Ken’s been keeping a close eye on our juvenile Ospreys at Manton Bay and Site B before they begin to think about leaving Rutland for the first time…
For those of us fortunate enough to spend five months of each year close to the magnificent Ospreys here in their secluded stronghold in Central England, these August days are indeed a time of bounty and pleasure. Any walk down to the Bay just now will bring fine rewards as the two juvenile Ospreys, 8F(12) and 9F(12), gain in confidence as each day goes by, flying ever more strongly and even plunging into the water in playful dives as their parents watch from the perches. As I arrive for my regular Sunday afternoon shift, the Manton Bay Osprey family is there for inspection. 8F looks to be a strong and capable young male ~ superb already on the wing, adventurous, bold and inquisitive. I remember the early pioneers of the Project telling me just the same about 03(97) ~ ‘feisty’ was a word they used ~ and maybe the Grandad’s genes have been passed down to good effect in this individual. Let’s hope so! And 9F! Just look at her now! A few weeks ago, she was (to use John Wright’s phrase) ‘out of it’, under anaesthetic with a mask over her head on the Vet’s operating slab in Oakham, having her wound treated. And now, I can watch her sailing over my head, interacting with her brother, parents and several other visiting Ospreys, high over the Bay…and her Father, the irascible 5R(04) who was responsible for her injury, has, thank goodness, forgotten his aberrant behaviour and resumed his role as a protective parent. What a ‘Super Sunday’ (August 5th) that was in the Bay! Apart from the four members of the resident family, we had visits from five other Rutland Ospreys, three from 2009 nests, one from 2010, and AW’s metal-ringed widow from Site O. Nine Ospreys in one August afternoon in Central England? Yes, that’s right. Amazing I know…..but true.
I am actually scribbling this two days after that brilliant Sunday, by my favourite gate on the walk to Site B, just before 8.00am this morning. The early morning watcher has just left, and I am here with a friendly piebald horse (or is it skewbald? Well, brown and white patches anyway!) for company. The other horses are more disdainful, keeping their distance, but this one wants to chat, so we strike up a conversation. ‘Right, let’s see who’s at home this morning,’ I say, as we both look over the gate towards the distant Site B nest. I can see one juvenile Osprey. The rest of this family are either hidden away, or off visiting friends and relatives. My companion nuzzles my rucksack, no doubt scenting my sandwiches and banana. I search the nearby hedges, thickets and fences ~ any sign of last week’s Spotted Flycatcher family? No, but there are a few late summer warbler calls, and a delightful row of juvenile Swallows on the barbed wire. I decide to climb the gate rather than open it ~ just in case my friend decides to push through with me. On the top of the gate, she is so close to me that I could easily slip onto her back and go for a gallop around…..No, don’t even think about it! As I look back she is still there, watching me. ‘See you in four hours’ I whisper, and she seems to hear, turning and slowly plodding back to her companions.
These are the good times at Site B. After all the traumas, the searches, rescues, releases and miraculous survivals involving all three juveniles, it is such a heart-warming relief and pleasure to see them all looking so well this morning. The three juveniles (1F, 2F and 3F) are making a terrific din, food-begging, squeaking, shrieking, screeching. My goodness, what a noise! No wonder Father goes off fishing for lengthy periods. I see him coming back in with a nice trout, and the screeching gathers momentum and intensity as he lands on a perch and starts to eat it himself. The caterwauling is so loud that I consider joining in, to see if that will encourage him to deliver the fish, but I decide against it ~ he might bring the fish over to me to shut me up!
Sudden silence. Has he taken the fish to the nest? No, he’s still there, but not eating. Two juveniles have crouched down low in the nest, and the third is on the edge, looking up anxiously. An eerie quiet has descended. Then I hear the familiar ‘chipping’ note ~ a sure sign of an intruding Osprey. Following the juveniles’ rapt gaze, I see the familiar shape in the sky. 03 leaves his perch, deftly drops the fish in the nest, and then climbs in pursuit of this interloper. The three juveniles, who only moments ago seemed to be on the point of raucous starvation, ignore the fish and remain almost comatose in the nest, responding now to the danger calls being emitted by the two duelling birds above. This intruder looks familiar ~ third primary feather in each wing either broken or at least shortened ~ and a hasty look at John Wright’s amazing photos (now copied into my note-book) tells me that this is probably 03(09), a three year old Osprey from Site N (son of the late 08(97) and 5N(04)), yet another grandson of 03(97), who, as I try and record all this, is pursuing him across the sky in a ritualistic spiral of twists, turns, loops and intertwining manoeuvres. It’s thrilling to watch. After twenty minutes of unrelenting chasing, both pursuer and pursued disappear over my head into the wood behind me, and just a minute later 1F decides that the danger is past and takes the fish to the perch where his father was eating until he was so rudely disturbed. The other two start the caterwauling again, but to no avail ~ their brother is not likely to share the fish now.
A moment of calm at last…well, apart from the noisy juveniles in the nest. The drama is not over though. 03 returns rapidly to the perch and watches indignantly as his offspring devours his fish! He sidles up to the youngster and is about to challenge for it when the juvenile takes off with it and heads off back to the nest.
Just as I think I’m on top of the situation, I sense tension in the air again. Nerves are stretched, muscles taut, tendons twitching ~ and the Ospreys are looking anxious too! Wing-flicking, mantling, chipping calls, skyward gazes ~ all this can only mean one thing : the Osprey Bus is back! At first I see just one ~ and I’m pretty sure it’s 03(09) again. I nicknamed him ‘Ragged Wings’ after John’s photo showed his shortened primary feathers. But this time he’s not alone ~ he’s brought his new female friend (AW’s widow), who I can recognise from the photo showing a small nick in the trailing edge of both wings. Now a third appears, maybe 25(10), the daughter of AW and the ‘nicked’ female. The three of them have been seen together quite frequently lately.
The photos in my note-book have been a terrific help, but just as I’m smugly thinking ‘I know who you are!’, two more appear in the sky, and I have no idea as to their identity at all. So I just sit back, watch and admire. It’s wonderful. Our own 03 is up there now too, fiercely pursuing one intruder after another. Only the three juveniles stay on the nest or their perches ~ fishes abandoned for the moment, eyes glaring upwards, shrill alarms ringing across the fields. Despite the gentle rain now falling, the ritual goes on and on. At times the chipping call is so loud it seems to be right inside my head. I am standing outside now, taking in as much sky as I can, so as not to miss any of the sweeps and passes of the six Ospreys in the air around me. There is no-one here but me. I feel part of it. As so often happens, time blurs, then stops. Nothing else matters. Sublime.
It’s over, finished. My head is spinning as I try vainly to find words to record the scene I have just witnessed. I must get it down now, before I lose it forever. I try and convey my experience to the watchers who have come to relieve me, but it’s inadequate and they must think I’m delirious, deluded…or worse.
Suddenly I’m back at the gate, seeking out my favourite horse, who actually is not so inclined to talk with me this time. I tell her anyway what a fantastic morning I’ve just had, and go through the sequence one more time, just to ensure I’ve got it embedded in my mind for the future.
Very soon now, in just a few weeks, all these Ospreys ~ and I’ve seen nine different individuals this morning ~ will be gone, heading south on migrations ~ for some their first, for one his fourteenth. As Alan Poole puts it so memorably in his book : ‘By early September, most Osprey nests are empty at northern latitudes, breeding activity over until spring warmth rekindles it. Only the nests remain, wistful reminders of a bird that pursues an endless summer.’ *
Unlike them, I have to stay. No warm African winter sojourn for me. But experiences like today will sustain me, strengthen me, ensuring a rich supply of provisions for the winter. And they will be back, they will be back…. and we will be here to welcome their return.
* Alan Poole : Ospreys ~ A Natural and Unnatural History (Cambridge University Press, 1989)