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By Holly Hucknall on January 18, 2018
This year the osprey team is taking a break from the annual trip to The Gambia (although if you caught our last blog you will see we’ve still been getting great osprey updates from West Africa!). Instead, we’ve been keeping busy at the Lyndon reserve, with weekly work parties led by Information Officer Paul Stammers.
A team of around 20 osprey monitoring volunteers keep volunteering throughout the winter, carrying out practical work on the reserve to ensure it remains in top condition for wildlife and for visitors.
The team have carried out a range of tasks this winter, including coppicing woodland, weaving willow fences, brush cutting and raking meadows, and cutting back hedges.
After all the hard work everyone returns to the visitor centre for Paul’s homemade soup and cake made by volunteer Jan. Look at the excellent work party themed Christmas cake she made…
Thank you to all the volunteers who help keep Lyndon at its best over winter, ready for the return of the ospreys and the visitors they bring in the spring. It won’t be long now!
By Holly Hucknall on August 4, 2017
A blog entry by Education Officer Ken Davies.
At 4.45pm in Whitwell Creek on Wednesday August 2nd the wind is howling through the trees and the water is churning into white crests. Rain falls in gusty spasms, visibility is poor, the temperature is low. In the café, a few hardy souls sit and look out of the windows, huddled over their cups of tea. Children amuse themselves with games, phone apps and other diversions. Two couples are outdoor types, binoculars on the table in front of them, their sober-coloured clothing ready to help them brave the elements.
Yes, this is high summer at Rutland Water, and in just over an hour eighty people are off on a cruise aboard the ‘Rutland Belle’ to see some of the fabulous Ospreys!
It’s 5.00pm and the café closes, forcing people outside. I sit on a bench near the quay, the Belle just a few metres away, bobbing in the water and straining at her moorings. No sign of Captain Matt and his crew. I get the passenger list out on my clip-board, trying to protect it from the rain, and prepare to check people off as they walk down from the car-park towards the quay. The first to check in are the people who were in the café just now, and I re-assure them about the weather. ‘It’s brightening up, it will be fine by 6.00pm, and anyway this is good weather for Osprey-spotting. The rain brings the insects down to the surface, and it also oxygenises the water, making the fish more active, which of course attracts the attention of the Ospreys.’ Some accept this as a little piece of local knowledge, but others give me a quizzical look and obviously don’t believe a word. ‘We’ll see nothing in this weather’, I hear one chap say to his partner. They obviously think I’m quite mad, sitting there in a voluminous anorak and waterproof trousers, predicting a cruise full of ospreys, and brandishing a damp passenger list on which the ink is already starting to run.
Over the next half hour, more and more people arrive and check in. Our passengers tonight have come from near and far – one large group consists of members of our own Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust, while another group have travelled down from Cumbria in the north and have spent most of the day on the Lyndon Reserve meeting the Project staff and volunteers. Ospreys are now breeding in Cumbria too. One member of the Cumbrian Wildlife Trust group is Paul Waterhouse, who began his career in conservation here with the Rutland Osprey Project back in the early days. So good to see you again, Paul! Another man checks in and reminds me he came on a cruise last year and only saw one distant Osprey which ‘could have been anything. I’m not getting off the boat tonight until I’ve had some decent views,’ he says. I think he means it!
As the crowd on the quay gets larger, Jackie and Pete circulate to issue exit tickets for the car-park and to answer visitors’ questions. ‘Will it stop raining?’ ‘How many Ospreys will we see?’ ‘Are there toilets on board?’ Answers : Yes, lots, yes. Our Information Officer Holly is here tonight too – not on duty, but accompanying her family members who have come to see what she does every day! And we will have the trusty volunteer contingent on board too, to inform passengers and point out Ospreys and other wildlife to them. Finally Matt and his crew appear as if by magic. Were they on board the whole time? Uniforms are crisply ironed and smart. Matt stands by the gangplank and indicates that embarkation may commence. He also clicks a counter to check numbers – let’s hope we agree when everyone is on!
After an orderly loading, I check the lists and conclude that everyone named on the paperwork is present and correct. And guess what? As I look out beyond the Creek onto the open water, visibility is improving, the clouds are lifting, the rain is stopping, and………….best of all, there is an Osprey sitting on the topmost point of the Limnological Tower in the middle of the reservoir!! Wow…and the Belle hasn’t even slipped her moorings yet!
As Matt goes through the important safety procedures and rules, we are itching to get out there and connect with this Osprey! Which one is it? Will it stay around this part of the water and look for a fish? Will everyone get a good look at it? We glide away, all binoculars focussed on the Osprey, which soon leaves its perch and starts to circle around, gaining height, looking down and obviously in fishing mode. Jackie is on the microphone, encouraging everyone wherever they are on the boat to keep watching. Incredibly the first Osprey is joined by a second, and for a few moments they interact and engage together, before separating and going about their tasks, one over the dam at the end of the reservoir, the other away on the other side at the entrance to one of the arms. Jackie does a running commentary, keeping passengers abreast of the Ospreys’ movements. ‘Osprey to starboard’, ‘Osprey to port at 3 o’clock’. This works for some, but the group near me have no idea what I am talking about, so I revert to ‘On the left, just by the church tower’, or even ‘Over your head’ and ‘Just behind you!’
The weather improves by the minute, and there is hardly a gap in the excitement as the Ospreys continue to look for fish and Matt skilfully steers the Belle towards them. I see the man I overheard earlier saying ‘We’ll see nothing in this weather’, but I don’t say ‘I told you so.’ He seems happy and is clicking away with his expensive-looking camera. Downstairs the bar is doing good business, and groups of people are gathering by the windows looking out over an improving evening and enjoying a glass of wine too. Our friends from Cumbria are on the open prow, taking everything in and mentally envisaging what could happen up there in the north in the next few years. All very exciting. Pete is giving them the background to all the educational work we do here with our local schools and youth groups. Holly’s group is having fun too, with their own personal guide and expert osprey spotter!
Back up on the top deck, conditions are….well, not exactly balmy, but a hundred times better than looked likely an hour ago. We are now in another arm of the Reservoir. An Osprey (maybe the same one) is in view, really close, patrolling up and down, circling, descending, half-diving, pulling out…… my goodness, what a show this one is putting on! Worth the money on its own! ‘Which one is it?’ asks someone. Well, in the absence of John Wright, all I can say is that it’s a male, probably a breeding male fishing for his mate and juveniles. That cuts it down to eight, and I know it’s not 28(10) because there is no misshapen wing, so that cuts it down to seven. The questioner looks satisfied, thank goodness! And then it happens…..the highlight of the cruise, and even the season…….
After several half-dives, false starts and pull-outs, the Osprey hits the water in a full-blown dive, not far from the shore, giving everyone on board a super view as Matt keeps the Belle idling side-on in the water. Seeing an Osprey dive like that is one of the great wildlife moments for any one of us, and even experienced watchers still thrill with excitement whenever they are privileged to witness it. The shape, the speed, the last second forward movement of the legs and the opening of the dynamic talons, all combine in just a few moments of life-enhancing magic! No-one can guarantee it, but when it happens, it’s wonderful.
The atmosphere on the top deck is electric, the gasp of admiration audible as the bird hits the water. Now we wait. Has he caught? Is he as we watch manipulating a fish in his talons so that he can use his powerful shoulder muscles and wings to heave it from the water? Next moment we know…..he rises on his wings, and the silvery glint beneath him reveals that he has indeed caught his prey. The drama is not yet over. As he rises to tree-top level and prepares to orientate himself and take the fish back to his mate and family, another Osprey attempts to intercept him. The two engage for a minute – the successful hunter cannot risk losing his fish, but on the other hand he cannot ignore an interloper who may be preparing to invade his territory. Thankfully, the encounter does not last too long, and after a moment when the fish seemed to dangle precariously from one talon, it is secured again and the hunter proceeds over the tree-tops and away to deliver his prey, while the intruder sinks low and flies back up the reservoir.
Further sightings follow, but nothing can top what we have just witnessed. Wine is flowing again downstairs, and a rosy glow permeates the whole boat. We try and chat to all our guests, and make sure they are enjoying their evening out with us. My final view of an Osprey tonight is one sitting in the exact same spot on the top of the tower – just where we saw him about an hour and a half ago. All our Ospreys have ‘favourite perches’ here, on migration, and in Africa – I wonder where he will be in two or three months time?
The cloud is closing in again and the light is failing as the Belle glides back into Whitwell Creek at the end of a memorable cruise. A few raindrops are falling. Jackie ends her commentary by thanking people for coming and wishing them a safe journey home. We hope they all enjoyed it. After a few formalities, the crew prepare to cover the Belle for the night, and the busy car-park soon empties. I am last to leave. I can hardly see the Tower now, but I imagine the Osprey still on there, eyes occasionally flicking closed as he rests in the gathering dusk. We entered his world for a while, but now it’s his again.
By Kayleigh Brookes on July 27, 2017
Here is a report from Education Officer Ken Davies on the work of the Osprey Education Team this month!
An End of Term Report
‘It must be nice to work here every day’, said one of our young visitors at the Lyndon Reserve recently, as we walked down together to Wader Scrape hide with her friends and Brownie leaders. ‘It is,’ I replied, ‘and that’s not only thanks to the Ospreys and the other fantastic wildlife that surrounds us all the time, but it’s also down to the hundreds of friendly and enthusiastic people like you who visit the Reserve every single day of the week, and also to the brilliant staff and volunteers we work with here.’ My young friend thought for a minute, and then said ‘I’ll come and work here when I grow up, if that’s OK.’ ‘It’s fine’, I replied, ‘you’ll be very welcome.’
These July days are good times to be living and working around Rutland Water. The Manton Bay Osprey pair have raised two strong and healthy fledged juveniles and it looks very likely that we shall have a very good number of juveniles fledging from the other seven nests. As usual, the Lyndon Reserve is pulling in visitors in great numbers and our schools and youth group diary has been full to overflowing with bookings in the mornings, afternoons and evenings. Osprey Cruises are once again so popular that there is hardly a space left, and the Reserve wildlife log-book has recorded spectacular sightings of moths, butterflies, bats, reptiles, beetles and rare plants, not to mention the fantastic birdlife on view the whole time down here in the Bay – Water Rails, Barn Owls, Great White Egrets……and so many more, including of course the wonderful Ospreys!
My Brownie friend ran on ahead to join her friends on the track, and I reflected on that brief exchange with her. Yes, she was right, it is ‘nice’ to work here! More than that. It’s exciting. Amazing. Exhilarating. Rewarding. And lots of other sentiments too. When I returned home later that evening, I just flicked back in my diary to the beginning of July. Here are the brief edited highlights of the past fortnight or so, concentrating on the end-of-term activities of the Osprey Education Team.
We began July with another visit to Stamford High School, where a large group of forty Year 9 students awaited us. Before we had even started our presentation, one girl told us that she lived on a farm near the Lyndon Reserve, and her father often reported Ospreys flying over his fields! Lucky him! Twenty four hours later and we are entertaining a younger group from a school on a visit to us – Brooke House School in Cosby, Leicestershire. It’s the first time they’ve been here to see the Ospreys, and their reactions seem to suggest it won’t be the last! A very pleasant day with super young people!
One day later, and a rare morning off! I take the chance to drive just a few miles over the Nottinghamshire border to link up with a small group of European Bee-eaters which have taken up residence near a working quarry. We manage to see five of them – dazzling birds with a startling array of wonderful colours in their plumage. They fly high, then land with their prey, calling all the time, busy, energetic creatures going about their lives completely unfazed by the watching crowd! Am I in Central England? Surely this must be the Camargue or maybe Andalucia! A Hobby appears in the sky, dancing around with the Bee-eaters, Swifts and Martins. A blue sky, full of wildness! I love it!
Another day, and back to business! It is my contention that there is only one school in the UK that can actually WALK its students out of their classrooms and be watching Ospreys within a few minutes! Of course it’s Edith Weston School, or, as we like to call it ‘Osprey School No.1’! The whole school is coming to see the Ospreys over a period of a week, and today it’s the turn of the younger Key Stage 1 boys and girls. They arrive in a flurry of excitement, and soon we are ‘off to see the Ospreys’, all equipped with special child-friendly binoculars, chatting, pausing to look at damsel flies, butterflies and loads of sombre Cormorants sitting quietly in the dead trees in the water. As we enter the hide, we sense something very special has just happened…..and it has!! At 10.14am precisely, just half an hour before our arrival, one of the juvenile Ospreys took its maiden flight, and now sits, a little uncertainly, on the far leaning perch! Maya shadowed its flight, but has now returned to her own perch closer to the nest. Everyone in the hide, from the youngest (aged six) to the oldest (probably me!) is transfixed, willing the youngster to fly again! By the time we leave the hide, there have been no more flights, but to be there on such a day is a special memory for everyone.
During the afternoon, my colleagues Jackie and Pete take the chance to go off and see the Bee-eaters, based on my account of yesterday, but they are back in plenty of time to receive our next group of visitors – the wonderful Oakham Brownie Unit, together with their accompanying collection of ‘Owls’ – was it Brown, Tawny or Snowy this time? We have met these Brownies before, in their HQ in Oakham, so they are already quite expert – in fact one of them is now an Osprey Ambassador for us in her own school. Holly joins us, and after a brief introduction in the Centre, off we go down to the hide again – a colourful procession in shades of yellow and brown! Almost as colourful as the Bee-eaters! The second juvenile Osprey has not fledged yet, but it could be any moment…
What a week it’s been so far! And it’s not over yet! On Friday evening there is a special cruise on board the ‘Rutland Belle’ for members of the ‘Wildlife Watch’ – a group organised by the Leics & Rutland Wildlife Trust. They have been meeting monthly all through the year, and this is their family event to end their programme for the summer. Sadly for me, on my way to Whitwell Creek to join the cruise, the Great North Road becomes the Great North Car-park, and I am still a few miles away when the Belle is due to cast off. As I stand disconsolately on the jetty, all alone, with the Belle a distant shape out on the reservoir, my mobile sounds and it’s Skipper Matt! He has spotted me, and is coming back for me! Minutes later, to the accompaniment of some ribbing from the crew, I am installed on board, and we have a lovely cruise, with six or seven Osprey sightings, and plenty of other wildlife too. Thanks Matt!
After the briefest of respites, it’s ‘all systems go’ again on Sunday, as we welcome our student representatives from local schools for their latest ‘Ambassador Sunday’ in Wader Scrape hide. The second juvenile Osprey has now fledged, so the theme for today has to be ‘Fledging and Flight’, and Pete updates each ambassador’s memory stick with the latest pictures so that they can share them back in their schools in the days ahead. Jackie has prepared a script, so our young reporters are well primed to deliver the latest news. One set of ambassadors from Uppingham have even been invited to visit another school to spread the word! The enthusiasm and ingenuity of these young people is very re-assuring and heart-warming. Several of our Year 6 ambassadors tell us they have already taken steps to appoint new representatives to take their places next year when they move on to new schools – and of course we hope they will remain as ambassadors once they are settled in their respective secondary schools. Some are even planning official ‘handovers’ and training their replacements! We shall continue to have ‘Ambassador Sundays’ in August (13th) and September (3rd) for those that can make it, and on Sunday October 1st we are planning a ‘Grand Ambassadors Party’ to thank them all (and their parents) for all their hard work in promoting the Rutland Ospreys this season. Has anyone got a jelly-mould in the shape of an Osprey?
The following week (beginning July 10th) is just as busy as the previous one, with visits to Lyndon by 28 Year Six students from All Saints Academy in March, Cambridgeshire, the second stage of the Edith Weston ‘Walk to see the Ospreys’ tour of the South Shore,, two evening cruises on board the ‘Rutland Belle’, and finally on Friday a special Celebration Assembly at Casterton Primary, near Stamford. We have been invited to join in the celebrations of achievements of various kinds, and our job is to award the First and Third Prizes to two groups of students who sent their entries in for our ‘Ospreys and Us’ film competition. We show the winning entry to the whole school, before handing out the certificates and book prizes. It is a lovely occasion. There are also prizes for a student who wrote an epic story called ‘Finding Ozzie’, and another for a girl who drew a lovely picture of Ospreys in Africa. Perhaps the best moment is when our two outgoing ambassadors, Sam and Louie, introduce and hand over their duties to the new Casterton Ambassadors team. It’s all looking good for next season!
At home that weekend I go through the diary and start to add up the numbers of young people (aged 5 – 16), to whom we have presented, either in their own schools or here at the Lyndon Reserve. To my surprise, the total so far, up to and including 14th July, is a staggering 2997. With one week to go before all the schools have broken up, it looks like we are going to beat our record number, set last year, of students who have been ‘ospreyed’ here!
And that record goes tumbling on the first day of the new week (July 17th), when Jackie and Pete go to Edith Weston Primary for one last time this season, to address the assembly and present yet more prizes. Later that day, Holly joins us as we entertain our last visit of the term – a splendid group from Prince William School in Oundle, Northamptonshire! These Year 7 and 8 students have already formed their own ‘Osprey Club’ and have been following the webcam since Maya and 33(11) returned in the Spring. I think we shall be seeing some of them again! And to top things off perfectly, during today we passed the magic figure of 3000 students, with our final total being a record-breaking 3071!
There can be no greater thrill for a writer than to come across someone actually reading his or her book! It happened to me a couple of Sundays ago, when I arrived at the Lyndon Centre to find a girl sitting in the corner with a copy of ‘Ozzie Leads the Way’! I learned later that her Dad had bought it for her earlier that morning, and she had spent time in the hide reading it (after getting a good look at the Ospreys of course!), carried on reading it on the path on the way back, then in the Centre itself, and even on the steps outside the pub where the family went for lunch! Her name is Jessica. I hope she sees this. A few days later, I received an e-mail from her Dad, with a little note from Jessica :
Dear Ken, Hello, it’s Jessica. I have now finished my book and I really, really, like it! Thank you for my badge and your signature. I like the part when Ken goes to Africa and meets all the children. What is your favourite part? I think you should make another book like that (as I really loved this one). Thank you for making such a lovely book for everyone and I hope you enjoyed reading this. From Jessica xxx.
Thank you Jessica! And yes, I certainly did enjoy receiving your letter!
I hope it is clear now why we enjoy this job so much, and why we feel it is such a privilege to be involved every day with spectacular wildlife, talented, committed and passionate colleagues, the splendid volunteer force, and so many hundreds of enthusiastic and wonderful young people and their supportive families. As another school term comes to an end and our thoughts turn to our Osprey Family Fun Day (August 1st) and the ever popular Birdfair (August 18th – 20th), thank you to everyone who has helped us enjoy ‘An Osprey Summer, 2017.’
By Holly Hucknall on June 22, 2017
A Hide full of Beavers, a Visit from ‘Ladies in Red’, a Letter from Rhiannon, Assemblies in St Ives, a Saturday Afternoon in Oundle, Osprey Ambassadors on a Sunday Afternoon in Wader Scrape hide………and on tour in the Basque Country! By Ken Davies.
The Osprey Education visits diary is full to overflowing here at the Lyndon Reserve just now, as local schools and youth organisations flock in to see the growing Osprey family in Manton Bay! The next four weeks are jam-packed with bookings from schools all over the area, and our young Osprey Ambassadors are working hard to keep their fellow students up to date with the very latest Osprey news! Our colleagues Jackie and Pete Murray are currently taking the Osprey Roadshow to new audiences in the Basque area of Northern Spain, and they have already given presentations to two schools which visited the Urdaibai Bird Centre over there! We’re looking forward very much to reading their reports on here when they return next week.
Meanwhile back here at Lyndon, we’ve entertained many groups from local schools, and been out to several more with our presentations and updates. Here are some highlights and a few photos from recent days :
A Hide full of Beavers : The visit of the 1st Stamford Beavers was one of the highlights of early June! After a brief introduction in front of the screen in the Visitor Centre, we were off to Wader Scrape, where the Osprey pair put on a terrific show, enabling everyone to see both Maya and 33(11) very clearly, and their chicks too. The Beavers worked hard to complete the Osprey-related tasks in their books, and by the end of the visit we agreed that they were all real ‘Osprey Experts’!
The Ladies in Red : A Year 8 group from Stamford High School arrived looking resplendent in red track-suit tops, and they made a colourful sight as we took them and their teachers down to the hide. Many of these students were really knowledgeable regarding the Ospreys and other wildlife, and some of their questions were searching and challenging! For example…..Why don’t any Ospreys breed in Africa? Why don’t males and females stay together over the winter? Why do adult females often leave their chicks and start to migrate in August? Enquiring minds promising for the future! And several were happy by the end of the visit to refer to Pandion Haliaetus rather than the usual ‘Osprey’!
A Letter from Rhiannon: I remember one Sunday afternoon in August last year a young man and his daughter came in to Wader Scrape hide to study the Ospreys at the nest. They were both enthusiastic and very keen to learn as much as they could. My story ‘Ozzie Leads the Way’ had just been published in time for Birdfair 2016, so I thought it might be nice to give a copy to this girl. ‘On one condition’, I added as she started to read it immediately, ‘that you write to me and tell me what you think of it.’ She said she would. I completely forgot about it over the winter, but you can imagine how pleased and surprised I was to find an envelope addressed to me pinned up on the office notice-board, and inside a letter from Rhiannon, with a review of the book! And here it is!
Thank you Rhiannon……and I’m glad you liked the book!
Assemblies in St Ives: No, not the St Ives in Cornwall – there’s another one (just as nice!) near Huntingdon, and I was invited to give two Osprey assemblies at a fantastic primary school there called Thorndown. Over two days last week, with the help of Miss Gray and her eco-team, we spoke to over 500 children and gave them the full ‘Osprey Experience’ ! Miss Gray’s class is called (appropriately) ‘Osprey Class’, and they are now practising one of the Osprey songs we always end our assemblies with! Go-ahead schools like this, with an eco-team which meets weekly, and an annual ‘Eco-week’, are a pleasure to visit! Happy children, smiling teachers, good vibes everywhere! Thank you for letting us come and see you!
A Saturday Afternoon in Oundle: Osprey Team members often receive requests to talk to adult groups as well, and we are pleased to do so. Last Saturday I was in Oundle, speaking to a group called ‘Friends of Oundle Library’. It’s a nice opportunity to use a more advanced presentation, and to talk in detail about Osprey biology, breeding, migration, wintering behaviour, satellite tracking, conservation and so on. It’s also a good fund-raiser for us, and I would like to thank the ‘Friends’ for their generosity! Over £100 in book sales and donations towards the Osprey Project. One thing in common with school presentations – we finished with an Osprey song!
Osprey Ambassadors in Wader Scrape hide : The theme of this month’s ‘Ambassador Sunday’ was ‘Ringing’, and the ambassadors received updates on their memory sticks to take back and share with their classmates or in school assembly. It was extremely hot on Sunday, and the Osprey family was not very active, but our team of brilliant helpers had plenty for the ambassadors to do, including fitting them all with a blue wrist or ankle ring, similar to the ones fitted to the chicks this week, except that our young ambassadors could choose the letters and numbers on their rings! The Ambassador Scheme has really taken off this year, and nearly all our local primary schools are represented. Further ‘Ambassador Sundays’ are planned for July 9th, August 13th and September 3rd, and the themes for each one will relate to that particular stage of the juvenile Ospreys’ development – the last one, sadly, being ‘Departure on Migration’ !
Future Events, new schemes, our rationale: As I hope this quick snapshot of our work over the past fortnight shows, there are many facets to the educational work undertaken by team members. At the centre of it, of course, the Ospreys themselves : the re-establishment of a formerly lost breeding species, its gradual recovery and increasing range, is surely a testament to the pioneering vision of the early founders of the Project and the tireless volunteers. Education has always been an integral part of the Project’s work, and this has borne fruit in the fact that many of the young people involved in those early years are now in the forefront of conservation themselves, including a certain Dr Tim Mackrill! And people we first met in their schools are now reading for first degrees and research degrees in Ecology, Wild Animal Conservation and many other subjects in universities all over the UK. We like to think that some of our current crop of Osprey Ambassadors will one day lead wildlife-related projects of their own. So why not bring your family to our Osprey Family Fun Day (August 1st), or visit us on the Osprey Stand during Birdfair (August 18th – 20th)? For someone in your life, it could be the start of something big!
Finally, a reply to my young friend Rhiannon and her Dad, using the words of the great Rachel Carson, who first alerted us back in the 60’s to the fragile and delicate nature of the planet of which we are the current custodians :
‘If a child is to keep her inborn sense of wonder, she needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with her the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.’
(The Sense of Wonder, 1965)
By Kayleigh Brookes on May 31, 2017
Here is Ken Davies’ account of his birthday cruise aboard the Rutland Belle on Saturday!
Have you ever had a day which was just so special, so magical from beginning to end, that you thought it was probably one of the best in your life? A wedding day perhaps, or the birth of a child? Or maybe a successful job interview, or the fulfilment of a lifetime’s ambition? Or an especially exciting wildlife encounter, a once in a lifetime experience with wild creatures in the South African veldt, the snowy Siberian wastes, the Himalayan foothills, the icy reaches of Antarctica? Would you be surprised if I told you that I’ve just had one of these days – and it all happened just thirty minutes away from my home here in Central England, and on the precise date of my 70th birthday?
The story begins several weeks ago, in the Osprey Project office at the Lyndon Nature Reserve. Kayleigh is checking the bookings for the first Osprey cruise of the season on board the ‘Rutland Belle’. ‘Mmm’, she says, ‘bookings are a bit slow for the first cruise. What can we do to attract some more people?’ I glance over her shoulder at the bookings sheet…..and the date jumps out at me! It’s only the date of my birthday, for goodness sake, and a special birthday at that! I say nothing, but go away with an idea formulating in my head…..Why not make a block booking on the boat, and invite friends and colleagues to join me on a special Osprey cruise to celebrate my becoming a septuagenarian?
At home that night I start to make a list of the people I would want to join me on this adventure. After fifteen minutes I have 75 names on the list. That’s ridiculous – it would cost the earth, and anyway the ‘Belle’ only takes 70 on Osprey cruises. So I start again, and decide to set up new criteria – a few former colleagues from my teaching career, then the people who made up the 2017 Rutland Osprey Project expedition to Gambia and Senegal, plus some Osprey volunteers with whom I have worked closely over the years, not forgetting all present and some past Rutland Osprey staff, and of course some of the fantastic young people who started their wildlife experiences with us here…….and leave a few places for people who don’t fit any of the criteria but I want them there anyway!
Several days later, the list is a more manageable 36, but doubts are starting to set in. What if no-one wants to come? What if people say it’s a silly idea? What if the weather’s awful and we see nothing? What if there has been a sudden surge in bookings by members of the public, and there are no longer places available? One Sunday afternoon, I share my plan with Kayleigh. She looks stunned for a moment, but then agrees it would be an excellent way to celebrate a special birthday, and yes, places are still available. So that evening, I sit down and start to send out the invitations, and wait…
One week later, and it’s all done. 31 say ‘yes, please, love to come’, and 5 send their apologies because they’re already committed on that day. 31 it is then! Should be quite a cruise! Trouble is, it’s still four weeks away……but excitement mounts as the big day gets nearer…..and nearer!
I waken gradually on the day in question. Bit by bit consciousness returns, and I remember. Today is the day! I decide I’m not going to mention the big seven-0 number today. No, instead I’ll be LXX – that looks much better and less scary. ‘The days of our years are three score years and ten’ I recall from the Old Testament….but then I remember the last part of that Psalm….’for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.’ I shudder, and wish it hadn’t come into my head at all. Stick with LXX : ‘And how old are you today?’ asks the friendly postman as he delivers some cards. ‘I’m LXX’, I reply, and he smiles. He obviously knows his Roman numerals!
The day flies by. Messages, ‘phone calls and cards from friends, family, former colleagues and students in some faraway places as well as nearer to home, a lovely lunch, a quiet afternoon, and then quite suddenly it’s time to leave for Whitwell Creek and the long-awaited LXX birthday Osprey Cruise! Whoo-hoo! Let’s do it!
The harbour is heaving with people. It’s Bank Holiday weekend, and Whitwell Creek is also the home of the Aqua Park, a sort of small version of Alton Towers on the water. Looks like something to be avoided. I go down to the quay, and find the ‘Rutland Belle’ is still out. She’ll be back soon. As I sit down by the gangplank, people start to gather, recognising my ‘Rutland Ospreys’ shirt. The first few of my LXX birthday guests arrive, together with nearly forty members of the public who have booked, giving the boat its full complement. By the time the ‘Belle’ glides into view, looking sleek and virtually silent after the winter-time refurbishment of her engine, everyone is ready to embark, pumped up, binoculars and cameras akimbo. We slip anchor at 5.30pm precisely, Skipper Matt at the wheel.
It’s breezy on the top deck, and even more so on the open prow, but spirits are high, and within a few minutes Kayleigh is telling people over the microphone to look ahead as an Osprey is circling high over one of the arms of the reservoir. Amazingly, as if to come and greet us, it flies towards the boat and passes us at no great distance, affording amazing views to everyone both on the open areas and below in the saloon. Everyone, even the hardened Osprey watchers, is thrilled. We settle down again, enjoying the improving weather, the passing terns, egrets and grebes, and the company. I move around the boat, joining animated groups and chatting wherever I go. I think they’re enjoying it!
We cruise past Lax Hill, and heave to just off the bund marking the boundary of Manton Bay. We can see the Osprey nest clearly now, and Maya and 33(11) are at home. The boat falls silent as everyone watches intently, listening to Kayleigh’s commentary on the latest events at the nest. We wave towards Wader Scrape hide, where volunteer Mick Lewin (also celebrating a birthday today!) is doing the evening shift, accompanied by some of the Trainee Reserves Officers. I go downstairs, and a lovely hot cup of tea is put in my hand. Everyone is happily chatting away, catching up with one another. I sit for a moment with my tea. This is good.
Back on the deck, I talk to people about Ospreys, Africa, migration – even vector summation (Thank you, Tim Mackrill!) – and the many other joys of working and living in the natural world. It transpires that a girl I speak to attends a school in Stamford that we are visiting next month – she will have a head start on her classmates! All too soon, we have to head for home, and I soon see the familiar outline of Whitwell Creek approaching. As the Belle pulls in and is tied to the quay, Kayleigh thanks everyone for coming, reminds them of my birthday, and there is an unexpected round of applause! Thank you Kayleigh!
I decide to make my way to the quayside and say goodbye to my guests as they disembark, but just at this moment another voice comes over the airwaves telling everyone in my party to assemble on the top deck as some photographs are required. A nice thought – it will be good to have a souvenir of this special trip. My colleague Pete Murray gives instructions, takes several photos, then announces we must remain on board as he wants to take some ‘distance’ shots of the ‘Belle’ and us from the shore. He disappears and is next seen on the bank, at least two hundred yards away, waving and gesticulating and attempting to give us instructions. It’s all a bit bizarre now, and taking as long as it does at some of those weddings I’ve been to, where the photographers want to record every single micro-movement of bride, groom and everyone else. I keep smiling.
As Pete finishes, someone suggests I might say a few words, so I thank everyone for coming, and for their cards and gifts, and thanks to Matt and the crew of the ‘Rutland Belle’.
I am just running out of things to say, and wondering desperately why no-one seems to want to go home, when a cry goes up : ‘Osprey!’ Sure enough, an Osprey is flying powerfully into the Creek, quite low. It beats steadily over the boat as we all stand transfixed on the deck. Pete is still on the shore, and manages to get a brilliant photo of us, the boat, AND the Osprey! What a moment! Absolutely amazing. A stunning view on this special cruise on this special day. The bird wheels away to the north.
Still people don’t seem to want to go home. Well, I can understand it, I suppose. The weather is now fine, the wind has dropped, and the Osprey might give a repeat performance. Everyone is just chillin’, as they say. But I’m wrong. Suddenly Jackie is standing on a seat and addressing everyone. It seems no-one is going home just yet……because there’s a party, a buffet, and a special birthday cake for me, all prepared in the saloon downstairs! And she’s got a big card signed by everyone, and……….wait for it………..the special paintings on the front of the card are beautiful original watercolours of 33 and Maya by the brilliant John Wright, showing in detail the feather tracts and moulting primaries and secondaries, as observed by him just a couple of days ago!
The whole evening has taken on a new, surprising and incredibly brilliant turn. I try to thank everyone, but can’t find any words now. I go downstairs to find Liz, Libby and the staff of the ’Belle’ putting the finishing touches to a lovely spread, complete with cake, candles, ribbons and sparkly wine! Wow, I couldn’t have dreamt it, could I?
The next hour or so passes in a haze. I try to speak to everyone, to thank each friend personally. Quite rightly, everything stops for a few minutes when another shout of ‘Osprey!’ goes up. We can see that this bird is 28(10), his slightly misshapen wing revealing his identity. He is a favourite Osprey to many people, following his trials and tribulations in 2014, but now happily breeding on another of the off-site nests. The party continues till the light starts to fade, and then it’s time for final thanks, and goodbyes. I am one of the last to leave the boat. I cannot begin to describe how I feel, but people who know me well will understand. It has been the most wonderful of days.
I owe an incalculable debt of gratitude to all the people involved over the years with the Rutland Osprey Project, for today of course, but also for giving me so many opportunities to forge such a rewarding second career after teaching for over half my life. I have worked with inspiring colleagues and volunteers, and their enthusiasm, commitment and passion have helped me to write about Ospreys, to speak to audiences about them, to visit so many schools and colleges to share our message with the next generation of conservationists and ecologists, to visit West Africa and work there with local people. Above all, I have cherished the opportunity to observe and study these spectacular and iconic birds as they continue their re-colonisation in England, the chance to enter into their world and monitor their behaviours during those incredibly intense hours of watching at Site B over ten seasons or so, and to share their lives with people from all over the world during regular Sunday afternoons in Manton Bay since 2007. I may be LXX now, but it’s not over yet, I promise……..LXXV, and even LXXX are just numbers waiting to be attained. I hope many of you will be there with me.
‘These lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for the fortunate few, the experts, but are available for anyone who will place him/herself under the influence of earth, water and sky, and their amazing life.’ (Rachel Carson, 1956)