It’s a generally well-known fact that Osprey families do not spend the winter months together down in West Africa. Of course they meet other Ospreys during their stay down there, and quite large assemblies can often be seen resting together on sand bars on the coasts of Gambia and Senegal, as witnessed by people from the Rutland Osprey Project on the recent trips to those areas. Chance encounters between related Ospreys on migration and in the winter quarters are possible, but that is what they are ~ chance encounters. When couples meet up again in the spring back on the breeding grounds, spectacular displays and vocal demonstrations accompany their enthusiastic renewal of their bond after such a long time apart.
And so it is with the Osprey volunteers, who are meeting tonight (April 8th) for their opening gathering of the new season. It is the first time many of them have seen one another since the autumn and winter. Whilst I haven’t witnessed any male volunteers climbing high over the Centre with legs outstretched and carrying a portion of fish, certain rituals are observed as people enter the room for the meeting. I watch from my corner perch. For some, a polite nod of recognition is all that is needed to re-establish contact, whilst for others a display involving a hearty handshake or even an embrace is required. This is followed by a dive to a pair of seats and much intense conversation in hushed tones. A row of adult males (and one female) sit on the window ledges at the back, wings (sorry, arms) folded, and eyes turned to the door as more and more volunteers arrive back. Some family groups have remained together through the winter. I am looking for a well-known translocated Scottish pair (experienced breeders), and am beginning to worry that maybe they have not survived the hazards of migration, but it is a relief to hear that they have taken a diversion and will be back a little late this year. One of our regular stalwart males (one of the Africa Squad) has been enticed away by the wiles of a Suffolk female, leaving his Rutland territory (Site BA) vacant. He did however send a parting gift of a tin of biscuits for the Site B watch-point, and has promised to visit during the season, although I am afraid the notes might now have to class him as an intruding male. Established pairs sit sedately on their chairs around the room, safe in their long-established relationships. Newer couples are returning for only their second or third seasons, with their well-grown juveniles already looking alert and ready to cause mischief. Lone females receive attention (but no fish) from several quarters. One has made a journey of seventy miles for this gathering and another, who started whilst still at school, is now an undergraduate at Leicester University ~ but still finding time to do some shifts. The colony is building up. By 7.00pm it is perching room only. This winter just gone has been a little different in one way because several team members and volunteers departed from normal custom and actually met up down in the winter quarters in West Africa. These were not ‘chance encounters’ but planned meetings, and now, back here at HQ Rutland, there are many reminiscences of days spent in the wonderful company of wintering European Ospreys. When I watch 5R(04) and 03(97) with their respective partners, I imagine they are doing much the same. One female volunteer even left her mate on the summer territory in Rutland (Site LB) while she flew off to Africa ~ even though she feared that during her absence the pet cat would be neglected and the mate might entertain glamorous violinist Nicola Benedetti who was displaying nearby. Fortunately all was well; the cat survived, the flighty female fiddler played…..but did not remain on her rival’s territory.
Tim and his colleagues gather at the front and begin to address the thronged hall. Tim, Paul, John and Liz were all in Africa in January, and have returned unscathed, although it was a close call for Paul, who had a (very) close encounter with a wart-hog. John was back in position to welcome the fourteen year old 03(97) home on March 20th ~ looking like a two year old’, he later reported. And other Ospreys followed close behind. Prospects are looking good for the 2011 season, but, as always, everyone must be vigilant and careful, and we are reminded of all the procedures we must attend to in order to ensure the safety and security of these magnificent birds which are so much a part in the lives of everyone in the room. An officer of the local police force is present to give yet more support, and to advise on actions to take if necessary.
We hear from Tim of exciting new developments in the Osprey Project’s work.The new website comes in for universal praise and up to four thousand hits a day! Moira receives a well-deserved round of applause for her excellent work on it. Newly appointed Michelle will be looking to extend further the excellent links with local schools started by her predecessor Diana. Tim introduces the plan to form ‘The Gambian Osprey Foundation’ ~ which will be a registered charity designed to cement the links between Rutland and Gambia and strengthen ‘Osprey awareness’ in Africa. Fund-raising has already begun ~ one volunteer is selling lovely embroidery tonight to help, and Tim is already in training with Coach Stammers in preparation for the Berlin Marathon in September ~ he will be asking for sponsorship soon. Good links are also being made with the Bassenthwaite Osprey Team. Tim and Paul were guests up there last month and told an audience of volunteers the story of the African adventure, including the exciting moment when they discovered a wintering Lakeland osprey in Northern Senegal.
Tim concludes, but there is one more surprise for two volunteers in the audience who are celebrating their birthdays today. The lights are dimmed, and Liz and Michelle appear with two splendidly candlelit cakes for new male CD(40) and mature male KB(54), who come forward to receive them as a hearty chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ rings around the room.
The team disperses to tables already set out with lists and dates, and people go to sign up for their shifts in the weeks and months to come. Many have already been filled in, but there are still gaps, and everyone now is occupied at one table or another. One for Site B, another for Manton Bay, one for night-shifts, another for events such as the
Family Fun Days, Nature Walks and Osprey cruises on board the ‘Rutland Belle’. Gradually people drift off into the night to their roosts ~ old friendships renewed, new ones created, diaries filled with the all-important times and dates of shifts to do between now and the end of August.
Tonight has been excellent, emphasising everything that is so splendid about the Rutland Osprey Project. At the heart of course is the continuing work to re-establish the Osprey as a breeding bird in Central England, but the global aspect has taken a great leap forward with the links being forged in Gambia and Senegal, and the future is assuredly very promising. Added to which, the ‘Osprey Community Spirit’ here is daily enriching the lives of all of us ~ through friendship, good humour and companionship, underpinned by a common desire and determination to protect and encourage the success of that ‘citizen of the world’ ~ the Osprey.