It’s a clear blue day, the early morning sunlight reflecting off the water, so bright and clear that were it not for the forested islands breaking up the horizon it would be hard to see where the water ends and the sky begins. The gentle slap of water against the jetty completes the scene. I’m sat on the porch of our little summer cabin in the Stockholm archipelago having breakfast with my wife, looking out across the water to a small uninhabited island about 50 metres away. Uninhabited by humans, that is, but home to a breeding pair of Ospreys who this year have raised two large, healthy and boisterous chicks. They are surprisingly vocal, the chattering cry of the parents carrying loud and clear across the still waters as they circle above the trees, like irate parents berating their lazy children for sleeping in.
Breakfasts are the best part of the day here – a chance to indulge ourselves with all the traditional trappings of a Swedish breakfast that my wife grew up enjoying here and that I too have come to love, and that we both miss terribly in our everyday life in the UK: filmjölk, räkost, tunnbröd, Kalles caviar, the words themselves are enough to make my mouth water.
Mornings are also a great time for wildlife watching on the island, from the hares nibbling quietly on the grass to the roe deer which peer out shyly from the forest. The island is small, but extraordinarily rich in animal life. A couple of years ago, I was sitting quietly on a log in the woods when a pine marten came up almost to my toes. Take care to remain quiet when making an evening trip to the outside loo and you may see a badger snuffling for plums beneath the fruit trees. You may arrive by boat to find an elk standing in the potato patch watching the world go by.
Today was a day for raptors. As the whole family of Ospreys took suddenly to the skies, it was the first time I had had the chance to watch all four Ospreys in flight at the same time – they were heading purposefully straight for us and they passed so close that you could see the outline of every feather.
They seemed agitated, flapping and screeching, and a few seconds later it became clear why. Watching a buzzard at home in the UK being mobbed by crows as they try to defend their nests is a fascinating sight. Seeing an enormous adult White-tailed Sea Eagle being chased off by a squadron of Ospreys in hot pursuit is nothing short of spectacular.
It seems wrong to apply the image to such a graceful and majestic sight, but the first thing I was reminded of as the huge eagle passed overhead was the opening sequence of Star Wars, where an Imperial battle cruiser makes its seemingly neverending progress across the screen. The aerodynamic, sculpted forms of the Ospreys diving and wheeling around it stood in stark contrast to the imposing, solid bulk of the eagle, like rebel X-wing fighters on the attack.
It seemed that the Sea Eagles had also bred successfully this year, as later that day we would watch enthralled as a young eagle landed on the grass just a few metres from the house, looking out across the island with a quiet self-confidence like a young nobleman surveying the lands he would one day inherit.
White-tailed Sea Eagles are Sweden’s largest bird of prey, 70-90cm long with a wingspan of up to three metres. They have a square, “barn door” profile in flight and can live up to 25 years. They form a species pair with the American Bald Eagle.
As alpha predators, White-tailed Sea Eagles suffered severely in the past from accumulation of pollutants from their prey and were also subject to persecution. Between 1800 and 1970, populations declined steeply all over Europe. Numbers in Sweden are recovering well thanks to intensive conservation measures, including legal protection, habitat and breeding site preservation, winter feeding and a sharp reduction in the use of harmful chemicals. While still a rare and thrilling sight, White-tailed Sea Eagles are expanding their territories once more, and their recovery in Sweden and in a number of other European countries is a true conservation success story.
White-tailed Sea Eagles are able to breed from around 4-5 years of age and mate for life. Their mating display is spectacular, ending with both birds locking claws together and cartwheeling towards the ground. They nest in a huge eyrie of sticks on coastal cliffs or in trees, and often reuse the same nest for many generations. Nests may become so large and heavy that the trees collapse under their weight. Mating pairs produce up to three eggs a year between March and April each year.
In the UK, wildlife enthusiasts travel many miles and wait for hours for the sights we were enjoying at our leisure from the breakfast table – yet another reminder of what a special place Sweden is when it comes to nature and the outdoors. The day after tomorrow it will be time to return home to Dorset – but the cries of the Ospreys echoing across the water, the shadow cast by the Sea Eagle as it glided off into the distance, the scent of the birch trees swaying in the breeze, are vivid memories I will take back with me to England and treasure until my next visit.
Bob, The Nature Travels Team