Behind the scenes of a nest camera in the Scottish Highlands
Wild. Remote. Off the grid.
Not an obvious location choice for high tech camera equipment. But perfect for ospreys, one of Scotland’s greatest wildlife success stories.
In 2017, thousands of people tuned in to watch the daily struggles of a pair of ospreys as they attempted to raise a family on Scotland’s Loch Arkaig. A webcam brought the action live to viewers all over the world.
The nearest plug socket? More than a mile away. Broadband? The other side of 2km of water.
This is the story of an ambitious project that offers a window into the lives of wild animals, and the people who made it happen.
She rears her young on yonder tree,
She leaves her faithful mate to mind ’em; Like us, for fish, she sails to sea,
And, plunging, shows us where to find ’em. Yo ho, my hearts! let ’s seek the deep, Ply every oar, and cheerily wish her, While the slow bending net we sweep, "God bless the fish-hawk and the fisher!"
The fish hawk. Accomplished fisherman, international voyager and conservation success story. Lauded in classical Chinese poetry for its fidelity and awaited eagerly each spring by birdwatchers across the northern hemisphere. But it hasn’t always been so well loved.
Ospreys have experienced mixed fortunes over the years. A steady campaign of persecution and egg collection during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries pushed the species to extinction in the UK at the height of the First World War.
It’s thought Loch Arkaig may have been home to the last breeding pair.
But nature proved resilient. Ospreys returned naturally to Scotland in the 1950s and have gone on to recolonise many of their former haunts. Pairs have attempted to breed at Loch Arkaig in the last few years, and when the site came into the Woodland Trust’s care in 2016, it was decided to give them a helping hand.
The story starts with a tree
A going concern
Ospreys prefer the reassurance of a ready-made nest, often returning to the same site year after year. They may commandeer another bird’s nest and readily take to artificial platforms. In short: provide the nest, and they will come.
The open-topped structure of a mature Scots pine provides the perfect base. These ‘granny pines’ offer strong horizontal boughs, inviting perches and a clear flight path into a nest. Sparse lower branches also offer fewer access points for would-be egg predators like pine martens.
Just such a tree stands apart from some of the denser areas of trees on the slopes overlooking Loch Arkaig, complete with an artificial platform that has received some interest from ospreys in recent years.
Enter our nest dressers
Donning their climbing gear, it’s the task of licensed raptor workers Lewis Pate and Justin Grant to scale the 70ft tree and assess the condition of the nest. It’s sagging a bit, but it’s still in good shape.
Attentive ospreys add new nesting material during the breeding season which can begin to weigh the nest down. The excess is removed and the platform shored up with spruce taken from the forest as part of wider work to restore it to its native state – a neat bit of recycling. A perch is also added which will house the nest camera and offer a tempting landing spot for passing ospreys.
Loch Arkaig is large enough to support more than one pair of ospreys. Brand new nest platforms installed elsewhere around the loch will encourage other birds to take up residence.
Now to set up the kit
Jason Fathers is a raptor expert with years of experience studying birds of prey in the wild. He runs Wildlife Windows, a wildlife camera service specialising in capturing live footage of nesting birds.
Jason is used to setting up cameras in remote locations, which is just as well really. It’s a 30 minute trek to the nest site from the nearest track at the bottom of a pretty steep incline. Many pounds of equipment must be manually hefted up the hill through trees, bog and thigh-high heather. It can be rather blustery at the top, and the chilly February weather inflicts some interesting conditions in which to prepare fiddly wires, connectors and software.
But that’s all in a day’s work. Now for the first real challenge: powering everything up.
The nearest plug socket is more than a mile away on the other side of Loch Arkaig. Nature will have to provide.
A short distance from the nest, a south-facing solar panel the size of a dinner table is set up. It will wait for the sun to clear the ridge behind the loch each morning and charge a battery powering a weather-resistant CCTV camera fixed at the nest.
A network of cables and junction boxes then connects everything to a transmitter looking north. This will send the picture and sound live from the nest to a receiver on the other side of the Loch Arkaig.
From Scotland to your screen
Electricity is one problem. Internet connection is quite another. Without the help of a pioneering local enterprise, the osprey cam might never have reached its audience.
The area is sparsely populated and quite some distance from the nearest sizeable village. A handful of properties line the northern shore of the loch, although nearest neighbours might be some half a mile apart.
The residents here are served by Locheilnet, a local not-for-profit broadband provider run by a small team of dedicated volunteers. A network of dishes at high points across the area transmit wireless, superfast internet to people’s homes.
One of these relays sits within line of sight of the osprey cam on the northern side of Loch Arkaig. The signal is sent across the water and is picked up by the relay, allowing viewers to watch action at the osprey nest in real time.
Making the cut
Footage is also recorded on a hard drive which is accessed remotely by a team of volunteer nest monitors. Liz Bracken is one of them.
Liz lives on the northern shore of Loch Arkaig. She has a telescope trained on the nest and enjoys spectacular views across the loch from her living room window. She keeps an eye out for ospreys returning to the loch each spring, but volunteering with the nest camera team gives her an insight into the life of the birds her telescope wouldn’t otherwise reveal.
A volunteer reviews the footage captured by the nest camera each day. It’s played at four times the speed, but with hours of footage to watch, it’s quite a task. The volunteers look for unusual or interesting behaviour, important milestones in the family’s life and other key events, clipping up the footage into short videos for the Woodland Trust YouTube feed.
The volunteers become quite the experts on the osprey family. Their insight helps answer questions from viewers of the live cam, and Liz’s local knowledge and sharp eye provide up-to-date weather reports and osprey sightings from elsewhere on the loch.
The footage has even revealed new learnings along the way.
“Short of spending hours in a cold damp hide with a scope, there is no way to learn the intimate details of osprey behaviour. All the books in the world do not have the answers that good field work can give you, but being able to switch on the nest camera over breakfast has been amazing. It has revealed much and some surprises too. For example, I wouldn’t have expected an egg left unsupervised for more than five hours to successfully hatch, but hatch it did.”
The ospreys' story
During the 2017 season, quite the drama unfolded
A young, unringed male osprey took ownership of the nest in early April, but he had to wait almost three weeks for a partner. Lonesome Louis, as he was nicknamed, was finally joined by a number of potential suitors, choosing a female the nest cam volunteers named Aila.
The first of three eggs was laid several days later, marking this as the latest known nesting attempt of the season anywhere in the UK.
It quickly became apparent that the proud parents were novices. The first egg was left unattended for some time, prompting fears that it wouldn’t hatch. Happily it did, and after a shaky start, both parents and chick got the hang of the delicate business of feeding.
Osprey cam viewers christened the young osprey Lachlan – from the Gaelic for ‘from the land of lakes’. He was confirmed as male at 35 days old, when Lewis and his partner Rachel once again scaled the nest to weigh and ring him.
Lachlan’s blue colour ring on his left leg will identify him as a Scottish bird from a distance, and his unique ring number will stay with him for life. Young ospreys take two or three years to return to the area of their birth on spring migration, so it will be some time before British osprey watchers can expect to see him again.
Our woods have more stories to tell
Our plans to restore the forest at Loch Arkaig are ambitious. And they will take time. But we can’t do it without your support.
If you’ve enjoyed watching the osprey cam or want to hear more of the stories our woods have to tell, become a member. By joining the Woodland Trust, you can help us protect, restore and create woodland for wildlife all across the UK.
Caledonian pine forest
Only fragments of Caledonian pine forest remain in Scotland. It’s incredibly important for wildlife found nowhere else in Britain, and is rare and special in its own right.
And the shores of Loch Arkaig hold a precious remnant of this ancient habitat.
It’s a breathtakingly beautiful sight. In late winter, the budding birch paints the hillsides with a soft purple haze, punctuated by the vibrant green of Scots pine needles and the rusty orange of their tapering trunks. Deep in the forest, the understorey drips with mosses and lichens. Pine marten spraint lays claim to the tracks through the trees, and overhead small birds begin to warm up their spring repertoire.
In 2016, an opportunity to purchase the 2,500 acres of pinewood at Loch Arkaig galvanised people into action to protect what was left. Arkaig Community Forest, a small group of local residents passionate about their landscape, was born. Together with the Woodland Trust and thanks to support from generous appeal donors and players of People’s Postcode Lottery, Loch Arkaig Pine Forest was secured for future generations.
Now the real work starts
Steve Morris, site manager at Loch Arkaig Pine Forest, oversees the Woodland Trust’s vision for the restoration of the forest to its former glory.
Hundreds of years of tree felling and plantation planting have left their mark on the forest. Where once an unbroken swathe of native trees would have stretched all the way to Loch Lochy in the east, the forest is now interrupted by open moor and blocks of non-native conifers planted for their commercial value.
Many ancient Scots pines still remain, perhaps spared the axe because their twisted boughs made them unsuitable sources of timber. But if the next generation of these venerable natives are to flourish, introduced Sitka spruce, larch and lodgepole pine must be kept in check.
Over the coming decades, the Woodland Trust will gradually restore, enhance and expand the native woodland at Loch Arkaig, reducing the impact of tree disease and making the landscape more resilient to climate change.
With thanks to our team of volunteers, Locheilnet, Wildlife Windows, Arkaig Community Forest, players of People’s Postcode Lottery and everyone who helped make the osprey cam possible.