain on a Bank Holiday. There have obviously been the odd years when no chicks have fledged from the nest, including a couple of consecutive years and historically, the longest stretch without any fledged young here was three years, between 1985 and 1987. That is, of course, until recently. As we are all painfully aware, the world-famous Loch Garten osprey nest has had no chicks fledge since 2016 and for the last three years we haven’t even had the joy of a resident bird, let alone a resident pair. Having given the nest a good chance to prove that it was still a desirable location, we took the decision that something had to be done to try and once again have the skies above the bog woodland echoing to the sound of a male osprey sky-dancing to impress his mate.

So it was that in the winter of 2019 we asked Roy Dennis if he would come and give us his expert opinion on the state of the Loch Garten nest and its environs. As many of you will know, Roy worked here from 1960 to 1964 and has been involved with the Loch Garten ospreys ever-since – he even ringed our last two fledged chicks in 2016 – so he has a good knowledge of the way conditions have changed as the decades have passed. In a written testimonial giving his recommendations, Roy said that in the early days “the eyrie was in a tall Scots pine, one of three prominent old trees, on a hillock in a peat bog moss. The bog held stunted Scots pines in a wet landscape but over time…tree cover on the hill increased and in recent years reached heights which removed the exposed nature of the nest tree.”

“Ospreys prefer to breed on the top of trees which are prominent in the immediate area; this is to allow them to quickly see and chase off avian predators, for example goshawks, and to give the newly flying young optimum flight lines which avoid crashing into thick foliage. Old breeders can become used to encroaching trees but even they will abandon long held eyries when they become over-shadowed. Young prospecting pairs are very unlikely to use such 'second class' nests.”

So, we decided there was only one thing for it and resolved to take action to improve the chances of ospreys taking up residence at this historic site again by following Roy’s recommendation to reduce the height of the tree canopy in the immediate vicinity of the nest. And then, as we all know, Covid came along and unfortunately, we had to shelve our plans until the winter of 2021.

However, before we could carry out any work, we had to apply for special permission from NatureScot and Scottish Forestry because of designations the site is part of (Special Area for Conservation, Special Protection Area and Site of Special Scientific Interest). This involved a couple of site visits and a lengthy application form, after-which both bodies considered whether our plans would significantly impact on any of the designations and whether the potential benefits would outweigh the actions. Fortunately for the ospreys, both bodies agreed with us that the impact would not be at all significant on the designations and gave us permission to carry out the work.

At the same time, we were getting increasingly concerned about the state of the nest tree itself. Every year, our intrepid wardens lean a lengthy ladder against the tree and climb up to install the cameras and also, if we’re lucky enough to get chicks, to enable the chicks to be ringed.  This is no mean feat at the best of times (I’ve done it – never again!) but when the tree your ladder is resting against is held up by telegraph poles and metal bolts and only has one living limb, it’s most definitely a challenge! We were feeling the tree get more of a wobble year on year, so before the inevitable happened we took the decision to remove the old nest (most of which was artificial) and build a brand-new nest in a completely healthy Scots pine, just a few metres from the old nest tree. Again, this needed permission from NatureScot and after another application form and site visit, we were delighted that they saw the sense in our plan and granted us permission to carry out the work.

The old nest being dismantled.

But before we focus on the new Loch Garten nest, let’s just take a moment to reflect on the old tree and the nest it contained. In 1981, for reasons known only to themselves, the resident pair who had usurped the previous pair in 1980, decided to change nest trees. The original 1959 nest tree was evidently not to their liking, so they built a new nest, fortunately just a few metres away in the now old nest tree. They successfully fledged two chicks that year – it evidently suited them! And so began a new era for the Loch Garten ospreys, and it was a very successful one at that. This old nest successfully fledged 60 osprey chicks between 1981 and 2016, 25 of them from our sorely missed EJ. There were eight successful pairings, and a few not so successful. Probably the most famous and productive being EJ and Odin, but then who could forget EJ and Henry? Many, many happy osprey memories and inevitable heartbreak too. It served them, and us, well. We’ve kept the metal basket which supported the frame of the nest as a kind of homage to the tree, just as the barbed wire still surrounds the 1959 – 1980 tree. It all tells a remarkable story.

But time to look forward. So, what of the new nest? We selected a tall Scots pine to the right of both old nest trees – a perfect location for a new des res for ospreys and viewable from the centre. Fraser and Ian, both qualified tree climbers and experienced osprey nest builders, took down the old nest but knew they had a use for the sticks, so these were carefully bundled up for re-use in the new nest (I find this somehow quite comforting to know). In all it took just over half a day for the demolition and rebuilding and we’ve been left with a beautiful new nest, with a stunning outlook and a perfect perch. All we need now is some ospreys!  

Old nest sticks waiting to be hauled up the new nest-tree.

The canopy has been thinned surrounding the nest, giving those sight and flight-lines which are so important to ospreys. Though it feels more open out at the nest site itself, the difference is minimal from the centre – a trained eye might be able to tell something looks different, but it’s still a nicely wooded view. The only thing which could improve it, is of course, a new osprey pairing and three (or let’s face it, even just one!) stripy humbug osprey chicks.

In order to give any new birds the best chance of settling without disturbance, we again asked Roy Dennis’s advice and have taken the decision not to have infra-red on this camera (there is always a red light with infra-red and we don’t want to spook any prospective birds). We have also decided not to have the pan-tilt-zoom camera on the camera tower, just in case the movement concerns them. We’ve taken steps up at the centre too and put thin camo netting on the viewing windows (you can still see through them) and won’t be opening them until we have birds on eggs. Local volunteers are providing nest watch out of hours to guard against unwitting disturbance from curious visitors and we have put signs up on the entrances and on the path telling people that the area is now out of bounds.  So, we’re doing all we can to ensure any new birds feel safe and secure, now it’s just up to the birds...

To keep an eye on the nest and to watch out for any new arrivals check out the live streamed nest cam, expertly provided by Wildlife Windows and funded by the European Regional Development Fund. RSPB Loch Garten - Live osprey nest cam - YouTube

Apologies for the lack of images - for some reason I couldn't save most of them in a useable format! Arghhh! Technology!