Autumn is here.
I’ve found lots of ways of defining the beginning of Autumn down the years. When I was a child, it was very much about returning to school, even though Scottish schools go back in August. My daughters headed back to school yesterday, so…
When I was a young adult, it was that universal signal of the leaves in the trees starting their slow fade into brown that signalled the start of Autumn. The gentle retreat is in progress right now.
For the last couple of years, though, the start of Autumn has come to be defined by empty nest syndrome. Slowly, one by one, the live-streamed osprey nests are emptying, their occupants feeling the irresistible call of migration, and heading south.
I spend a lot of my life — too much, perhaps — in front of screens of various sorts. It’s nice to bring a bit of nature onto those screens while I work. Back in 2018, I watched the kestrels breeding in a local nest box, as streamed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. In 2019, the stream was no longer working, so I switched my focus to the Loch Arkaig osprey nest in Scotland, streamed by the Woodland Trust. The saga of Louis and Aila and their two daughters proved a gateway drug into a wider world of osprey addiction, but this is a story told, literally, in seasons.
The story begins in spring, as you wait for the ospreys to return. You follow the height of the drama through the summer, as the eggs hatch, the “bobs” (as osprey hatchlings are called) thrive or die. Then comes ringing and fledging, and finally the slow wait for migration. The osprey season ends not with a bang, but a whimper. An osprey launches from the nest one last time — and never returns. In fact, that osprey may never be seen again. The survival rate of juveniles is not high, and that final flight may be the last time any of the nest watchers see that little one again. It’s a hard truth, but one worth remembering. We don’t “own” these creatures, and we can’t save any particular individual. All we can do is make sure we create the right environments for them to thrive.
Sometimes we get lucky, and somebody spots the ringed osprey wintering in Africa. This year, the Loch Arkaigers have been granted an incredible boon. One of the juveniles, JJ6 or “Doddie”, has been seen fishing in Somerset. He’s the first of the eight Loch Arkaig birds (the parents and 6 offspring over 3 breeding years) to be seen away from the nest area.
Empty Nest Syndrome
His siblings? Now migrated, or about to do so.
This is the scene on the livestream as I write this:
An empty nest, and the signs of autumn making their way through the Scottish countryside. I can’t help but note the resonance between the osprey chicks leaving, and my daughters returning to school. The house feels hushed, with just my wife and I working. But my daughters will be back home this evening, and we’ll be luck to see any of the young ospreys again.
But, although there’s a melancholy to the changing of the seasons, there is a delight to it, too. I love the autumn. It’s been my favourite time of the year for as long as I can remember. We can head to the wild places, to the beach, to the hills, and find them so much less busy than in the summer.
I took the girls up to Woods Mill, the local Sussex Wildlife Trust nature reserve, at the end of last week. As we got out of the car, this is what I saw drifting lazily overhead:
Some raptors have taken their leave of us for this year but others, like this buzzard, are here, flying, feeding, roosting and enjoying the relative leisure of raptor life outside the breeding season.
Like so many others, I’ve become more attuned to the seasons again, through lockdown. I’ve watched my garden and my neighbourhood change week by week, and I’m doing my best not to lose track of that now. Nature may be on its retreat towards winter, but it’s part of the natural cycle, and we should embrace that as much as the fecund promise of spring.
Oh, and I love autumn. It is, and always has been, my favourite season. I have a wee bit more time on my hands again, after my daughters returned to school. After six months of homeschooling, I can get on with my day job of training journalists again.
But I work to live, not live to work. And I’m looking forward to loading up my camera (metaphorically — it’s all digital these days) and getting out there into the autumn woods and shoreline, and see what they bring me.
Safe travel, ospreys. See you in the spring.