THE LAST OF THE OSPREYS. A MONG the most deplorable results
of the egg-robbing craze, which collectors dignify by the title of " oology," is the almost total disappearance from the Highland lochs of the beautiful ospreys, or fishing-hawks, which until recent years were the ancient and unmolested inhabitants of most of the lonely mountain lakes of the North, on whose rocky islets or ruined castles the birds bad for centuries made their eyries and reared their young. Yet, of all the rarer creatures of Great Britain, there is none that deserves protection more than the osprey. It is unique alike in structure and in habits ; the sole representative of its class among birds, with strong affinities to the great fishing-owls of the tropics, though itself a true hawk, high-couraged and singularly friendly to man, and of a. size and strength approaching that of the eagles. Perched upon the old beacons and stakes which mark out the safe channels in the estuaries of Poole Haven or Christchurch, or the lower Norfolk Broads, the osprey sits unconcerned' while boats pass and repass within gunshot, every now and again leaving its post to catch a flounder or grey- mullet, on which it pounces with a rush like that of the solan-goose, striking the water with its thickly feathered breast, and driving its strong talons deep into the fish. At Christchurch, where they are known as the " mullet- hawks," the young ospreys on their migration may be seen every autumn ; and one at least of the residents by the estuary makes it his business, when prowling gunners are about, to be on the water in his punt, and scare away the too- confiding hawks from the posts on which they sit. Most of these young ospreys are probably bred in Norway and Sweden,—the older birds which are seen on their way north- wards in the spring being bound for the same shores. In the last report read before the general meeting of the Zoological Society, it was stated that there are but three pairs which regularly breed in Scotland ; and in recognition of the pro- tection extended to these survivors by the owners on whose property the nests were built, the Society resolved to bestow their silver medal on Donald Cameron of Loohiel, and Sir John Peter Grant of Rothiemurchus. To Sir J. P. Grant, whose death occurred a few days before the day on which the presentation was to have been made, belonged the credit of protecting what is perhaps the most ancient continuous breeding-place of the osprey in the Highlands. Loch-an-Eilan lies in the narrow gorge between the Cairngorm mountains and the hill of Ord Bain, bordered by deep woods of tall and ancient pines, the remnants of the original Caledonian forest. Near the western shore, but wholly surrounded by the waters of the lake, is an islet, covered by an ancient rectangular castle, said to have formed one of the strongholds of the " Wolf of Badenoch." Looking at the castle from the nearest point on the shore, the angle on the left is seen to be strengthened by a square tower, that on the right is formed by a smaller turret, and piled on this to a height of several feet, broad and substantial and enduring, is the ospreys' eyrie. Year after year the birds have travelled northwards to their ancient haunt, reaching the old castle in the same week, and thrice, it is said, upon the same day, April let; and the record of their success or failure in rearing their brood is probably more complete than that of any similar period of bird-history yet preserved. The nest was seen by MacOullough, the geologist, in 1824. It was robbed by Gordon- Cumming, afterwards known as the most ruthless and destruc- tive of all African hunters, who is fabled to have carried an egg to the shore " in his mouth, probably in his bonnet, held between his teeth, as Lewis Dunbar carried the eggs which he robbed from a similar eyrie, in company with St. John, about the same time. Even.after that date ospreys built not only on the island castle, but in the giant firs on the bank both of Loch-an-Eilan and the neighbouring Loch Morlaich ; but the continuous felling of timber so alarmed them that their numbers were reduced to the single pair upon Loch-an-Eilan.
It was shortly after this period, in 1872, that a disaster occurred which for a time left the nest on the old castle tenantless. A sportsman, seeing a strange bird rise from a burn, shot what proved to be the male osprey ; and though for two years the female bird returned in the first week of April, and remained by the nest waiting for her old mate to join her, she finally disappeared, and for six years no ospreys were seen on Loch-an-Eilan. But in the first week of April, 1878, a pair revisited the castle, and at once set to work to repair the deserted nest upon the turret. In due . time, the eggs were laid ; and as no boat was allowed upon the loch, the young were hatched, to the delight of the whole neighbourhood, who made common cause in the protection of the brood. For ten years the visits of the ospreys were not interrupted, and the care with which the fish-hawks brooded and fed their young has been the most interesting spring sight on Loch-an-Eilan. " All that was visible of the hen-bird," wrote a visitor in 1880, " was her brown back on a level with the twigs, and her erect head and flashing eye, which she con- stantly turned with the restless watchfulness of all predatory birds. She was looking up the loch when we arrived, a posi- tion which she seemed to prefer, but successively faced in all d irections. She formed an interesting sight, with her grey -crest and head, and the darker line round the neck—which gave h er the appearance of wearing a cowl—her pure white breast, and the long, hair-like feathers of the upper part of the body blown picturesquely about by the wind. She generally eat quiet on the nest, gazing round, now readjusting the bleached sticks of her nest, then changing her attitude to -settle down in watchful repose. The extraordinary devotion of so wild a creature to the trying duties of motherhood was most impressive. She seldom left the nest day or night, being supplied with necessary nourishment by her loving and unwearied partner." Of the male bird the same observer writes :—" We saw the male bird approaching high in the air from the south. He swept round in narrowing circles, and finally settled on the nest beside his mate. While on the wing he showed nothing in his talons, which were hidden in the longer feathers beneath ; but he came not empty-banded, for he laid on the broad edge of the nest a shining fish, and this the hen proceeded at once to consume his behaviour to his wife was at all times modest, dignified, and attentive, as befitted a bird of quiet tastes, good character, and aquiline rank." It is difficult, indeed, not to feel a grudge against the selfish egg-collecters, whose greedy agents ruin all the hopes of such patterns of animal happiness and duty. The ten years of unbroken peace in this highland-home were broken by a tragedy which was due, not to human molestation, but to a curious and inexplicable family feud among the ospreys themselves, which has once more left the eyrie on the castle desolate. In the April of 1888, a pair reached the lake as usual, though with an interval of a few days between the -arrival of the male bird and its mate. The last was evidently a stranger, though possibly one of the young hatched the year before, but it took possession of the nest, and busied itself in preparing it for the summer. A few days later a second female appeared, and from the moment of her arrival the eyrie was the scene of continuous warfare betw6en the rival birds, each endeavouring to drive the other from the nest. The first- corner was the stronger, and maintained her place, in spite of the savage attacks* of the older bird, who, soaring above the turret, pounced upon her back, and tore her plumage with beak and talons. For two days the struggle went on from -dawn till dusk, with little intermission. On the third, the dispossessed osprey seemed exhausted, but her efforts to turn out the intruder did not cease until the latter, suddenly rising from the nest, flew towards her enemy, and struck her a blow which hurled her senseless into the lake. The victor then pounced upon her, and driving her talons on to her body, tore the wounded bird with beak and talons until she floated dead. The osprey then flew back to the nest which had been the object of this fatal warfare, but in a few days left the castle and built a nest in a fir-tree at some dis- tance from the island. No eggs were laid, and the pair soon left Loch-an-Eilan, never to return together. Each year the -male bird has visited the castle, on which it sits and calls for its dead mate, and after hovering anxiously round the old home for a few days, disappears, and is seen no more till in the early days of the following spring it renews its melancholy pilgrimage. Another pair have nested in the woods near Loch Morlaich, at a few miles' distance, but the solitary osprey of Rothiemurchus has not yet found a partner for his home on the ruined tower.
Doubtless the Zoological Society's informants are correct in saying that there exist only three eyries which have been continuously inhabited. But there is good reason to believe that the fishing-hawks have not left the country, but have only retired from their natural eyries on the lakes to the deep and inaccessible fir-woods which now cover so much of the once treeless North. Mr. Booth, who travelled from loch to loch, and visited all the eyries best known by tradition on the lakes, found them all deserted. He then explored the dense pine-forests which grow on the steep hill-sides or marshy lower ground. " It was necessary," he writes, " to force a way through a tangled growth of gigantic heather, entwined in places with matted bushes of juniper or bog-myrtle, while here and there waving bogs of green and treacherous moss, intersected by stagnant pools or streams, blocked the way. The atmosphere was stifling, screened from every breath of wind ; and clouds of poisonous flies and midges buzzed in myriads round one's head." There, in the largest pines, he found the new homes of the ospreys, which, like the golden-eagles, are protected by the quiet of the great preserves. On some of the larger estates, two or even three nests might be visited in a single day. In the more open districts the birds have wholly dis- appeared, or are only occasional visitors to the scenes which were once their chosen home throughout the spring and summer.