Nature’s lives – how to connect ospreys to polar wolves

Yesterday we had one of those most beautiful spring evenings in the Scottish Highlands. I had to work at home most of the day but in the evening I went to my local patch – Findhorn Bay – on a special search. As I crossed the saltmarsh, recently grazed by thousands of pinkfeet, I walked through a dense white carpet of scurvy grass flowers, like walking through snow though not so cold and instead beautifully scented. The first osprey hung in the sky over the bay and a scan with binoculars showed three male ospreys hovering a few hundred feet above the incoming tide. They were finding it hard to spot a flounder moving in the choppy water. Then there were four and one of them caught a fish and set off inland to its mate, waiting on her nest of eggs for the evening meal.

But for once I was not here to watch ospreys, which I often do, but to look at one of the spring wonders of FindhornBay, on the Moray coast. It’s a regular staging post for the spring migration of Arctic ringed plovers, on their way from Africa to the high Arctic. They are always with northern dunlin so I made my way over to sit on a big trunk embedded in the mud. This great tree had been washed down the river in last August’s huge flood and is now a favourite perch for ospreys. On the edge of the tide I found a larger flock of waders than I expected – with my scope I estimated 900 ringed plover and 600 dunlins, with three summer plumage sanderlings. The sun was behind me so the birds were in full sunlight. There was a strong and surprisingly cold wind blowing from the north and I was so glad I had put on my thickest fleece and a wool hat.

The waders came closer and closer as the tide pushed them towards me; the dunlins were mostly in beautiful summer plumage, reddish-brown backs and jet black bellies, and they were as busy as sewing machines stabbing the mud with their bills catching food. The Arctic race of the ringed plover is smaller than our local breeding ringed plovers. They were looking gorgeous in their smart black and white stripes, running back and for and feeding from the surface. But what I really love about these spring gatherings of ringed plovers is their busyness and exuberance. They run at each other and then individuals jump in the air and flick their feathers – a continuous sense of excitement. It’s like watching the start of a kids’ race at school, everyone eager to get going. These waders want to get to Greenland but who within the flock is saying ‘This north wind is too strong and its cold, we need to wait’. Are the flighty ones youngsters? Or is it that the weather suddenly changes and the whole flock know this is now the time to make the next stage of that great migration.

Many summers ago I saw these waders breeding in north-east Greenland and it’s, even now, fresh in my memory, seeing them running around on the breeding grounds, scuttling over stones and moss among the beautiful blossoms of the Arctic flowers. But my memory is more vivid when I think of their summer neighbours – musk ox and polar wolves. So when I see ospreys hovering above a flock of Arctic ringed plovers in FindhornBay I think of those iconic white wolves in that far country. And as I sat on my log last evening I knew that a thousand years ago ospreys hunting this same bay would have had every chance of seeing grey wolves in Scotland. I would love that to be a possibility again and the sooner we restore wildness, the better. At 9pm, I walked back to my car the golden sun still hanging above CulbinForest; nature at its very best.