Here is Ken Davies’ account of his birthday cruise aboard the Rutland Belle on Saturday!
Have you ever had a day which was just so special, so magical from beginning to end, that you thought it was probably one of the best in your life? A wedding day perhaps, or the birth of a child? Or maybe a successful job interview, or the fulfilment of a lifetime’s ambition? Or an especially exciting wildlife encounter, a once in a lifetime experience with wild creatures in the South African veldt, the snowy Siberian wastes, the Himalayan foothills, the icy reaches of Antarctica? Would you be surprised if I told you that I’ve just had one of these days – and it all happened just thirty minutes away from my home here in Central England, and on the precise date of my 70th birthday?
The story begins several weeks ago, in the Osprey Project office at the Lyndon Nature Reserve. Kayleigh is checking the bookings for the first Osprey cruise of the season on board the ‘Rutland Belle’. ‘Mmm’, she says, ‘bookings are a bit slow for the first cruise. What can we do to attract some more people?’ I glance over her shoulder at the bookings sheet…..and the date jumps out at me! It’s only the date of my birthday, for goodness sake, and a special birthday at that! I say nothing, but go away with an idea formulating in my head…..Why not make a block booking on the boat, and invite friends and colleagues to join me on a special Osprey cruise to celebrate my becoming a septuagenarian?
At home that night I start to make a list of the people I would want to join me on this adventure. After fifteen minutes I have 75 names on the list. That’s ridiculous – it would cost the earth, and anyway the ‘Belle’ only takes 70 on Osprey cruises. So I start again, and decide to set up new criteria – a few former colleagues from my teaching career, then the people who made up the 2017 Rutland Osprey Project expedition to Gambia and Senegal, plus some Osprey volunteers with whom I have worked closely over the years, not forgetting all present and some past Rutland Osprey staff, and of course some of the fantastic young people who started their wildlife experiences with us here…….and leave a few places for people who don’t fit any of the criteria but I want them there anyway!
Several days later, the list is a more manageable 36, but doubts are starting to set in. What if no-one wants to come? What if people say it’s a silly idea? What if the weather’s awful and we see nothing? What if there has been a sudden surge in bookings by members of the public, and there are no longer places available? One Sunday afternoon, I share my plan with Kayleigh. She looks stunned for a moment, but then agrees it would be an excellent way to celebrate a special birthday, and yes, places are still available. So that evening, I sit down and start to send out the invitations, and wait…
One week later, and it’s all done. 31 say ‘yes, please, love to come’, and 5 send their apologies because they’re already committed on that day. 31 it is then! Should be quite a cruise! Trouble is, it’s still four weeks away……but excitement mounts as the big day gets nearer…..and nearer!
I waken gradually on the day in question. Bit by bit consciousness returns, and I remember. Today is the day! I decide I’m not going to mention the big seven-0 number today. No, instead I’ll be LXX – that looks much better and less scary. ‘The days of our years are three score years and ten’ I recall from the Old Testament….but then I remember the last part of that Psalm….’for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.’ I shudder, and wish it hadn’t come into my head at all. Stick with LXX : ‘And how old are you today?’ asks the friendly postman as he delivers some cards. ‘I’m LXX’, I reply, and he smiles. He obviously knows his Roman numerals!
The day flies by. Messages, ‘phone calls and cards from friends, family, former colleagues and students in some faraway places as well as nearer to home, a lovely lunch, a quiet afternoon, and then quite suddenly it’s time to leave for Whitwell Creek and the long-awaited LXX birthday Osprey Cruise! Whoo-hoo! Let’s do it!
The harbour is heaving with people. It’s Bank Holiday weekend, and Whitwell Creek is also the home of the Aqua Park, a sort of small version of Alton Towers on the water. Looks like something to be avoided. I go down to the quay, and find the ‘Rutland Belle’ is still out. She’ll be back soon. As I sit down by the gangplank, people start to gather, recognising my ‘Rutland Ospreys’ shirt. The first few of my LXX birthday guests arrive, together with nearly forty members of the public who have booked, giving the boat its full complement. By the time the ‘Belle’ glides into view, looking sleek and virtually silent after the winter-time refurbishment of her engine, everyone is ready to embark, pumped up, binoculars and cameras akimbo. We slip anchor at 5.30pm precisely, Skipper Matt at the wheel.
It’s breezy on the top deck, and even more so on the open prow, but spirits are high, and within a few minutes Kayleigh is telling people over the microphone to look ahead as an Osprey is circling high over one of the arms of the reservoir. Amazingly, as if to come and greet us, it flies towards the boat and passes us at no great distance, affording amazing views to everyone both on the open areas and below in the saloon. Everyone, even the hardened Osprey watchers, is thrilled. We settle down again, enjoying the improving weather, the passing terns, egrets and grebes, and the company. I move around the boat, joining animated groups and chatting wherever I go. I think they’re enjoying it!
We cruise past Lax Hill, and heave to just off the bund marking the boundary of Manton Bay. We can see the Osprey nest clearly now, and Maya and 33(11) are at home. The boat falls silent as everyone watches intently, listening to Kayleigh’s commentary on the latest events at the nest. We wave towards Wader Scrape hide, where volunteer Mick Lewin (also celebrating a birthday today!) is doing the evening shift, accompanied by some of the Trainee Reserves Officers. I go downstairs, and a lovely hot cup of tea is put in my hand. Everyone is happily chatting away, catching up with one another. I sit for a moment with my tea. This is good.
Back on the deck, I talk to people about Ospreys, Africa, migration – even vector summation (Thank you, Tim Mackrill!) – and the many other joys of working and living in the natural world. It transpires that a girl I speak to attends a school in Stamford that we are visiting next month – she will have a head start on her classmates! All too soon, we have to head for home, and I soon see the familiar outline of Whitwell Creek approaching. As the Belle pulls in and is tied to the quay, Kayleigh thanks everyone for coming, reminds them of my birthday, and there is an unexpected round of applause! Thank you Kayleigh!
I decide to make my way to the quayside and say goodbye to my guests as they disembark, but just at this moment another voice comes over the airwaves telling everyone in my party to assemble on the top deck as some photographs are required. A nice thought – it will be good to have a souvenir of this special trip. My colleague Pete Murray gives instructions, takes several photos, then announces we must remain on board as he wants to take some ‘distance’ shots of the ‘Belle’ and us from the shore. He disappears and is next seen on the bank, at least two hundred yards away, waving and gesticulating and attempting to give us instructions. It’s all a bit bizarre now, and taking as long as it does at some of those weddings I’ve been to, where the photographers want to record every single micro-movement of bride, groom and everyone else. I keep smiling.
As Pete finishes, someone suggests I might say a few words, so I thank everyone for coming, and for their cards and gifts, and thanks to Matt and the crew of the ‘Rutland Belle’.
I am just running out of things to say, and wondering desperately why no-one seems to want to go home, when a cry goes up : ‘Osprey!’ Sure enough, an Osprey is flying powerfully into the Creek, quite low. It beats steadily over the boat as we all stand transfixed on the deck. Pete is still on the shore, and manages to get a brilliant photo of us, the boat, AND the Osprey! What a moment! Absolutely amazing. A stunning view on this special cruise on this special day. The bird wheels away to the north.
Still people don’t seem to want to go home. Well, I can understand it, I suppose. The weather is now fine, the wind has dropped, and the Osprey might give a repeat performance. Everyone is just chillin’, as they say. But I’m wrong. Suddenly Jackie is standing on a seat and addressing everyone. It seems no-one is going home just yet……because there’s a party, a buffet, and a special birthday cake for me, all prepared in the saloon downstairs! And she’s got a big card signed by everyone, and……….wait for it………..the special paintings on the front of the card are beautiful original watercolours of 33 and Maya by the brilliant John Wright, showing in detail the feather tracts and moulting primaries and secondaries, as observed by him just a couple of days ago!
The whole evening has taken on a new, surprising and incredibly brilliant turn. I try to thank everyone, but can’t find any words now. I go downstairs to find Liz, Libby and the staff of the ’Belle’ putting the finishing touches to a lovely spread, complete with cake, candles, ribbons and sparkly wine! Wow, I couldn’t have dreamt it, could I?
The next hour or so passes in a haze. I try to speak to everyone, to thank each friend personally. Quite rightly, everything stops for a few minutes when another shout of ‘Osprey!’ goes up. We can see that this bird is 28(10), his slightly misshapen wing revealing his identity. He is a favourite Osprey to many people, following his trials and tribulations in 2014, but now happily breeding on another of the off-site nests. The party continues till the light starts to fade, and then it’s time for final thanks, and goodbyes. I am one of the last to leave the boat. I cannot begin to describe how I feel, but people who know me well will understand. It has been the most wonderful of days.
I owe an incalculable debt of gratitude to all the people involved over the years with the Rutland Osprey Project, for today of course, but also for giving me so many opportunities to forge such a rewarding second career after teaching for over half my life. I have worked with inspiring colleagues and volunteers, and their enthusiasm, commitment and passion have helped me to write about Ospreys, to speak to audiences about them, to visit so many schools and colleges to share our message with the next generation of conservationists and ecologists, to visit West Africa and work there with local people. Above all, I have cherished the opportunity to observe and study these spectacular and iconic birds as they continue their re-colonisation in England, the chance to enter into their world and monitor their behaviours during those incredibly intense hours of watching at Site B over ten seasons or so, and to share their lives with people from all over the world during regular Sunday afternoons in Manton Bay since 2007. I may be LXX now, but it’s not over yet, I promise……..LXXV, and even LXXX are just numbers waiting to be attained. I hope many of you will be there with me.
‘These lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for the fortunate few, the experts, but are available for anyone who will place him/herself under the influence of earth, water and sky, and their amazing life.’ (Rachel Carson, 1956)