9.00am, Friday morning, August 17th : Familiar sights, sounds and scents are infusing the Egleton site with a heady mix of sensations. People are pouring in, intent on finding their way to a first lecture, a favourite stand, or an early bacon roll. Staff and volunteers in high visibility vests patrol, often in twos, occasionally responding to indistinct crackles from their walkie-talkie radios. Stand holders fuss around, putting last minute touches to displays or chatting nervously to neighbours. The sweet smell of crushed grass mingles with a hint of coffee, warm canvas, outdoorsy clothing, to be tinged with pizza, hog-roast and fish and chips as the morning progresses. ‘It’s now 9.00am,’ says the voice of Birdfair over the PA, ‘and the 2018 British Birdwatching Fair is officially open.’ I check into HQ, receive a smart cap courtesy of Swarovski, and thus suitably equipped, stride out to start the day. When did I last wear a cap like this? Years ago, but hey! This is Birdfair!
On the Osprey Stand at the LRWT outdoor display, staff and volunteers watch over a newly designed area which proudly showcases the Rutland Osprey Project. A massive TV runs filmed highlights from the famous Manton Bay nest, where Maya and her partner 33(11) have raised two healthy ospreylets this year – one already on her way south. Visitors gather around, while volunteers explain the footage. New posters, merchandise for sale and a display of Osprey-themed books (what else?) attract the attention of passing fair-goers.
Perhaps the biggest attraction on the stand is the huge, soaring, life-sized wooden model of an Osprey hovering above his twig-laden nest, complete with cuddly Ospreys toys inside, and the invitation to ‘Send a message to Ozzie.’ Ozzie is Rutland’s own fictional Osprey – an amalgam of several famous real-life Ospreys we have had here over the years – and he is well-known all over the world thanks to a series of illustrated books written about his life and adventures. He is migrating about now for the umpteenth year, and wouldn’t it be fun if people wrote messages for him to welcome him back to Africa in a few weeks’ time? They will be taken out in November and will by a roundabout route make their way to an entirely new school in the village of Kartong. Everyone loves Ozzie – a talisman for the Project – always recognised, occasionally imitated, but never equalled.
Staff members and volunteers are hard-pressed to meet and greet every visitor to the Osprey stand. Some are regular, and exchange news while watching this year’s footage, but many more are here for the first time, maybe from distant parts of the UK, Europe and the world. Such is the magic of Birdfair. Among the visitors to the stand are some of our young ‘Osprey Ambassadors’ who have been watching the Manton Bay nest all season and relaying the news to their friends at home and at school. Scarlett has brought along her presentation on a famous Rutland Osprey – the Site B matriarch 05(00) – and she confidently explains this bird’s extraordinary contribution to the early success of the Project. 05 is not often given the limelight, her more famous partner 03(97) – ‘Mr Rutland’ – instead taking the plaudits, so it is very special to see Scarlett talking so well about her. Mum and Dad glow beside her.
One of our very first ambassadors, Sam, is with us at Birdfair for all three days this year, together with Mum Jo and brother Alex. For a twelve year old, his Osprey knowledge is immense, and he is happy to speak to visitors on even the most advanced aspects of these birds’ life cycles. He is also a skilled interviewer, seeking out his subjects and inviting them to the film set on our stand, before asking his guests a series of well-prepared questions appropriate to their positions. This year Sam renews his acquaintance with Mike Dilger, who tells us what he has been up since the last Birdfair. Mike has a surprise for Sam : he invites him to join in as he re-creates the mating calls and rituals of the Toucan Barbet, an elusive South American species with a strange bobbing dance and a distinctive call. The resulting scenario is hilarious and unforgettable – and all recorded on video!
Sam’s final interview on Sunday is with former Rutland Osprey leader Tim Mackrill, and he too is treated in the same relaxed and thoroughly professional manner. Afterwards Sam says ‘ It was fantastic to interview Tim – he is someone who has loved Ospreys from an early age – just like me!’ Sam’s brother Alex was even allowed to be the director of this interview, sitting behind the camera and wearing the earphones like a young Stephen Spielberg. These boys will go far.
The team on the stand take it in turns to have breaks on all three days. I use mine to wander around the marquees, pausing here and there to admire artwork, try on a jacket with hundreds of zips and pockets, look at a new book on African Raptors (I later bought it!), and cruise the various eateries. Above all though, I love to watch the people, young and old, chic and unkempt, earnest and relaxed, specialist and generalist, expert and beginner, introvert and extrovert, regular and newbie. I hope they all find what they are seeking here. I run into people I have not seen for years – old students and colleagues, visitors who have been to Lyndon during one of my Sunday shifts, boys and girls who have seen us in their schools. ‘Look, darling, it’s the Osprey Man who gave you the Ozzie book,’ says one Mum to her son. She obviously does not remember my name. No problem – Osprey Man will do fine!
Birdfair moves into Saturday. Excitement mounts during the afternoon as I prepare to move around to Whitwell Creek and help with Simon King’s evening wildlife cruise on the ‘Rutland Belle.’ At the quayside the Belle is gently bobbing in the water and a crew member is preparing her for the cruise. People are standing around, waiting for Simon to arrive and start his commentary. We scan passengers’ tickets and they embark, quickly filling the top deck and open prow area below – a favourite spot for photographers. It is eerily quiet on board, but then Simon arrives and immediately lightens the atmosphere with his genial touch, greeting old friends and welcoming new ones. The Belle slips from her moorings and we start to scan the skies and shores for Ospreys, Terns, Egrets and more – all to the gentle accompaniment of Simon’s unhurried and thoughtful comments on everything we are seeing. ‘There is no black in the Arctic’ is his mnemonic for remembering the bill colours of Common and Arctic Terns. The Ospreys prove elusive, and we are fully forty five minutes into the cruise before we see one circling above the water. We watch while it surveys the water below, waiting for the smallest silvery glint that might betray a fish. After a while, it moves on, but then we spot another one, and a third even closer. As dusk descends over the Reservoir, we glide back into Whitwell, tired after a long day, excited by the soaring Ospreys, inspired by Simon King’s insight and knowledge regarding our planet and its wildlife.
Just a few hours later I am back at Whitwell for an early morning cruise with Nick Baker, Nigel Marven and another group of enthusiastic visitors. Nick arrives at 8.29 precisely for an 8.30 departure, and comes aboard to Nigel’s gentle ribbing. Today we have a truly international contingent with us – Nigel has brought a Swedish friend who now lives in Peru and is sporting a colourful hat bearing an image of a Chestnut-headed something. We also have passengers from Colombia, Australia’s North-eastern Territory, Sri Lanka and Georgia – as well, of course, as all points North, South, East and West in the UK. Once again, the Ospreys keep us in suspense, but no matter – we have on board a double-act of entertaining presenters who keep us amused and enthralled with their tales of wildlife encounters from every corner of their patches and further afield. Holly and I assist with some Rutland Osprey background for the benefit of visitors unfamiliar with the area. Nick and Nigel circulate in an unobtrusive way, encouraging young and old alike to share their views. In the absence of Ospreys this morning so far, Cormorants take centre stage. They get mixed reviews here in Rutland, but everyone has to admit they are remarkable, adaptable and resilient birds, with a superior air, a strangely disturbing light blue eye, and an all-round pterodactylic stance.
Suddenly, after almost an hour of chat and pleasant humour on board, a familiar shape flies towards us and the cry goes up : ‘Osprey!’ He flies past us, purposeful and direct. The skipper changes direction and we begin to follow him into a quiet and secluded bay, where he circles and begins his search. He dives a few times, pulling out at the last minute in a graceful arc, and resuming his quest. We leave him to it, and head out into the deep water again. Holly suddenly shouts and points : ‘Swifts!’ And there they are – perhaps ten or twelve, dashing and diving, soaring then swooping, testing our neck muscles as they power right above the boat before splitting and leaving us wondering which one to follow. Suddenly they are gone. That was amazing, thrilling. Nick and Nigel both love them, and give advice on how we can help them in their search for summer homes. Maybe the last of the year for us here. I note the time and date : 9.40am, Sunday August 19th. A Birdfair highlight for sure. Now, two more Ospreys appear, one fairly close. Wait a minute – I think we recognise one of them. He has a kink in the primaries of his right wing, an injury sustained probably on migration at some point. So we know he is 28(10), a breeding male, born and bred here in Rutland, and with an interesting life-story. Cue more excited chatter as we watch him in his search for fish.
Back on the quayside, it’s time for thanks and good-byes. Nick and Nigel are extremely popular, and people want pictures with them before they hurry off to fulfil their obligations back on the Birdfair site. For Holly and me, it’s our final cruise of the season, so we reminisce for a while before heading off to our next duties for the day – she to ‘Wild Zone’, I to the Lyndon Reserve at Manton Bay for a Sunday afternoon shift at the Osprey nest.
Lyndon is pretty busy. People are making an early escape from Birdfair and coming over here for a last look at the Ospreys. And not just Ospreys – two statuesque Great White Egrets are out in the Bay, waders are dropping in on their long journey south, and there is a rumour of a marauding Peregrine. A distant speck on the far shore is apparently a Red-necked Phalarope – an unsatisfactory sighting in my opinion, but the cognoscenti are happy. Several visitors to the hide are sporting equipment obviously just purchased over at Birdfair – still in the boxes in some cases. One couple have a magnificent – and very expensive-looking – new piece of kit. It looks like binoculars at one end, but then merges into a telescope at the other – mounted on a sturdy tripod and complete with a carrying back pack. We all have a look. Yes, definitely a step-up from my trusty 25 year old Kowa. A small group of distant Green Sandpipers, feeding quietly on the shore further down the Bay, are immediately brought into sharp focus by this amazing equipment. I offer to swap it for my Kowa, even agreeing to throw in an extra £5…..but the owner is reluctant to part with his new device. Oh well, the Kowa has done me proud all this time – no need to change it now.
Meanwhile the Manton Bay Ospreys continue to put on a good show for a steady stream of visitors. A few are pretty heavy twitchers, intent only on that distant speck of a Phalarope, which by now is completely invisible, even through that mega scope/bins thingy. Poor souls. They miss so much else in their quest for rarities. Takes all sorts I suppose. Others are far more normal and chatty. One man collects random feathers he finds on his walks, and would love an Osprey one for his collection. ‘Do they moult?’ he asks. ‘Yes, they do, but the feathers have a nasty habit of coming down in the water. If we see one descending from a flying Osprey, I’ll swim out and collect it for you.’ Without a smile he says ‘Thank you. That would be very kind of you.’
At times all three Ospreys are in the air together, flying around the Bay in grand style. At one point they are joined by a fourth, an intruder from another site paying a visit but not receiving a friendly welcome. Then they are still again, Maya on the perch, 33 in the poplar, 3AU on the nest and constantly caterwauling for fish. No movement from the male. Time to go and find one for yourself, son. Maya in particular has the air of one who wants to be gone, her whole demeanour suggesting it will not be long now. She sits for hours, facing south, waiting for the moment.
One final flourish before this amazing Birdfair weekend ends. As I am stowing the Kowa away a shout goes up ‘Hobby!’ Hang on, it’s not. Far too heavy, dark and deadly. Peregrine, as rumoured earlier. Keeping low over the Bay, it eventually arcs up into a poplar tree and is lost to view. But it’s there, and we saw it. Even the disillusioned twitchers had to admire that.
Over on the other side of Lax Hill, Birdfair is packing up too. Reports will be written, numbers will be crunched, feedback will be requested, opinions sought. The celebs did their stuff, the debaters made their points, their messages delivered with passion and sincerity. The traders did well or not so well, the artists sold a few of their pictures, the tourist boards persuaded people to criss-cross the earth. We all talked, ate, drank, spent, networked, laughed, cried, talked some more, argued, cruised….in my case to the point of exhaustion. Would I have missed it? Of course not. And God willing, I’ll do it all again next year.