Last night I was reading the diaries and letters of the 19th Century ornithologist Lord Lilford, whose Northamptonshire mansion and estate still stand near the River Nene just outside Oundle. In an entry for August 1883, he describes a meeting with an Osprey : ‘I had the delight of seeing Pandion soar over the park for ten minutes, and the following day he made two plunges at fishes on another part of the river……’ Quite a sight for the noble Lord, and a refreshingly enlightened approach in an age when such encounters so often ended with the ‘specimen’ mounted in a glass case!
No doubt Lord Lilford’s ‘Pandion’ was pausing to fish the Nene while on its way south. Being an educated man, he probably knew the origin of the scientific name ‘Pandion’, which was assigned in 1809 by the early biologist Savigny when he realised that the Osprey, whilst definitely an ‘Accipiter’, was significantly different in several respects from all other hawks and certainly deserved separate generic status. Unfortunately however, eminent though he may have been as a biologist, Savigny was less familiar with his Greek mythology. According to the story told by the 1st Century Roman poet Ovid in his ‘Metamorphoses’, Pandion was a legendary King of Athens, blessed with three daughters, all of whom came to tragic ends. The first, Procris, was ‘accidentally’ impaled by a magic spear hurled by her husband while she was hiding in a bush. The second, Procne, married King Tereus of Thrace, but he soon realised he had married the wrong sister, so he locked her up, cut out her tongue to keep her quiet, and told everyone she was dead. Then he married the third daughter, Philomel. Although she couldn’t speak, the mutilated Procne was able to sew and weave, so she made a tapestry telling the tragic tale and smuggled it out to her sister, who thought she was dead. In revenge, the two sisters then captured their tormentor’s little son, Itys, cooked him, and served him up to his father at a feast. Even the Gods on Mount Olympus objected to this, and intervened. Procne was turned into a Swallow, Philomel into a Nightingale (hence the old Latin name ‘Philomela Luscinia’) and the little boy Itys, though previously roasted, was revived and turned into a Goldfinch. The evil Tereus, who had brought about all this carnage, was transformed into a Hawk (species not defined), and his destiny was to chase the Swallow and the Nightingale eternally, but never catch them. Pandion was simply left to grieve. Why Savigny chose to name the Osprey after him remains a mystery.
I’m mulling over this strange tale as I walk to Site B today (April 26th), and wondering if I shall witness any of the shenanigans I’ve been hearing about, involving our own lonely old Pandion 09(98). No, he’s not around this morning, although I note our female is edgy, fidgety, and certainly not at ease, as she was last time I was here. It’s much colder today. Four Greylag Geese are doing circuits, round and round, and this annoys both the Ospreys. The female jumps off the eggs on one occasion as they pass overhead, but settles again as she sees her mate chasing them away. Once he is sure they have gone, he flies away strongly. I know that flight and that determination. His mate turns in the nest and stares fixedly in exactly the same direction. We both stay poised and alert to witness his return with his catch. And what a catch it is! About twenty minutes later, just as I am chatting to Tim on the ‘phone, he appears quite low over my head with a huge wriggling trout. He carries it to a nearby perch. As I make my way back at the end of my shift, I can still see him with his fish glinting in the sun…..
Back at home, I’m reading Lord Lilford again and wondering where it was exactly on the Nene that he had his ‘encounter with Pandion’ one hundred and twenty eight years ago. How lucky I am to have such encounters several times each week! I wish I could tell him about them.