So long, and thanks for all the fish

Here is the latest installment from Ken’s Diary…

After fifteen Tuesday morning shifts at Site B since April, and sixty hours spent prying into the private lives of 03(97) and his family, I still keenly anticipate today’s opportunity to bring down the curtain on my summer-long experience at this idyllic spot. Following last week’s spectacular thunderbolts and lightning, today dawns calm and cool, and my pace is brisk and lively as I commence the walk down past all the familiar landmarks. As often happens, my arrival coincides with the visit of the farmer to his hefty bullocks in the field, and they excitedly greet his Land Rover and trailer with bellows as they trot over to the troughs which are being filled with scrumptious cattle food. The earth moves as fifty sturdy beasts (at least) caper past me on their way to breakfast. They have no time for me today, fickle creatures that they are. ‘See you in four hours, boys,’ I say as they trundle past.

From the gate I see that two Ospreys are at home, the adult female and one of her offspring, and a few minutes later I spot another juvenile far away on a dead tree. They are confident on the wing now, well scattered and adventurous. I cannot locate the third juvenile, nor the Lord of the Manor himself, but that is no problem. Hopefully I’ll catch up with them all during the morning. Only a few minutes into the shift, I am in Osprey heaven : no fewer than five Ospreys are in the air in front of me, and the adult female is still on the nest. Clearly one of these circling and chasing above me is an intruder, and I am in luck! I know this one! 28(10) was hatched here three years ago, and has been seen quite regularly both this year and last. He is easy to recognise, as he has some strangely twisted primaries in his right wing, giving him a unique profile when seen in the air. I call him Ragged Wing. He soars around, with no apparent evil intent and no restriction caused by his slight deformity, frustrating the efforts of the other birds to escort him away.

28(10)

28(10)

Finally he disappears to the south, leaving the others to relax again and return to their accustomed perches. I watch them all back in ~ three juveniles to various points within my view, or the nearer more regular perches, and 03 himself to the topmost twig of the distant dead tree, from which high spot his brilliant white breast gleams across at me, even at this distance, proudly surveying all around. Soon, though, he is off again, leaving in an easterly direction to find a morning fish for the young, one of whom is now calling raucously for some nourishment. I check my watch : 8.10. All this action , and only ten minutes into my final shift! Time at last to take my rucksack off my back, set up the ‘scopes properly, settle down. Time for a coffee yet? Bit early, but why not? It’s my last shift after all.

At 8.55 precisely, 03 is back, diving in low with a small piece of fish. He is immediately joined on the nest by two juveniles (4J and 6J as far as I can make out), and he actually starts to feed one of them with dainty pieces of fish, while the other sits there caterwauling and shrieking in protest : ‘I want some!’ This is all too much for the weary-looking adult female, who slips off the nest and disappears to the west. 03 and 6J (probably) eat all the fish between them, totally ignoring the screeching sibling still on the nest. By 9.30 the fish is gone, the noise subsides, 03 departs to the south-west, and the two juveniles also disappear from view, perhaps sitting somewhere nearby with the third member of the brood. Time for reflection, rest…and another coffee.

At 9.50 (almost half-way through the shift) all is still quiet. The three juveniles are out of sight, 03 is absent, leaving just the adult female sitting rather disconsolately on the edge of the nest. She is hunched, barely moving, the membrane flicking across her eye as her head droops. I suspect the time has almost come for her to depart, her role diminished now, her brood dependent not on her but on her mate to bring in the fish. Why hang around? Time to resume fishing after four months being provided for, to build herself up for the long journey ahead, to reflect on a job well done. This female, origin unknown but no doubt Scottish, is rapidly becoming an unsung heroine of the Project ~ regular and dependable since 2008, a brilliant and painstaking nest-builder, an excellent carer and protectress, and all-round good Mum! Credit where credit is due!

It’s 10.05 now. Time is slipping by. Usually I can slow it down, even stop it, but today, just when I want to, I can’t. My watch moves inexorably on. I take it off and put it in my bag. Maybe that will work. Immediately I see that 6J and one of his sisters are back on the nest. Their mother slips off and comes very close to me to collect a clump of grass and hay, which she takes back to the nest and drops almost onto one of her offspring; perhaps she’s trying to stop that infernal food-begging! It doesn’t work, so she flies back towards me, over my head and away to the south. I do not see her again.

For the first time, there are no Ospreys in view anywhere now. It must be about 10.30 (I’m on Osprey time now, so guessing). A Jay is screeching somewhere nearby and a late Song Thrush still has the energy to flute a few phrases over and over again for me. Whitethroats are churring, chivvying their young along a barbed-wire fence. But there are no Ospreys, not even on the distant belt of trees which has been their favourite haunt over the past few days. ‘All that remains is the nest…..’ as someone wrote last year.

I am jolted out of my pleasant reverie by a large shadow passing quickly over me and moving rapidly down the grassland. I am immediately alert again, looking upwards like a young Osprey to see what could have made such a darting shadow. It was the man himself of course, Mr Rutland, coursing down the meadow with the sun above him and creating a perfect and unforgettable image of himself on the newly mown grass below. I see him as he turns in an elegant semi-circle and makes for the nest, a good-sized trout stowed safely beneath. As if from nowhere, two juveniles appear on the nest and noisily await the delivery of the fish, but just as it arrives they are disturbed in their meal by the return of Ragged Wing (28(10)) who once again disrupts family life in the nest. Soon, four Ospreys are twisting, turning and emitting chipping calls in the air above the wood, while two juveniles cower in the nest on instruction from their Father, awaiting the all-clear signal before they can resume their meal.

Eventually, order is restored. I cannot get any features on two of the Ospreys I have just seen, so they go down as ‘unidentified intruders.’ The trout does not last long. I am forced to find my watch again, and see to my horror that it is 11.16 already. My relief will be here in just over half an hour. Enjoy every second, every movement, every sound. A Nuthatch is upside down on a branch of the big oak tree above me. He suddenly starts to call, a loud, piercing whistle. I talk to him out loud ~ well, why not? There’s no-one here to hear me. 11.17 and no Ospreys. Will my last shift end with no Ospreys in view? Perhaps that would be appropriate.

Lying back and staring up into a blue sky with grey and white fluffy cotton-wool clouds passing quickly over, I suddenly realise that two Ospreys are circling at a great height over the wood. 03 maybe? And the female bidding farewell to the nest and her mate for another year? Or two juveniles having fun and seeing who can go higher? No way of knowing, they’re mere dots now, but it’s fun to speculate. The next half hour does in fact go slowly because there are no Ospreys in view. Time to write up the log, finish my sandwiches and coffee, and reflect on fifteen wonderful shifts spent here since April 16th, whether watching alone or in the congenial company of colleagues and friends. It’s been a privilege, as ever.

True to form, just as the hand-over is being completed at 11.55, an Osprey appears over the wood, carrying a fish in dangling legs, and displaying for all he is worth to whoever wants to watch. Could this be an intruder, showing off and challenging 03 to an aerial duel? Immediately one juvenile re-appears in the nest, suggesting that this is in fact 03 himself, displaying the fish to his young ones. He does not drop to the nest, but goes away in the distance to the far belt of trees, where he lands on the bare skeleton of the dead tree and starts to eat his fish. His disappointed offspring waits for a while, but then flies over to the dead tree to try and persuade his Father to share. No chance.

John and Tim have arrived in a vehicle close to the watch-point, and together with two guests they are watching 03 dealing with his fish. As we are watching together, another male Osprey flies purposefully over from north-east to south-west, and John is able to identify him from his slight primary irregularity as another breeding male. ‘Off to his favourite fishing place,’ says Tim. A low guttural ‘kronk’ alerts us again, and over to the west two Ravens ~ huge, black corvids with wedge-shaped tails ~ are flying over. 03 does not react. He is still too busy with the fish.

My last view is from the familiar gate. 03 still eats, one juvenile still waits. Peace reigns over the site. John and Tim drive their guests away, and I realise I have to go back to the watch-point as I have left my trusty walking stick there. John suggests it is just a ruse in order to steal one final look before I leave for the last time this year……

The bullocks are calmer now. I fear they will all have made their final one-way journey from here before I return next year, but I sensibly refrain from mentioning this, and we part on good terms. As I turn for the last time to see a distant white-breasted speck still proudly atop a bare tree, I repeat those unforgettable words of Douglas Adams in ‘The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy’ (Part 4),

“So long, and thanks for all the fish.”

3 responses to “So long, and thanks for all the fish”

  1. Sally Whale

    Thanks Ken, your diaries are always an absolute pleasure, and very moving, to read. I look forward to next year’s.

  2. terri

    I am choking up….thank you for being there for me its been wonderful..i do not want to put this novel down…

  3. Mike Simmonds

    Thank you Ken for yet another fantastic blog. Thank you Michelle.