Arkaig ospreys

Behind the scenes of a nest camera in the Scottish Highlands

Credit: Andy Rouse / naturepl.com
Credit: Peter Cairns / WTML

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.

The stars of the show

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.

On location: preparing the nest

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.

We're here today building artificial nesting platforms for ospreys. We're going to try to put two or three of these in today, then we're going to try to do another couple later in the year.

I think like many creatures in the environment they want the path of least resistance. So they don't want to expend any more energy than they have to. They're very skilled nest builders and they will build large stick nests in stand alone trees, but one of the problems is they like picking dead trees.

Dead trees tend to be quite prominent, and in this wood back in the 1940s there was a really severe canopy fire. Ospreys will come along - they're obviously very visual - they'll pick a dead tree and they'll stick a nest out on the end of a dead branch. They might rear a couple of young and then that nest, as it gains in weight, becomes unstable and it can drop out. Giving them a strong, well-built structure that might last for 15-20 years in a good, solid live tree confers quite an advantage.   

Film crew and equipment: setting 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.

This camera installation has been very challenging. You've heard of extreme ironing, well I'd call this extreme CCTV.

The osprey nest itself is probably 400ft up one side of a mountain at Loch Arkaig. It's very challenging because there's no power there or internet connection, so there's no mains services whatsoever.  

What we've done is the camera's gone onto the tree and then we've had to run a cable about 200 metres and power the whole thing by solar panels. That was difficult in itself because where the birds like to nest is on the north side of the mountain. Obviously for solar panels you need to charge the batteries up with lots of sun, and on the north side. We did complex calculations - you can get them with data of how the sun rises in different places - and it just about worked up here.

So the camera's installed on the nest, 200 metres away the solar panel's powering the battery, then fortuitously there's a Highlands-based broadband network going around this area. On the other side of the loch there's a Locheilnet internet station. We've been able to patch into that and that's how the image gets onto the internet.

So it goes from the nest to the solar panels, 3km across the loch with a wireless bridge, into the Locheilnet broadband connection, and then that feeds onto the website and we can also get access to the camera to look at the recordings.       

It was all man-handled up here and now when I come up here and look at it I think 'wow'. But anyway, we did it.    

"There we go, it's on again. Ready for another season."

Camera being installed on osprey nesting platform

Credit: WTML

The camera

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.

Set up of the osprey cam solar panel

Credit: WTML

Power

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.

Set up of the osprey cam wireless transmitter

Credit: WTML

The transmitter

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.

Going on air: 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. Sandy Edmond, one of Locheilnet's volunteer technicians, explains.

Locheilnet started about five years ago. It was a bunch of volunteers got together to try and get broadband into areas around Lochaber that had no hope of getting commercial broadband. 

The system depends on line of sight connections so you can bounce the signal from one house, one property, one relay station to another, but it's got to be clear line of sight.

Establishing those sight lines has meant us going up hills in various very remote locations. Getting power to these remote locations has also been a challenge. The Loch Arkaig site for example we had to run 1.5km of cable up the hill which is a lot of cable. It involved the use of argocats and all sorts of equipment to get the gear up the hill there so that we could see into Loch Arkaig.

So yeah, it's challenging, and it's Scottish weather. We're out in horrible weather - snow, rain. When breakdowns occur we've got to go and fix things. We've also got 100mph winds to contend with, equipment blows over... Yeah, challenging, but very very rewarding when it works.

It's been incredibly popular that osprey camera. Even my own friends and relatives all over the world are watching it. It's just amazing to see an osprey - I live here and I'd never seen it! 

I think everyone who's been involved with Locheilnet and the osprey cam, we are proud of what we've achieved. It's been hard and it's been challenging as I've said before, but when you get rewards like that, that so many people can enjoy, you can't beat it really.        

Footage and editing: 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.

My name's Liz. I'm a volunteer with the Woodland Trust for the osprey cam. 

I'm really lucky to live in a fantastic location and the osprey nest is about half a mile over in that direction so I'm able to have a good view of them off the nest as well as on the nest. I can see them flying about. 

The thing that really sticks in my mind was one of the more gruesome parts which was when one of the chicks died and the parent bird actually ate it and fed it to the other chick that was still alive. That was a real eye-opener - I didn't realise ospreys did that.

The other thing was when the chick first took flight, when he took his maiden voyage. He hadn't really done what you'd consider to be a lot of practice and he just took off, launched himself off the side of the nest. I was lucky enough to actually catch him on my telescope once he'd taken off and I watched him fly up the hillside. I was amazed by how far he actually went, he just shot up the hillside and then landed in the heather which was a bit concerning because I wasn't sure how he was going to get up again.  But he did - 24 hours later he appeared back on the nest again. The fact that I could see it off camera meant that I was able to explain to people who were watching what was happening and I think they were quite reassured by that.  

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.

Lewis Pate
Licensed raptor worker

The set where the magic is made: Loch Arkaig 

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.

Our work at Loch Arkaig

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.

I'm Steve Morris. I'm the site manager for the Woodland Trust here at Loch Arkaig.

Caledonian pine forest is a very special habitat in Scotland, characterised by these beautiful mature pines we see behind us, but also a range of other broadleaved tree species. Birch, holly, oak, aspen - it's not exclusively pine but pine is the defining feature of Caledonian forest.

We have some iconic wildlife in Loch Arkaig, particularly the raptors. We've got sea eagles and ospreys and golden eagles breeding and nesting on the site so that's fantastic, as well as mammals such as pine marten, red squirrels - a whole host of really interesting and exciting wildlife.

We had great excitement last year with the success of the osprey cam. We put a lot of work in, there were a lot of challenges to get the infrastructure in place. We're in a remote part of the Highlands with no power so we had to carry these 2 metre large solar panels up the hill in February, in the cold and the ice and the snow, one person on either end humping them up the hill and then setting it all up with the technical boffins. And then linking it in with Locheilnet which is a community broadband set up. Amazingly it all came together and it worked.

It was all new to us and we were delighted with the way it turned out.         

Granny Scots pine at Loch Arkaig

Without you, the story ends here

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.

Help protect the forest for wildlife

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.

Learn more about ospreys and the forest

View of Loch Arkaig through trees

A Woodland Trust Wood

Loch Arkaig Pine Forest

Spean Bridge

1027.31 ha (2538.48 acres)

Explore this wood