High Summer Ospreys: A Midweek Cruise

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!

The Rutland Belle

The Rutland Belle

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…….

28 is distinguishable by his wonky wing - a bird we did not see on Wednesday!

28 is distinguishable by his wonky wing – a bird we did not see on Wednesday!

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.