It’s Vols Night!

A New Season, Tales from Africa, Ozzie takes a Flight, and Fifteen Minutes of Fame. Here is Ken’s report about our first volunteer meeting of the 2012 season…….

The new season traditionally begins with a gathering at Egleton Centre for all the staff and volunteers associated with the Rutland Water Osprey Project, and there is a sense of anticipation and excitement as everyone starts to assemble on the evening of February 28th.  It’s always good to see friends again, to exchange news and views about the winter just ending, and to look forward together to the new Osprey season about to begin. Several of us arrive early for a briefing with Michelle, and to go over just once more our parts in tonight’s proceedings……

As always Tim opens with a warm welcome and a brief summary of the evening’s programme. He introduces the team members, including all the familiar faces and a new arrival, before handing over to Michelle and me for an account of the educational work we have been doing here in Rutland and the neighbouring counties. Most volunteers have not witnessed ‘The Osprey Roadshow’ that we have taken to nearly twenty local schools over the past year, and so we give them a sample of what we do,  and then Michelle encourages any who are interested to get involved and join us as we begin our plans to take the 2012 Roadshow out and about. Then we introduce our latest teaching resource for primary school children ~ the brand new book Ozzie’s Migration, which tells the story in simple words and stunning colour paintings (by John Wright of course) of one Osprey’s migration from Rutland Water to The Gambia. We show the eighteen pages of text and a further eighteen full-page pictures on the screen, and explain how the book came about after we had visited a Primary School in Oakham at the beginning of last season. Since its publication in early 2012, it has already been used in schools in The Gambia, and the Project’s great friend and associate there Jungkung Jadama (JJ for short) takes copies with him when he visits schools to talk about the Ospreys and other wildlife.

Michelle goes on to outline educational plans for the new season, and again encourages people to join us. Just as we want the Ospreys to extend their range in England, so we need to widen the area we cover on our school visits, and to do that we need more people to carry the message far and wide. We invite people to approach us and express their interest during the interval in tonight’s meeting.

Tim then takes over, but before he starts to talk about the Africa trips, he holds up a copy of Ozzie’s Migration and says that copies will be on sale during the interval, at just £5 each…..and, as an added bonus, the author will even sign copies at no extra charge! What a bargain!

The next section of the evening is devoted to reports and highlights from the recent highly successful trips to The Gambia and Senegal to see Ospreys and other spectacular birds and mammals, and of course to initiate the ground-breaking educational work in Gambian schools, which has been a hugely important focus of the Project’s work over the past twelve months. Short video clips show the team members and volunteers visiting the Gambian schools and talking to the students, and we see and hear JJ and other local teachers welcoming their visitors and showing their appreciation of the efforts being made to educate the next generation of Gambian people about the value of wildlife conservation, not just for its own sake, but for the future of successful tourism and a thriving economy of the country as a whole. The message is perhaps best summed up by a super photo of a Gambian classroom filled with children listening to Tim, while on the wall behind them an image is displayed showing children from Wissendine Primary School ~ who are now their new ‘friends’ since their two schools have been twinned! ‘Communities brought together by the migration of the Ospreys’. Perfect.

Tim then invites four volunteers who were members of the two parties which visited The Gambia this year to come forward and share their highlights with the rest of us. This for me was a brilliant plan ~ after all, we would all have loved to have gone if we could, but at least we can share their vivid experiences tonight. First to take the floor is Ron ‘The Rocket’, who has been a night-watchman with the Project for many years. He’s very good at recognising birds at night, he says, when they are just shadows and silhouettes, but not so good during the day, when all the colours and shapes are so confusing! His anticipation and expectation during the weeks and months before the trip turned into amazing realisation and fantastic enjoyment when it actually happened! His only regret was that he had to leave his wife behind… (the last bit said with a twinkle in his eye!)

Lynda takes over. It was her second trip to The Gambia, and her account is entertaining and full of anecdotes and amusing incidents. Just two will have to suffice here ~ first, the story of the large mammal with a tail ending in a white tip, which ran across the hotel floor one evening, but was only seen by a few members of the group. What could it have been?  Various theories were put forward, but the problem was only solved later in the trip when the bus stopped to allow the people to watch two vultures feeding on something….yes, a large mammal with a tail ending in a white tip. JJ actually picked it up and held it by its tail! It was a very large example of a species of RAT. A shudder went round the room as we saw it on the screen. Her second story involved a chameleon, a dusty road, a bus travelling at speed, and a photographer, artist and field officer named John Wright. The sequence was: interesting chameleon spotted crossing dusty road, slowly, as they do :  bus travelling at speed bearing down on oblivious chameleon : JW leaping from his own bus on other side of road, scooping up chameleon in front of careering bus : both reptile and field officer avoid death by inches : a close call, but some nice photos of the chameleon, which, disappointingly, does not change colour despite this adventure.

Lynda also recounts the exhausting and frustrating mission to find the Dyfi Osprey which was thought to be in a particular area a few hours away. In fact, he was several hundred miles away by the time the group searched for him, but of course they didn’t know that…..till afterwards.

Next up is Chris, who has some lovely photos of birds for us, both familiar and unfamiliar. I love the Pied Kingfisher, the Hammerkop, the Pelicans and yes, the Whimbrel too, which might even come past Rutland Water when it moves north later on. My eyes light up even further when he introduces us to ‘Day 5: Raptor Day’ and the list of so many birds of prey seen on that day is just staggering: so many harriers,

kites, buzzards, eagles, owls and falcons! I just couldn’t begin to remember them all. But one I definitely do remember. See if you can guess it from this description : it’s the biggest eagle in Africa, adults are brownish-grey above and dark-spotted white below, long feathered legs with long toes and talons, eats mammals from squirrels to monkeys…….Got it yet? Maybe Chris’ photo will help….but if not the answer is at the end of this blog…..*

This bird’s wow factor is immense, and Chris’ description of seeing it brings it alive for us. Oh, and another vivid description he gives is of the Standard-winged Nightjar. Look it up in a field guide and see which of these two descriptions you prefer: ‘Like Concorde flying with a Hawk jet just off either wing’, or ‘Like a Peregrine with two small bats chasing it, one on each side’. Amazing bird, great highlights. Thanks Chris.

The final speaker is (a different) Linda, who was a member of the second group, and therefore had several new experiences to tell us, including Clawless Otters among many others. Her main focus however is on Ospreys ~ the sheer thrill of seeing so many of them in their winter quarters! Ringed Ospreys from Germany and France make regular appearances….and then of course the extra special excitement after successfully tracking down one of Roy Dennis’ satellite-tracked Ospreys (Rothiemurchus) ~ what a moment that was! The trip to the Ile d’Oiseaux is rec-created for us in Linda’s fine description ~ a fitting end to this part of the evening.

These brief snippets cannot do justice to all the amazing adventures, experiences and incidents that took place over an African month, but two things stand out in all the accounts provided for us tonight ~ one, the absolute thrill and delight shared by all in seeing the Ospreys (our special birds) in such numbers, and two, the sense of community, friendship and companionship so evident throughout the trips. As Lynda said at the end of her talk: ‘If you get the chance, just go, don’t think about it, just go.’

And now there’s a break for tea and coffee, and lively chat about what we’ve just been seeing. I hear about Senegal Thick Knees (hitherto just a picture in the field guide) being spotted from the Lodge windows, monkeys passing by, Malachite Kingfishers and Swallow-tailed Kites. And then a very friendly volunteer approaches the author of Ozzie’s Migration and asks if he would sign her freshly purchased copy. Amid some embarrassment and much banter from friends and colleagues, he does so, but then finds that a small orderly queue has developed behind her, and the rest of the break is spent signing copies for children, grandchildren and friends. What a pity that the much more deserving illustrator of the book is not here tonight to add his name to all these copies! Several people have approached Michelle and said they would like to be involved in the Osprey Roadshow this year: excellent news!

Tim calls us back to order and outlines plans for the new season. He introduces firstly Becky Corby, who will be dealing with all the volunteering rotas this year, and then Paul, who, as the Lyndon Visitor Centre Manager, has recently been given the baronial title of ‘Lord Stammers of Lyndon’. Both gives us insights into what they are doing now and in the future, and urge us all to get involved in as many activities as we can.

It’s been a brilliant evening and it has launched the 2012 season in style! Judging by the speed at which our Ospreys flew down to Africa last autumn, Tim reckons they should be leaving there in about a week or so, in order to be back here by late March/early April. Who will be back first? Will the legendary 03(97) be back and boost his ‘chick-score’ to 25? Will 09(98) resume his courtship with 5N(04) and breed for the first time? Will some of those returning juveniles from 2009 show up again? And what about the 2010 contingent?  There were twelve chicks that year and we might see a couple of them this spring………

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*Did you identify Chris’ eagle? It’s the amazing Martial Eagle.