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Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather

Following on from the diversity of eggs from a couple of weeks ago.. here’s a little blog about the fluffy, streamlined, colourful and perfectly designed world of feathers!

Feathers have been used by humans for hundreds of years as fashion statements, writing implements, pillow stuffings and in every kid’s arts and crafts basics box… but what about their intended purpose, and on their intended owners?
Feathers are unique to birds. Think about that for a second. Since the first feathery dinosaur (previously thought to be the archaeopteryx, but now science’s thinking is that feathers may have been found on species earlier than this, but not fossilised terribly well), birds have retained these specialised structures to enable them to fly, keep warm, attract a mate and camouflage themselves from predators. There are no other groups of animals alive on the planet today with feathers, other than birds, how crazy is that!

Some birds possess feathers specially designed for silent flight: like owls. Their feathers have bizarre serrated edges that break up the air flow and reduce drag, and therefore turbulence, which creates the usual ‘whoosh’ noise when a bird flies past you. Because of this, owls have become specialised hunters capable of sneaking up on their prey (photo below).

Other birds use their feathers for less mechanical reasons, preferring instead to waft, shake, jiggle or fluff their feathers up to attract a mate! The most fabulous example of that are of course the birds of paradise, which come in a myriad of exotic colours and ostentatious patterns. There is a famous outtake of David Attenborough attempting to do a piece to camera about the Greater bird of paradise, which is displaying very loudly above his head! Its bright yellow flank plumes fluffed up, spreading its wings in an arc and hopping about calling magnificently on the branch.

Displays of this extravagant variety are to attract a female and to out-compete other males in their territory, and what a display! Some birds of paradise have taken this ostentatious display to the very extreme, such as the long tailed widowbird or the ribbon tailed Astrapia… which have evolved such disproportionately long tails due to female sexual selection pressures, that they struggle to fly long distances with this feathery baggage! Females will therefore choose the males which are able to support their own weight!

Another bizarre, almost counter-intuitive bit of feather adaptation is showcased by the only non-waterproof diving bird: the cormorant. You heard it right! A diving, fish eating, water visiting bird lacks waterproofing feathers! But there is a method in this evolutionary madness: when cormorants dive for fish, they need to be able to sink to the appropriate depth, and waterlogging themselves makes them heavier, and reduces air bubbles which would bring them back to the surface. That’s why you will often see cormorants with their wings spread open like a pterodactyl on shorelines and on posts, drying themselves out after a morning fishing!

The Fantastic Four!

At the end of this week we were lucky enough to see the fourth hatchling at Manton Bay!
Although the last two are slightly smaller than the earlier born they all seem to be
doing well.

Our volunteers, Anna and Linda informed me today Maya has been tearing off fish to feed
them every 5 – 10 minutes! 33 has been on top-form replenishing fish stocks on the nest
and has recently brought a roach in this afternoon. As a result of these two brilliant
parents doing a grand job the chicks look well and are strong enough to sit up as well
as beg for food from their attentive parents!

We have previously had four eggs laid at Rutland Water in 2017 but have yet to have four
chicks fledge, all our fingers and toes are crossed for these four this season.

Philosophy Friday

Yes! It’s my favourite day of the week! Philosophy Friday strikes again and this week we’re delving into the wonderful world of trees! We all know about the benefits of green spaces for our mental health, as many studies have shown it to reduce stress, alleviate anxiety, improve cardiovascular health and general mood. But forests and woodland have held a wealth of benefits for many years, some uses you may never have known! Obviously trees give us a fantastic means to fix carbon dioxide. This helps promote the reversal of climate change and global warming, taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and in return, providing oxygen, the very air that we breathe! As well as fixing carbon dioxide, woodland and forest ecosystems are lively hubs of nutrient recycling, taking in decayed biological matter from the soil and turning old material into new, balancing the whole ecosystem literally from the ground up. If it weren’t for trees we would have very poor quality soils and would be unable to enjoy wildflowers, and indeed the abundance of bird and mammal life which nest in their boughs and shelter from the weather. If you grew up around trees you will also know the brilliant fun to be had from collecting their seeds (conkers from horse chestnuts and ‘helicopters’ from sycamores!) as well as the endless hours of fun clambering, swinging and leaping from their branches as a kid. It’s fair to say trees are fantastic to look at on the surface, and make us feel calm when we see a sea of green ahead of us and around us as we walk.

But the secrets of trees lie even deeper rooted than this. Trees can effectively talk to each other by tapping into a subterranean network colloquially referred to as the ‘wood wide web’. In a woodland or forest, trees of the same or different species tap into this network via microscopic fungi associated with their roots, called mycorrhiza. These fungi form long filaments in the soil which may extend to deep inside the root network of trees, allowing chemical signals to be detected and passed on to neighbouring trees. This is incredibly important in woodlands, and an individual tree can signal to surrounding trees if it is under attack from insects, wood boring animals and diseases, which in turn stimulates the surrounding trees to increase their defences. Mother trees can also send extra resources via this network to its sheltered seedlings, which often grow nearby, or in a more insidious manner, for instance trees such as black walnut can spread toxins to out-compete its neighbours. So trees talk to one another! And it’s fair to say they’re one of our best sources of education about our natural world. From them, we’ve developed painkillers, blood thinners, skin treatments, treatments for malaria…the list goes on about their material uses too. So surely they’re the answer to our happiness, health, and climate change prayers? No catch. There are a growing number of people out there re-planting sections of rainforest, growing whole woodlands on their land and buying up acres of land to turn back into woodland and forest systems. What can we do as consumers? Recycling paper, cardboard and tissue will go a long way, as will buying recycled paper kitchen and toilet roll, and paper stationary for the office, as well as recycling books and borrowing books. But most importantly, visiting nature reserves and wooded areas where active preservation is being done to protect them, every penny you spend there goes into the habitat management of our woodland and forested areas in the UK to protect them and help them grow.

I think woodlands are tree-mendous fun to immerse yourself in, and is brilliant for stirring the creative juices too. At Lyndon Visitor Centre this month and next we will be thinking about tree workshops and guided walks around the site…stay tuned!

The three musketeers! 150th Chick!

What a terrific Tuesday! I arrived at the center to open up this morning, with the phone ringing as I stepped in through the door. Tom and Ann Price, our vigilant volunteers stationed down in Waderscrape hide, had been watching our ospreys from dawn for any signs of another new arrival. Tentatively they suggested they’d seen a third head pop up out of the nest as Maya came down to feed the two chicks…  went back through the footage on the webcam and found…

3 bobbing heads calling for fish! This was fantastic to see and I trawled back through the footage to catch a glimpse of the hatching event…

The best estimate I could make was when Maya was shifting bits of egg shell around the nest at about 22.58 last night, the chick had presumably hatched underneath her! This is a particularly poignant moment for the Rutland Osprey project, as it marks the 150th chick to hatch at Rutland water since the project began. This is a remarkable achievement by our birds to have produced so many healthy chicks, and a showcase of how hard the Osprey team have worked over the years to improve the profile and productivity of these incredible birds in England. It is really only fitting that our celebrity pair should win the title of 150th chick, as they have delighted many visitors, members of the public (and staff of course!) with their brilliant parenting skills, charisma and personality, which we have watched closely on our webcams. Maya and 33 will have their work cut out with these three hungry mouths, and we hope all four will hatch, we will have to wait and see if the three musketeers become the fantastic four!

Stay tuned for more updates as the chicks grow, and don’t forget you can donate to the Osprey project by text, and follow us on social media at:

Rutland Osprey project on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/RutlandOspreyProject/

Twitter: @rutlandospreys

Instagram: @rutlandospreys

Whatever floats your boat…

As many of you will know, at Rutland water Osprey project, we want to immerse you in the world of the Osprey, show you up close how they live, feed, breed and fledge. What better way to complete the picture of Osprey life than by getting out onto the water itself? We are running cruises all through the summer, a mixture of dawn and afternoon cruises out onto Rutland water, 90 minutes of fantastic views of the birdlife on the water and in the air.. with (hopefully!) some views of flying/fishing Ospreys!

The cruise will be guided by myself and Katy Smart, offering a narrative of Osprey life, some fun facts and insights, as well as bad jokes! It’s great fun and a brilliant opportunity to see Rutland water as never before. We still have a lot of spaces left on our first cruise of the season, on the 25th May at 5.30pm until 7PM, lead by our Senior reserves officer Rebecca Pitman, so call us or book online to come and enjoy a cruise on the water!

For more info on the cruises, you can call us or find out more on the main webpage here: https://www.ospreys.org.uk/cruises/

Looking forward to seeing you all there! The first of the season is always exciting as hopefully all of our chicks will be hatching, and the parents will have their work cut out trying to feed those hungry mouths!

Wildlife Cruise