Chilling out with the seals

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This has been a week of ospreys.

Firstly, I spent a bit of time on the Moray coast and just west of Buckie I saw an osprey fishing in the shallows along the coast. Now I, along with probably most others in Scotland, tend to think of ospreys as fishing in rivers and lochs - or indeed at trout fisheries - but that is just because that is where we normally see them in Scotland, but I have seen them sea fishing in the USA and of course they fish at sea in their wintering grounds.

It was odd to watch this bird working its way along the shallows, hovering for a time in one spot then moving along a bit to try again. The other occupants of the coast were not amused, especially the gulls. They rose up en masse as the osprey appeared and relentlessly bombed and harassed it. As the osprey made its way along the coast, a constantly changing wave of rising gulls rose and fell and at various different times, oystercatchers, a couple of crows and even a tiny sandpiper joined in the fray. They seemed to have little effect on the osprey. It just hung there in the breeze, legs dangling, head down, scrutinizing the water for movement, its big, broad, wings working in large flaps to keep it in position. The sun was shining on it and its markings showed up beautifully. Through the binoculars, I could even see the lemon of its eye as the light caught it. Twice it swooped to the water, but drew up short to return to a hover. I did not see it catch anything although I followed it for about 20 minutes, right past Buckie and then further along the coast. It seemed like an awful lot of work for no reward, but I suppose all that it would take would be for it to catch one large fish for it all to be worthwhile.

Eventually, a particularly large flock of gulls persuaded it to move back down the shore in the direction it had come from and I lost sight of it. It had been a special encounter for me though and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it.

My second osprey encounter of the week was much more brief and took place on the same day at Spey Bay, where I just caught a glimpse of a bird in the estuary, flying off into the distance towards the hills, carrying a very large fish.

The third osprey moment of the week, was a bit more contrived and certainly more dependable as it took place at Lochter fisheries. We went there to have lunch on one of the very wet days. From the dry comfort of the cafe, and on the large screen, I watched the female sitting, attempting to shelter the remaining one youngster (as many of you will probably already know, the other chick was taken by a buzzard). I say “attempting to shelter”, as the chick is now quite big and she was having trouble fitting it under her spread wings and breast. Consequently, the chick’s fat rear end and stubby tail were sticking out. It continually tried to squirm a bit further under, wiggling its behind as it pushed, but there was just too much of it to go! The female was soaked - the word “drookit” came to mind in describing her - and every so often she would give her head a vigorous shake and the raindrops would fly everywhere. This left her feathers sticking out in wet peaks. She had quite a “punky” look going on. I felt sorry for her, but she continued to be alert, constantly looking around, and twice she pulled her head down and crouched flat. I don’t know what she had seen, but something made her anxious momentarily.

While it was as wet, I knew that she would sit like that for a while, so I took the chance to examine the nest in detail. It was quite impressive and not just for its size alone. It was constructed from an eclectic mix of twigs through to substantial branches, some with greenery still visible in places (mainly clumps of scots pine needles), thick rope which looked a bit like marine rope of some kind, twines of various colours, and a variety of plastic and netting. It was a fair reflection of the modern countryside, both natural and unnatural. Eventually, lunch finished, we left the damp babysitter to her long, drizzly, day.

While at Spey Bay, at the entrance to the estuary, I watched a variety of birds, The tide was well out, and just where the sea met the river large waves were breaking. Ahead of them gulls floated, some bathing, some it appeared, looking for food. Every time a wave broke, they rose up, let the wave pass under them and then settled back down into the calmer water behind.

I also spent some time watching the hauled out seals at Portgordon. A mix of common and grey seals can be seen here. Lying on the rocks and showing every sign of being totally chilled and enjoying the sunshine, I looked at the difference in the markings and colour. There were some youngsters there, a lovely, golden colour where they were dry and milk chocolate where they were sea-dipped. There was one much smaller than the rest that spent its time folding and unfolding its front flippers in a very human-like manner, scratching and waving its back flippers around. Typical youngster - even when they are relaxing they can’t stay still!

The adults were a mix of mottled greys of varying hues from pale silvery, to dark steel grey, to almost black, and as many different shades of fawn and brown. Lumbering and painfully ungainly to watch when they are on land, their transformation in the water is total and they become streamlined, agile hunters. Looking at them sprawled, lumpy on the rocks it was hard to imagine. The made a bit of a contrast to the ospreys and were all the more interesting for that. Visit my website: www.janemilloy.co.uk