Ken’s Diary

A Day to Remember

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!

The first osprey we saw on the cruise (JW)

The first osprey we saw on the cruise (JW)

 

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.

Group shot

Group shot

Waving!

Waving!

 

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’.

Ken's speech

Ken’s speech

 

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.

Osprey over the boat!

Osprey over the boat!

Osprey circled in case you couldn't see it...

Osprey circled in case you couldn’t see it…

 

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!

img267---Male-33 img266---MB-female-moult

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?

Ken surveys the cake

Ken surveys the cake

Liz fitting Ken with his birthday sash

Liz fitting Ken with his birthday sash

Ken's cake

Ken’s cake

Blowing out the candles

Blowing out the candles

 

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.

28(10) (JW)

28(10) (JW)

 

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.

IMG_0916-ON THE RUTLAND BELLE

‘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)

 

 

Ken’s Diary, Shift One

Here is Ken Davies’ lovely account of his first monitoring shift in Waderscrape hide this season.

Sunday Shift No.1 : No Ospreys, but plenty of thrills……!

12.00 midday on Sunday March 19th : I pull into the car-park at Lyndon pumped up and eager to begin the first of 26 consecutive Sunday afternoon shifts in Wader Scrape Hide! 26!! That’s six months of Sunday afternoons….. or half a year! And at four hours a time, that’s 104 hours ahead of us, in the company of visitors from near and far, watching and monitoring (fingers and toes firmly crossed here) the Manton Bay Ospreys.

This is the 11th season that Barrie and I have fulfilled this shift, starting with that first momentous year (2007), when the legendary 08(97) and his young mate 5N(04) first bred here. He may have passed on to that great fish-filled Osprey Valhalla, but she is still going strong – our oldest Osprey at thirteen years old, and now breeding on one of the off-site nests. With thoughts like that we make our way to the hide in the sunshine, with chiffchaffing calls all around us heralding the spring, and green shoots waving in the breeze from every hedgerow. It’s good to be back!

Adrian and Finn fill us in as we complete the first of many shift changeovers this season. No Ospreys to report of course, though the nest stands there invitingly just a couple of hundred metres away out in the water, new camera positioned perfectly, all nearby perches prominent and waiting….waiting for the first touch of those grasping talons. A lone Cormorant sits on the edge of the nest, oddly out of place, intruding, awkward, unwelcome and clumsy. He soon joins others of his clan on the bare limbs of the dead tree near the hide. Thank goodness the dead tree survived Storm Doris! Every year Ospreys use it as a vantage point, thrilling the lucky observers just metres away. Which Osprey will be the first to touch down on its brittle branches this year I wonder?

The shift begins. The monitoring sheets lie open on the ledge, the walky-talky radio handset is primed and ready to crackle into action, the big screen shows the massive vacant nest cup…..and we two enter once again into Osprey World, so missed over the past seven autumn and winter months, so eagerly anticipated and now finally here….. Except that there are no Ospreys……..yet. Instead we scour the bay in search of a Slavonian Grebe, listed in the notebook by Adrian this morning. We do not find it. We do better with the elegant Great White Egret, instantly visible on the water’s edge, and then in flight, and then looking unnaturally huge amongst the small Dexter cattle on the far bank. Images of the gigantic Goliath Herons so recently encountered in the mangrove creeks off Missira in Senegal come to my mind, and I’m subconsciously looking for crocodiles in the channels in front of me……Four Oystercatchers, piping shrilly above us, remind us that this is England and spring is in the air. A male Great-crested Grebe proudly presents his mate with a choice piece of waterweed as they tread the water breast to breast. No Ospreys maybe, but a wealth of riches to watch.

Two visitors join us – a couple from Newark, hardened Osprey observers both, like us waiting in hope and expectation. Another couple from Stilton, and a few ‘in and outers’ as I call them.

‘Are the Ospreys back yet?’

‘No’

And so they leave, without looking at anything else. Then some familiar faces – fellow monitoring volunteers and a travelling companion on the recent African adventure. It’s good to chat, and the warm companionship of so many Osprey summers spent together soon has us reminiscing about past seasons, past Osprey encounters, past adventures at home and abroad.

Midway through our shift we are joined in the hide by Sam, one of our keenest young Osprey Ambassadors, and his Mum and brother. There is much to catch up on, and they chat enthusiastically about everything they have done since last we met. The spring sunshine has heated the hide up, with the result that many insects which have been spending the winter hiding away in the wooden recesses have woken up and are buzzing around on the glass windows in front of us. Sam and Alex decide they must all be rescued and liberated, so a succession of ladybirds, lacewings and even a wasp or two, find themselves gently caught and given their freedom outside. I hope they find somewhere to shelter when the temperature plummets again later on! Another couple join us with their young daughter, and it transpires that I visited her school in Oakham last season and did an Osprey assembly. In the absence of Ospreys today, I am just lining up a telescope for her to get a close-up view of the Cormorants and Grebes in front of us, when a grey blur flashes at terrific speed in front of me, right to left, gone almost before I can react.

‘Sparrowhawk’ I shout, and all eyes try hard to locate it. As it speeds past, flocks of ducks, geese and egrets rise in panic and alarm, desperately trying to evade this missile-like raptor. It flies into a flock of twenty or so wigeon, and for a moment it is lost amidst a muddled confusion of flapping duck wings and straining necks….until it towers momentarily, holding onto one of them, as the others escape in disarray.

And then it’s on the ground, mantling fiercely over its prey, eyes wild, defiant, bold…. on the grass not one hundred metres away from us. It’s obvious now. This is no Sparrowhawk. It’s a magnificent adult Peregrine Falcon, and we have just witnessed a spectacular moment as it selected and captured its prey. Now it is tearing feathers away from the wigeon (a female, we think) tossing them into the breeze as it hurries to get to the flesh beneath. There is no time to waste, as a Buzzard and a couple of Carrion Crows are already showing interest in the kill, and might try to drive the Peregrine away. It manages to devour a few more pieces before its rivals make a determined attack, forcing the hunter to leave his meal on the ground and fly around in front of us, passing the hide really closely several times and leaving us in no doubt as to this bird’s size and power. It will not leave, but hurtles to the ground again, forcing the intruders to back away. The Peregrine is master again, feeding well, Buzzard and Crow a respectful distance away. Eventually, it appears to break a piece off, and rises with it, perhaps to find a quieter spot to feed in peace. The wigeon’s wings remain, still gently flapping in the wind, but forever grounded. It is not long before the Buzzard takes over and feeds on whatever is left.

The effect of this incident in the hide is fantastic. Four telescopes, and all the binoculars, are trained on the Peregrine at its kill on the grass west of the hide. Ten people, aged from about seven to near seventy, are transfixed. Camera shutters whirr. When the bird flies in front of us, everyone….from the youngest to the oldest….expresses admiration, delight, wonder. ‘Awesome’, says someone. And it was.

Afterwards, people start to drift away. Some to a late Sunday lunch in Stamford, others to a fish and chip supper, and at least one still too excited to think about food! Our relief, Sabine, arrives, as always, with her faithful dog. We tell her of our exciting afternoon, despite the absence of Ospreys. Her shift is due to last until 8.00pm, but of course it will be dark well before then. By next week, summertime will have begun, Ospreys may have returned, and the long Manton Bay Osprey-filled spring and summer evenings will commence – most magical of times down here.

We leave Sabine and Braid to their twilight, and walk back. Sunday No. 1 is over, but hey, there are 25 more to come. Life is indeed pretty good.

 

***********

Ozzie’s Winter Diary Part 4

It’s the final chapter of Ozzie’s Winter Diary by Ken Davies!

 

February 2017

Over the last week or so, anyone watching the wintering Ospreys in West Africa might have noticed a slight change in their behaviour. They seem a little more nervous, more active and alert, chasing around the beaches and lagoons more hurriedly than earlier in the winter. Even Ozzie himself, usually so calm and unruffled, is tense on his perch, uneasy, wary, on edge. What could it be that is causing this change?

4N7A8068-10--blog

Could it be anything to do with the group of ten visitors from England, who have been touring around Gambia and Senegal for the past week or so, checking out every single Osprey they see? Maybe the noise of the little outboard engine on their flimsy fishing boat has disturbed the peace of the lagoons? Or the glint of lenses and the rapid rattle of camera shutters have maybe become annoying to the Ospreys? No, the Ospreys always ignore these intrusions into their watery world, merely looking with disdain and disinterest at these odd beings and their weird habits.

Wait a minute. Some of the other birds on Tanji beach are behaving strangely too. Sandwich Terns are high in the air, circling, calling. Nervous flocks of wading birds alight momentarily on the tide edge, but then are off again, glinting in the light, turning and twisting. Further back, above the green undergrowth, a few primrose Yellow Wagtails dance in the air, a Sedge Warbler climbs a reed and descends rapidly, and a Nightingale suddenly bursts into haunting, captivating song! There is magic in the air!

A long time ago, an American poet called Walt Whitman wrote a line which seems just perfect for today :

‘….you are call’d by an irrestible call to depart…..’

Of course, that’s what it is! All these birds have received the call, and they’re getting ready, all in their own time and in their own way, to begin their long journeys northwards to their breeding grounds. They can feel it – that restlessness birds feel before they migrate, the general unease, the bristling, of a creature about to embark on a journey. Wildebeest in the Serengeti, Caribou in Northern Canada, the great whales in the oceans and the clouds of Monarch butterflies in Mexico – this restlessness touches them all. We humans feel it too – have you never felt the anticipation, the excitement, in the days before a holiday? Today, here on the coast of Western Africa, it is almost palpable. Every migratory creature on this beach, in the nearby lagoons and the tangled forests, is sensing the approach of the great journey ahead.

DSC02830Not all the birds are affected. The Pelicans continue to float around the shallows like stately Spanish galleons, unperturbed by the excitement around them. They are happy to stay where they are. The Caspian Terns are far too busy preparing their nests and eggs on nearby islands to take any notice of their smaller relatives preparing to leave the area. Even some of the Ospreys – the younger ones who only arrived here in Africa last autumn, or maybe the autumn before – still sit on the sand banks, impassive, calm, napping. They will stay throughout the seasons for another year or two – until they too receive the call to return to their European homeland.

For the group of ten enthusiasts from Rutland Water, their winter Osprey Odyssey in West Africa is nearly over too, and this morning they are gathering for the last time at their wonderful eco-retreat on the coast of southern Gambia*. A few walk down to the observation tower in the grounds, overlooking the thick undergrowth, for last encounters with such African jewels as the White-crowned Robin Chat and the Blue-bellied Roller, just two of the 225 different species that have been encountered over the past ten days. For some, this might be the last time they have the opportunity to study these birds at close quarters, and it is tempting to linger. We say fond farewells to our charming hosts, who gather at the gate to wave us off, and make for the airport. We think of Ozzie and the other Ospreys too – another few weeks and they will be following us. We need to get home and prepare for their return!

KENOne further parallel between our journey back to England and that of the Ospreys. Once on the ‘plane, the Captain comes over the intercom to say that owing to flight regulations and the need for refuelling, we will need to land briefly at Las Palmas in Gran Canaria. A general groan is audible from the passengers, but at least one person is pleased : wasn’t it one of our original translocated Ospreys, 09(98), who, after being fitted with satellite tracking equipment quite late in his life, found himself on one return migration being blown out into the Atlantic towards the Canaries? For 24 hours his life was despaired of as he was forced further and further off course by the unrelenting gale, and his tracking data made very grim reading for everyone.

Our ‘plane leaves Gambia behind. From my window seat I look down on the coastal islands off Senegal, including the fabulous Île d’Oiseaux, where we were walking barefoot on the sand, surrounded by Ospreys and Terns, just a few days ago. A story-book ‘Treasure Island’ adventure. The green and watery landscape of Senegal gives way to the harsher, brown features of Mauritania, and then we climb so high that all I can see is an expanse of rugged ridges and dried river valleys. Our Ospreys, including Ozzie, will be crossing this under their own power soon. Mentally I wish them all well.

Suddenly I am conscious that our flight has veered north-westward, and we are heading off towards Gran Canaria. We are over Ocean again, just as 09(98) was when the gale carried him off course all those years ago. Our pilot does not have to battle the wind, as 09 did, and we make a smooth landing. The doors are opened.  The cool night air is refreshing. Ospreys used to inhabit the rocky coastlines of all these volcanic Atlantic islands, but sadly only the occasional pair breed on the cliffs now.The ‘plane is refuelled, a new crew takes over, and we are soon airborne again. 09 had no chance to rest, or refuel. Once the wind dropped, he had to turn immediately and try to get back on course for Morocco, Spain, France…….and Rutland Water! As our ‘plane follows the same route more or less exactly, I am with 09 in the air, a dream-like fantasy of Osprey flight and survival. When I wake up, we are over the English Channel and almost at journey’s end.

DSC02764

And now we wait. Ozzie and the other Ospreys, together with countless millions of other birds of so many species, will be heading our way soon as the world turns and the magic of migration begins. And then it will be time to start writing ‘Ozzie’s Summer Diary’ again.

Photos;, John Wright, Kayleigh Brookes and Jackie Murray

*************************************

*Footsteps Eco Lodge, Gunjur, The Gambia. Highly recommended.

 

 

Ozzie’s Winter Diary Part 3

Part three of Ken Davies’ fictional Ozzie’s diary is here!

December 2016

On one of his excursions to Tanji Marsh, Ozzie decides to fly a little further into the mangrove-fringed creeks and lagoons, where he has previously been able to catch fish quite easily. He notices that the green 4 x 4 is there again, parked on the hard mud at the edge of the marsh. It has an Osprey ken1picture on the side. Ozzie of course does not know it, but this is the Gambian birdman Fansu, who has brought his good friend Chris to see the Ospreys. They are in luck today.  Not only do they see Ozzie as he flies over and into the mangrove creeks, but another old friend, the female 5F, a 2012 Rutland Osprey, is sitting on one of her tree stumps out in the shallow water. Chris and his friends take pictures, which will soon be delighting Osprey followers back in the United Kingdom. Ozzie has a look, but moves on. He is drifting over a new creek, which he has not explored before.

Soon he is flying over a vivid green landscape of mangroves, their lower branches a tangle of stems and branches, offering cover and protection to a varied throng of birds, mammals and reptiles. A few step out cautiously onto the muddy edges of the creek. Suddenly he is in the middle of a Cormorant metropolis, where hundreds of pairs of these white-breasted birds (sub-species lucidus) have recently set up home. The pungent scent of guano, the sounds of Cormorant domestic life, the sight of their gleaming white breasts, coal black backs, the deep green mangroves, the ripple of cool water – a truly multi-sensory experience. Ozzie flies on, ignoring the Cormorants’ caterwauling. He notices the azure and orange flicks as tiny Malachite and Blue-breasted Kingfishers dart about after tiny fish, while Rollers of three species (Broad-billed, Blue-bellied and Abyssinian) and a similar array of Bee-eaters (Swallow-tailed, Blue-cheeked and White-throated) fly out into the cloudless blue sky over the water in search of insect prey before returning with it to a convenient top branch of an emergent tree on the bank.

Ozzie’s superb eyesight means he misses nothing as he flies deeper into the limitless mangrove covered landscape. Even the rare and subtly camouflaged Night Herons (White-backed and Black-crowned) are seen by him as they creep secretively among the lower branches. A Marsh Mongoose freezes as the shadow of the raptor passes over. He need not have worried – Ozzie is not interested in him. Whimbrel call from the muddy edges. House Martins eagerly pursue insects above the lagoons. Maybe they too are from Rutland, and know this is one bird of prey that will not bother them.

And so he carries on, weaving his way through this maze of watery wilderness in the heat of the African day. Time for a fish. He comes down lower, studying the waters below him. These creeks teem with fish, and it does not take him long to find a shoal and select his prey. He is on the verge of a dive…..when something suddenly distracts him and he hurries on, rounding the next curve in the creek before slowing again to a more leisurely pace.

His keen eye had detected a shape on the topmost branch of a huge spectacular tree, emerging from the canopy of the mangroves. The tree is a ken2remarkable baobab, maybe a thousand years old, rising majestically from a single massive trunk, branches reaching out like arms on all sides. On its topmost tip sits a bird which for many is the most iconic symbol of Africa : the African Fish Eagle. Proud, erect, surveying his domain with unerring eye, he has watched Ozzie approach, waiting for him to dive and catch a fish. And then, if Ozzie had been successful, he would have left his perch and pursued the smaller bird, rapidly overtaking him on his more powerful wings, and forcing him to drop his catch. A free meal for an Eagle. But Ozzie is wise. He aborted his dive, and will wait until he is over another creek without an attendant Fish Eagle. The Eagle resumes his vigil. If no fish-carrying Osprey passes by, he will fish for himself later on.

Ozzie catches a fish at the next opportunity and is still carrying it, looking for a quiet perch on which to eat, when ken3a long log-like shape in the water attracts his attention. Could he land on it and have a rest? He flies down to inspect it, and then flaps up again in haste. Crocodiles! And there are more on the bank, immobile, jaws agape, glassy eyes all-seeing. Suddenly, the largest one sweeps its great tail, thrashes the water, and is gone. The others follow, accompanied by wild cries from the terns, egrets and Whimbrel all around. Ozzie finds a tree, rests, and then eats his fish.

It’s time to turn for home and the familiar roosting tree at the back of Tanji beach. As late afternoon turns to evening, many birds are coming into the mangroves for the night. A flock of Woolly-necked Storks cross the sky in formation, while a smaller group of African Spoonbills drop in from the north. The Fish Eagle is still in his baobab tree. A group of five Black-crowned Cranes fly in low, seeking refuge as dusk gathers, and a solitary Goliath Heron, as tall as a man, keeps still and quiet in the shallow water. Ozzie passes on. Nearly home now.

Ozzie and all the other birds and animals in the world live their lives unfettered by politics, race, educational opportunity, religion or geographical boundary, but their prosperity and future survival can be affected by decisions taken by men and women in positions of power.

Goodnight Ozzie, Fansu, JJ and everyone in Gambia. Stay safe. We’ll see you all in January 2017.

3-final-paragraph-image

 

Ozzie’s Winter Diary Part 2

Here is part two of Ken Davies’ fictional winter diary of Ozzie the osprey!

November 2016

Ozzie’s winter routine down in Gambia has not changed much since we last heard a few weeks ago. He spends a lot of time on favourite sand banks and tree perches, watching the comings and goings of other Ospreys, until he feels it’s time to go and catch a fish in the calm sea waters or the nearby mangrove creeks and lagoons. His life here is easy-paced, relaxed and calm. Most local people in the bustling village of Tanji are too busy to spend time looking at Ozzie, but the children from the local school, led by their teacher Isatou and their friendly bird-man JJ, often come down to the beach to see him. They like all the birds, and have learnt to recognise most of them now, thanks to JJ. They see all the other Ospreys, and call out ‘kulanjang’ whenever they see one – the word meaning ‘fish eagle’ in their own Mandinka dialect. It’s always a special moment when someone spots Ozzie, with his blue leg-ring and transmitter antenna showing well. Everyone wants to be the first to see him and shout ‘Ozzie, it’s Ozzie’ so that all the children can turn their eyes towards him.

picture-1The girl called Kaddy tries especially hard – she was the person who spotted Ozzie’s arrival at Tanji last winter, when Ken and his friends were here.

But today Ozzie is not here on the beach at Tanji. The small group search for a while, checking each Osprey as it flies in from the sea, or over their heads from further inland. He will not be far away, JJ tells them. Before they go, they spend some time collecting up some old fishing nets and other discarded equipment which has been left on the beach. All this is dangerous to the birds, because the tide will take it out into the sea, where it will float just below the surface and trap any bird, including an Osprey, which might dive into the water. Ozzie had a narrow escape himself last year, when he almost got tangled in a net during his migration. JJ collects all the old pieces of net and rope and the children take them away in a wheelbarrow. At least there will be no accidents on this beach now.

The next time JJ brings a group to the beach Ozzie is still missing. The children are beginning to get worried. ‘Where has he gone?’ they ask JJ. ‘It is nowhere near time for him to go back to Rutland Water yet, so where can he be?’

‘Don’t worry,’ JJ replies, ‘Ozzie has done this before. I am sure he has decided to take a little trip to see a bit more of Gambia. He will be back soon.’

JJ was absolutely right. Ozzie had indeed gone on a little adventure. Early one morning just a couple of days ago, he left his favourite bare tree near Tanji beach and flew out to sea. He caught a silvery fish, but instead of taking it back to the shore, as he usually did, he landed on a tiny island – no more than a scrap of sand, shingle and a few stunted bushes – and ate his fish there. The island is called Bijoli, a favourite haunt of Ospreys, terns of many species, and wading birds spending the winter months thousands of miles away from their Arctic breeding grounds. The sea is slowly eroding Bijoli away – soon there will be nothing left.

After a good long rest, Ozzie again takes to the air. The breeze is light, the sun hot on his back. It is perfect for soaring, circling, higher and higher, until Bijoli is just a speck in the Atlantic Ocean a mile below him. He lets the wind carry him, until he is at the wide mouth of the great Gambia River, where it flows relentlessly into the sea. He sees the busy ferry boats crossing from one side of the river mouth to the other, laden with people packed closely together, and cars and trucks.

Ozzie knows exactly where he is, and where he is going. He has made this little trip in previous years, and the familiar landmarks, perches and fishing picture-2places are imprinted on his memory just like those back at Tanji and at Rutland Water. His first stop is a vast wetland area called Bulok on the south bank of the river, with trees, lagoons, ditches and muddy flat areas – a perfect habitat for the thousands of birds which live there. Many Ospreys from Europe make this their winter home. They see Ozzie approaching, and two of them go up to meet him.

There is some initial suspicion when a strange Osprey appears in their winter territory, but they soon learn he is not a threat and they return to their perches. Ozzie is watched by other birds as he continues up river – a Dark Chanting Goshawk turns its head upwards, but it does not leave its perch on a telegraph pole. African Jacanas – the famous ‘lily trotters’ – pause momentarily, one enormous spindly foot raised over a spreading lily leaf, before carrying on with their search for food. A Violet Turaco, a blaze of colour, sees him too, and so does a Black-headed Heron, standing like a statue in the shallows.

As evening approaches, Ozzie circles over a pool surrounded by mangroves. Fishermen are casting their nets, and large shoals of glistening silvery fish are jumping out of the water in a frenzy. Ozzie moves a little further away before diving into the water and catching a fish at his first attempt. He lands in a mangrove tree to eat and rest. It is too late to go back to Tanji now. He will stay here for the night.

picture-3The next afternoon, on wooden seats at the end of a creaking jetty, with narrow fishing boats tied alongside, three friends from England are enjoying a cold Gambian beer on the edge of the Gambia River, at Tendaba Camp. In the mid-distance, playfully rolling and arcing in the wide river’s central flow, two or three dolphins ripple the water, while an Osprey beats slowly up and down, head downward, seeking a fish disturbed by the dolphins. The three friends study the Osprey. At times there is a definite impression of a small antenna protruding from its back feathers, but sadly it does not come any closer, and they cannot draw any conclusions before it turns and heads purposefully back down river towards the sea, and out of sight. ‘I wonder who’s tracking that one,’ says one of the three. He walks back along the jetty to the bar, and orders three more beers……………

It has been a few days since JJ took the children from Tanji School down to the beach, but one day he calls at the school to collect them and give them another chance to see if Ozzie has returned. Binta, Kaddy and Penda, Sarjo and Amadou – JJ knows all their names, and is so pleased by their enthusiasm. They arrive at the beach and take it in turn to scan the beach and the sand banks with the binoculars.

There are one or two false starts. ‘That’s him!’ ‘No, it’s not.’ ‘Let me try.’ ‘My turn with the telescope!’

It all goes quiet for a while. Are they going to be disappointed again?picture-4

Just when it’s almost time to go home, JJ turns and looks at Ozzie’s tree behind them, just in time to see an Osprey lift off from the top branch and fly towards them. JJ says nothing until the bird is almost over the heads of the group on the beach, and then he calls ‘Look, everyone, who is this?’

Immediately everyone is looking up through their binoculars. Kaddy is the first to speak.

‘Ozzie, it’s Ozzie,’ she shouts. She’s right. Ozzie is back at Tanji, after his little adventure, just like JJ said he would be. There are smiles, whoops and shouts. Ozzie is back, and all is well.

 

By Ken Davies