Caught by the River

The Fish Hawk

Mat Bingham | 21st August 2017

Words and pictures: Mat Bingham

The weather is on the turn, warmer than it has been, less oxygen in the water means the trout are on the rise. Dark shapes slowly gliding through the lake, they gulp air at the water’s surface creating ripples. The osprey sees this from thirty meters above where it circles. With wings outstretched a slight adjustment of its tail is all that is needed to orbit the lake almost effortlessly. The osprey is a male, called Cromarty, he was born in 2013 at Kildary, Easter Ross and he has not long been back from West Africa where he spent the winter.

Cromarty scans the lake below and focuses on a brown trout, weighing about 5lb, small enough to lift from the water but big enough to be worth the effort of catching. He turns into the wind folding his wings and drops like a stone. But the fish has swum deeper, too deep to catch. Cromarty is experienced enough to know this, unfurling his wings to slow his descent, he pulls out of the dive, using the wind blowing in from the mountains to gain altitude.

Circling lower this time Chromarty looks over to a female oystercatcher on the lakeside sitting on eggs, her mate is standing guard close by. Cromarty is not interested in them, his gaze returns to a trout just below the surface near the centre of the lake. Dipping his left wing he turns tightly and folds into a dive. As he plummets towards the water’s surface he reaches out with his talons. Aiming for the head of the fish with his right claw, the impact will be fatal to the trout. Then a blur of black, white and orange flashes across the lake between Cromarty and the fish. The male oystercatcher is brave, his boldness driven by fear for his offspring with such a large bird of prey close by. It’s enough to spook the trout but too late for Cromarty to pull out of the dive. He hits the water in an explosion of spray. The air smells of earth, of ozone.

Partially submerged in the water with wings outstretched, Cromarty screams his frustration at the oystercatcher.

In a frenzy of flapping wings and spray he rises breaking free of the lakes surface.

Rivulets of water run down his body and off the tip of his tail feathers as he gains height looking for somewhere to perch. The element of surprise is gone, the trout are too deep now to catch. He must wait for them to return to the surface. Cromarty lands in a Scots pine just behind the hide where I am sat. The tree bends under his weight but he shifts his balance and remains perched.

He stays in the tree for about twenty minutes, taking time to do a thorough check of his feathers. Then he takes flight spreading his wings he uses the wind to climb to about forty meters above the lake. A quick glance to the oystercatcher nest, only the female is there, the male must be off feeding somewhere. Cromarty’s gaze returns to the water and then he dives.

When he hits the lakes surface, the spray momentarily obscures my view but once it subsides it is obvious he has been successful and caught a fish. With wings outstretched, he sits noticeably lower in the water, jolts go through his body like electricity as underwater the trout battles to escape his grasp. But both osprey and fish are now connected by his talon and neither can escape the other.

Cromarty pauses for a second, summoning the strength to take flight and then he starts to flap his wings. The first couple of wing beats do nothing other than shake water from his flight feathers. But then his body starts to slowly rise, the wind giving him the lift he is so desperate for. Finally Cromarty and the fish break free of the water.

I can see that he has the trout clasped around the gills with his right talon, but he is still struggling with the fish and with gaining height. Adjusting his hold, Cromarty uses his left talon to clasp the fish lower down the body. As his grip tightens roe squirts from the trout.

The life is ebbing away from the fish and Cromarty is able to manipulate it in his talons to point it in the direction of flight, to make it as aerodynamic as possible. With every beat of his wings he sheds more water from his feathers and gains height. The fish stops struggling and goes limp as Cromarty turns and circles back towards me.

He is higher now than the Scot’s pine that cover the hillside. Passing overhead, he flies towards the mountains. In the mist, the outline of the fish hawk becomes fainter and fainter, smaller and smaller until he is gone.


See more of Mat’s stunning wildlife photography on his website.

Mat Bingham on Caught by the River