High hopes for the fish-eating hawk

BROADLOUGH is a shallow coastal lagoon on the river Vartry just south of Wicklow town. There, on a sunny day last October, I encountered one of the great hopefuls of Irish ornithology; an osprey.

This fish-eating hawk goes to Africa for the winter and it was unusual to see one so late in the year. The bird was probably from Scotland, where the return of ospreys has been one of the great conservation success stories of the last 50 years. Could a similar revival occur here?

The name ‘osprey’ comes from ‘ossifraga’, meaning ‘bone breaker’. Ospreys eat fish, not bones. Somewhere along the line, the bird became confused with the lamergeier, the great bearded vulture of the Pyrenees, which can have one end of a bone digesting in its stomach while the other end protrudes from its bill.

The osprey is not as big as a lammergeier but it’s still an impressive bird, with a wingspan of five feet, a facemask, a massive hooked bill and four lethal talons. Swooping from the air, the bird grabs fish from the surface of a lake or river. Just before impact, the feet are thrown forward and the wings half folded. Fish can be caught up to a metre below the surface. There are records of perch, more than one and a half times the bird’s weight, being lifted into the air. A catch too heavy to lift, will be released but ospreys have drowned when their talons became entangled in large fish.

The spectacular dives, which are highly visible, led fishermen to conclude that the bird damages fish stocks and, by 1900, the osprey had been persecuted to extinction in Scotland. Then, in the spring of 1954, a pair nested at Loch Garten, in Invernesshire. There was jubilation in the wildlife community but, in 1958, a thief climbed the nesting tree at night and robbed the eggs. From then on, nests were guarded on a 24-hour basis. The ospreys prospered, with over 50 pairs nesting in Scotland by 1987. In 1991, a million and half people visited Lough Gartan and the Lough of Lowes in Perthshire, to see the birds. At the start of the New Millennium, the Scottish breeding population had reached 140 pairs.

So what are the prospects of a similar recovery in Ireland? A nest here would be a major event, the avian equivalent of a papal visit. Many of our lakes offer suitable habitat. I have great hopes for Broadlough; ospreys visit the lagoon there, most years, on their way to, or from, Africa. The shallow waters are rich in grey mullet, a fish which swims close to the surface and which is often taken by ospreys. There are plenty of tall trees along the western fringe of the lough, offering ideal nesting locations. Ireland has many lakes which appear to be equally suitable. Birds of prey, in general, have been doing quite well here in recent years. The peregrine population has recovered from near extinction. Buzzards have spread throughout the country and the reintroduced golden eagles seem to be happy with their new home in Donegal.

Gordon D’Arcy, in his excellent book, Ireland’s Lost Birds, gives the history of the osprey here. It is not absolutely certain that the bird bred in the past but there is circumstantial evidence that it did so. Gerald of Wales, who visited Ireland in 1183 and 1185, described the bird’s fishing technique. However, some of Gerald’s other observations concerning Ireland are so bizarre that nothing he says can be taken at face value. The archaeological record, according to D’Arcy, is sparse but the bones of two birds were unearthed in excavations at Fishamble Street in Dublin. Ospreys eat only fish which they catch themselves, so the birds were not scavengers at the Dublin fish market. The find suggests that ospreys may have been fairly common in medieval times.

D’Arcy unearthed a wealth of cultural references to the bird. such as the depiction of the eagle of St John in the Book of Armagh. The description of ‘an osprey or water eagle’ by Thomas Moyneux, who wrote a series of historical papers in the 17th Century, seems fairly conclusive. However, Molyneux’s statement that osprey ‘has one foot like a goose, the other like a hawk’ casts doubt on the reliability of his observations, but D’Arcy has no doubt that the bird was established here.

The omens are excellent for recolonisation. If Irish lakes supported ospreys in the past, there is no reason why they should not do so again. The Scottish population continues to expand and birds might come here in search of nesting sites. Even global warming, dare I say it, might help their return. The main obstacle to recolonisation remains persecution. According to the British Trust for Ornithology’s Migration Atlas, 1,247 ospreys had been ringed in Scotland, up to 2002. Of these, 56 were subsequently recovered and 19 foreign ringed birds had been found in Britain. The cause of death was evident in about 60% of cases. Around 23% of the birds had been killed deliberately.and a further 20% of the deaths were related to pollution or some other human activity. Despite the mortality, the population seems to be increasing.

Will the osprey nest in 2007?

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