It is a bright morning and a shadow drifts lazily over the gleaming water, and I wonder if the fish sense the change in atmosphere. An electric charge fills the air, and at any moment their sky will darken as the shadow punctures the calm water in an explosion of piercing, grappling talons, sending fizzing air gurgling downward and water beads bursting skyward. The shadow is an osprey.
I have travelled north to Aviemore in Scotland to photograph these magnificent birds in the company of Andy Howard, for a three-day photography workshop, in the hope of capturing ospreys fishing from a low-level vantage point. It is something I had wanted to do ever since seeing the hides at Rothiemurchus in April 2019.
The early morning starts are daunting, but well worth it, and almost as soon as we reach the hides each morning at 5:30am, the first ospreys appear overhead. In fact, the morning sessions turn out to be the most productive, and we are treated to just over fifty dives.
An osprey dive is a moment of poetry; it is a thing of brutality and beauty. It is carefully considered, the bird eyeing a target from incredible height, weighing up options and making meticulous judgements. It makes several flights over the pond, circling and checking, trying to ensure that it has an opportunity without risk of harming itself. More often than not it will glide into view, making the tell-tale signs of an imminent dive, a twitch of the head, or a sudden folding of the wings and a stooped burst of speed, only to pull out of the dive at the last moment.
It all adds to the excitement, and nervous in-between moments of double-checking camera settings follow. Having inexperienced bird fishing is best, as it increases the chances of having multiple dives before a successful catch. At times there are three ospreys circling the pond at the same time, eventually diving one after the other, leading to a frenzy of rattling camera shutters.
When an osprey hits the water, it’s a thrill. The bird descends at speed in a steep dive, narrowing its body, stretching out with thrusting feet and talons splayed; its wings are folded back in an elegant monochrome cape as it strikes the water like a lance. Water races skyward with the impact, yet after such drama the bird sits on the water with outstretched wings, and I imagine the clutching talons hooking the trout just under the surface. The osprey struggles to take flight again with the added weight of its prize.
It repeatedly raises its wings, driving them forcefully downward in an effort to get airborne, and it is clearly a struggle. The longer the bird sits in water, the higher the risk of it becoming waterlogged. At times the osprey briefly sinks under the surface, but reappears with renewed vigor and lifts up with its twisting cargo: a shell-shocked brown trout punctured and ruptured by lethal curved black daggers.
Water flicks off the osprey’s tail feathers and gushes from its wings as it gains height, a wildly determined glare in its yellow eyes as it powers upward. It has positioned the fish into a streamlined, head first position, and away it flies, up and over the tree line pausing only to shake the excess water from its plumage.
If you are interested in photographing ospreys fishing, then Rothiemurchus is probably the best place in the UK to do so. Andy Howard's osprey masterclass is excellent, and I also recommend the River Gwash Trout Farm, a little closer to home, in Rutland.