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Après moi, le deluge…..

Here is the latest edition of Ken’s Diary…

Who said that? Was it Louis XV? Or XVI?  I’m not sure, but it certainly is a phrase that comes to mind in the midst of this monsoon-swept summer. I’ve been incredibly lucky this week……twelve hours osprey-watching at two sites, and I stayed dry the whole time, although there were downpours before and after each of my shifts. So I think I’ll make a slight adaptation to the title : ‘Après (et avant) moi, le deluge….’

After the previous week at Site B, when 03 was absent for virtually the whole time, the morning of 5th June sees him bringing in fish after fish to the nest, and my note-book looks like a bus timetable as I record his deliveries :

0854 :  small trout brought to nest. Female feeds chicks.

0939 :  another small-ish trout delivered.

1102 :  third trout of the morning. Medium-sized this time.

1150 :  very large (monstrous in fact) pike brought in.

This last delivery is one of those special moments which will be recalled years later, by which time the pike in question will probably have assumed legendary proportions! I first spot him carrying it in way to the south-west, labouring over the trees and into a stiff breeze as his wings beat deeply to bring his prize home. He veers over closer to me, and for a few moments is in profile against the white cloud, the outline of the pike unmistakeable beneath him. It is like a John Wright photograph, forever etched into my lifetime of osprey memories. He finally gains the perch near the nest, where the pike thrashes about energetically for several minutes before yielding to the powerful bill and scimitar talons of the master-fisher. To see a pike sailing over woodland, a good distance from the reservoir, is a powerful image now stowed forever in the memory bank!

A few days later, on June 10th, I am down in Manton Bay for my regular Sunday afternoon shift in Waderscrape hide. Once again, I’m lucky and the day is fine, after a spell of wet and windy weather which has brought problems for people and wildlife in various parts of the UK.  Tim and Lizzie have had a busy morning with visitors, including a coach party, but as usual they both find time for a chat over a mug of steaming Lyndon tea! The mood is tempered by the sad news from Dyfi, where two chicks ~  offspring of our own 03(08) and grand-chicks of 03(97) ~ have been lost to the atrocious weather in Wales. There is universal praise for the Dyfi team, and their outstanding efforts in saving the remaining chick. Osprey watchers worldwide are united in their hopes for this survivor.

Later, down in the hide, visitors are thrilled to see the two Manton Bay chicks, two weeks old now, moving around on ungainly legs and taking an interest in everything around them. News has filtered through that a few 2010 juveniles have been spotted at various locations, so we must keep our eyes open for them. Suddenly a visitor calls out ‘Look, a water vole!’ and sure enough we see the small creature disappearing up one of the channels in front of the hide. A good sign, especially in view of the nature reserve’s project to re-introduce them here.

A highlight for me this afternoon is the arrival in the hide of a former student of mine, Liz. I remember her as a talented historian, artist and musician, but now, ten years later, she is already a biologist of considerable repute, having graduated from the Royal Veterinary College with flying colours and in the past few years undertaken research trips on lemurs in Madagascar and tamarins in the Peruvian rain-forest. Later this summer she will be flying out to Borneo and Java to work on projects involving gibbons, orang-utans and proboscis monkeys! But today she and her boyfriend have come to see the Ospreys, and they stay for a long time, watching the family out in the bay. It occurs to me that many of the world’s renowned primatologists have been women ~ Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Alison Jolly to name but three ~ and Liz suggests this is because the animals they study ~ especially the males ~ feel less threatened by females than males. Liz has a brilliant blog recounting her adventures in Peru~ check it out at www.tamarintalesperu.wordpress.com

Suddenly, just after 4.00pm, everyone leaves the hide and I am alone. The sky looks threatening again and the water, until now calm and placid, is beginning to look lively. I have time to scan around, and I spot an unusual duck ~ a male Goldeneye ~ plentiful enough in winter, but a real rarity at this time of year. Pity there is no-one here to share it with me! I am still alone when my relief arrives just before 5.00, and so I wend my way back as the clouds continue to thicken and rain looks imminent. I just make it in time.

Two days later and I’m back at Site B. It has been  rain, rain and more rain over the past 48 hours, but at least it’s dry for me this morning. As I arrive, 03 is on his perch, looking over towards me. He looks good in this morning light, his white foreparts contrasting with the deep brown of his wings and back, and his outline  sleek, slim and smooth, reminding me of a framed painting of him by John Wright which I have on the wall at home. It’s part of a sequence called ‘Rutland Osprey Family Life’, and was completed in 2004. Various scenes from the season are depicted ~ 03 and his faithful mate 05(00) ~ and of course the two juveniles from that year (5R and 5N), both of which are thankfully still with us and breeding themselves now at Manton Bay and Site N respectively. The vignette I am reminded of today is labelled ‘Male on guard nearby’.  At fifteen years old, ‘Mr Rutland’ looks exactly the same this morning as he did eight years ago in John’s painting.  As I watch, he rises into the air and flies over me, no doubt towards the reservoir and another fishing trip. As he does so, his new mate, who flew in to take the place of 05(00) when she did not return in 2009, moves to the perch where he had been. Immediately three striped heads appear over the rim of the nest ~ his 25th, 26th and 27th offspring!

At 9.04 he is back with a trout for the family, and he resumes his vigil on the perch while they enjoy their fishy breakfast. Afterwards, peace resumes. Small parties of swifts swoop over the field, coming low to harvest the insects and then climbing high again. Like me, they sense rain is not far away. A pair of whitethroats have a nest nearby, and this morning both adults are active and noisy ~ in the thick bramble just away to my right, and also on the fence and posts in front. The cuckoo calls, but not as insistently as last week ~ his singing time is almost over.

Swift, whitethroat, cuckoo, osprey ~ all here with me now, but all due to join the flyways to Africa when the all too brief summer season is over. I savour every moment spent in their company.

By 12.30 I’m driving home in the rain. A man on the radio tells me that the Anglian Water Company has decided to lift its hose-pipe ban. With some regions of the country now under water, and over 50 flood warnings in operation, it’s been a funny old drought! I switch to another radio station. They’re talking about a 14th Century miracle play called ‘Noye’s Fludde’ ~ Noah’s Flood.  I switch off and drive home in silence.

Home alone

With the two Manton Bay chicks now four weeks old, you may have noticed that their mother spends less time sitting with them on the nest. Over the next few weeks this will become the norm as the chicks start getting more active prior to making their first flights. Today one of the youngsters had a really good go at wing flapping. As the video shows, it is still very unsteady, but is starting to get the idea!

As the chicks prepare for their first flights, the female won’t be far away. On this occasion she was sitting on the perch above the camera – where she’s able to keep a close eye on her offspring.

Although we have had nowhere near as much rain as other parts of the country, there were one or two really heavy showers this morning and the female did her best to shelter the two chicks during the worst of the weather. It’s quite a tricky job, though, now they’re the size they are!

Nest maintenance and growing feathers

A few people have commented recently about how low the sides of the Manton Bay nest are. The camera angle exaggerates this somewhat, but it is true that 5R and his mate do not indulge in as much nest-building as most Ospreys. That said, they have been adding a few sticks to the edge of the nest today, including this awkward one. It caused the female a few problems as she attempted to get it in the right place.

If you look closely at the right hand chick in the video, you can see how the feathers in its right wing are still ‘in pin’. Over the next few weeks the feathers will develop fully, enabling the youngster to make its first flight in about four weeks’ time.

Wing-flapping!

Its been a blustery day in Rutland and it has encouraged the Manton Bay chicks to start wing-flapping for the first time. I say wing-flapping, it’s actually more like wing-flopping, but is another sign that they are developing at an incredible rate. They are still about four weeks away from making their first flights, but they will become more and more active over the coming weeks. Be sure to keep a close eye on the webcam!

A huge thanks to everyone who has sponsored us for the Three Peaks challenge. Our total now stands at over £3600 with gift aid – a fantastic response. Without wishing to be greedy, it would be brilliant to get to £4000, so if you haven’t already sponsored us, then please consider doing so. You can sponsor us online here. To read more about the challenge and why we did it, click here.

The team ready for the off (L-R: Chris, Michelle, Paul, Tim & Gavin)

Three Peaks Tour

At 2am this morning myself and the rest of the Three Peaks team – Michelle, Paul, Gavin and Chris – arrived back in Rutland after a fantastic, if very tiring few days. We might all be suffering from sleep deprivation and aching limbs, but it is more than worth it!

A manic few days started at 8:30am on Monday morning when we collected the minibus Tim Norton Ford in Oakham very kindly donated free of charge for the challenge.

The team ready for the off (L-R: Chris, Michelle, Paul, Tim & Gavin)

We were on the road shortly afterwards, heading for our lunchtime talk at the Lake District Osprey Project. During the winter, when we were discussing ways to raise money for our education project in West Africa, the Three Peaks jumped out at us as a great idea. Not only would it provide us with a difficult physical challenge, but it would also take us to the various other parts of the UK where Ospreys breed.  The whole concept of our Osprey education project is to link communities through Osprey migration and what better place to start than at other UK Osprey sites? With this in mind, we arranged talks at the Lake District Osprey Project and Loch of the Lowes on Monday before we tackled the mountains, and the Dyfi Osprey Project on Wednesday for after we had finished.

Chris Ditchburn, later nick-named ‘the Stig’, was our designated driver for the three days and, despite a late start from Rutland as we struggled to get what seemed like a ridiculous amount of luggage into the mini-bus, he got us to Keswick in the nick of time. It was great to see several friends of the project at the talk, including Pete Davies and Barbara Thompson. 

After lunch (thanks Barbara!) we were back on the road again, heading for the Loch of the Lowes, home to perhaps the most well-known Osprey in the UK, 27 year-old ‘Lady’. We were met by Emma Rawling, Lindsey Gibb  and Jonathan Pinnick from the Scottish Wildlife Trust and a group of project volunteers and local residents. Our talk, which covered our recent satellite-tracking studies, visits to West Africa and, most-importantly, the education project  in West Africa we’re raising money for. We even had time for a relaxing half hour or so in the hide, chatting to some volunteers and admiring the nest and very tranquil surrounds.

Loch of Lowes

We were having such a good time that we’d almost forgotten about the mountains, but next morning it was onto the main business…

We arrived at a rainy Fort William around lunchtime and after a quick chat with Sally Pepper on BBC Radio Leicester, bought some supplies for what was going to be a gruelling 24 hours. At 3:30pm we set-off towards the summit of Ben Nevis; at 1344 metres the highest peak in the UK. If we were were going to finish the challenge in 24 hours then we knew we had to get up and down the mountain by about 8:30pm – and had the added incentive of getting back to the minibus to listen to the second half of the England football match at Euro 2012.

By 6pm we were approaching the summit, but thick fog made the going pretty tough. By the time we actually reached the top you couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of you, but as we descended again, the clouds suddenly cleared, providing us with the most incredible view of a seemingly endless mosaic of lochs and mountains.  

Ready for the off at the foot of Ben Nevis

Descending from Ben Nevis - and enjoying the view

Once back at the bus there was no time to waste and after a quick bit of carb-loading in the form of another bowl of pasta we were on our way to the Lake District at about 9pm.

Chris made light work of the 260 mile drive to Scafell Pike and we arrived bang on time at 2:30am, despite the best efforts of a few kamikaze sheep. We had all managed a bit of broken sleep on the bus and it was just as well – we knew we needed to be at the summit of the highest mountain in England by 5am at the latest. We set-off with head torches lighting the way and made it to the top just as the sun appeared over the eastern horizon at about 4:40am. With a completely clear sky and excellent visibility, it made for a truly unforgettable sight.

Sunrise on the summit of Scafell Pike

No sooner had we got to the bottom of Scafell, than we were off again. Its over 200 miles from the Lake District to Snowdon and so we had no time to waste if we were going to finish the challenge by 3:30pm. We arrived at Snowdon just after 11:30am – Chris again doing us proud – and set-off immediately. By now we were all feeling the effects of the previous two mountains and by the time we approached the summit of Snowdon, every step was proving painful! We made it though, arriving at the top at 1:15pm. We could now relax a bit more, and even had time to admire the view on the way back down. We got back to the minibus at 3:06pm, meaning we had completed the challenge in 23 hours and 36 minutes. And didn’t our legs just know it! It was great to see Alwyn Evans from the Dyfi Project who was there to greet us.  

Snowdon

Tim and Gavin at the summit of Snowdon

Michelle and Paul at the summit of Snowdon

Once we got to the bottom of Snowdon we were off again – heading south to the Dyfi Osprey Project where our good friend Emyr Evans had arranged a great venue in Machynlleth for our talk that evening. We were met by Emyr, Janine Pannett and a large group who were all assembled ready for the talk. There was a great atmosphere and lots of good questions and suggestions afterwards. Everyone agreed that it is vital that we do all we can to protect migrant birds such as Ospreys on their wintering grounds – and that education is fundamental to this being successful. We hope that through our education work in West Africa we can help safeguard Ospreys from the UK, and also millions of other migratory birds that make such amazing journeys to get there each year. We also hope to enrich the lives of school children who otherwise have very little opportunity to enjoy the wonderful wildlife that their country – and indeed continent – is home to. Isn’t it great to think that it is the Ospreys themselves who are making this all possible?

Before we headed back to Rutland, there was just time for a quick look at Nora – our Rutland Osprey who has made Dyfi her home –  and for some fish and chips with Emyr, Janine and Alwyn at the Dyfi Osprey Project centre. At 10pm we all piled back onto the minibus and set-off on the four-hour drive back to Rutland. The previous 48 hours all seemed a bit of a blur – but what a fantastic couple of days it had been!

Tim speaking during the talk at the Dyfi Osprey Project

Finally, some thanks yous. Firstly to everyone at the Lake District Osprey Project, Loch of the Lowes and the Dyfi Osprey project for their hospitality and support; to Tim Norton Ford in Oakham, for loan of the minibus, free of charge; to Gavin Young for organising everything; to Chris Ditchburn for his brilliant driving; to Lizzie Lemon for holding the fort at Rutland Water while we were away – and baking some amazing cakes to keep us going on the mountains; and last, but-by-no-means-least, a huge thank you to everyone who came to our talks or who has sponsored us for the challenge. We are very grateful to you all. Click on the video below for a reminder of what your money will be helping us to do. And, if you would like to sponsor you can still do so online, by clicking here. Please help us to get over the £3000 mark! For more photos of the trip, check out our Facebook album.