Each year there is no clearer sign of the onset of spring in Rutland than the sight of the first newly-arrived Osprey perched on its nest; its white underside illuminated by the gentle March sun. For those of us lucky enough to have been involved in the Rutland Osprey Project for a number of years there has been one bird in particular whose return was especially significant and eagerly anticipated each year. He was often the first Osprey to return; his arrival signalling the start of another Osprey year at Rutland Water. The bird in question, of course, is 03(97); or Mr Rutland as he became better know. Sadly this year, he has failed to return.
In many ways the story of Mr Rutland epitomises the success of the Rutland Osprey Project. The irony in his nickname though is that he wasn’t from Rutland at all. 03 was one of eight young Ospreys collected from nests in northern Scotland by Roy Dennis in 1997. It was the second year of the translocation project and the eyes of the conservation world were once again on Rutland Water. 1996 – the first year of the project – had been mixed. Half of the birds translocated from Scotland hadn’t survived; and many people were sceptical about the project’s chances of success. 1997, therefore, was an incredibly important year.
Having been kept in specially-designed release pens on Lax Hill – a grand location overlooking Rutland Water Nature Reserve – 03 and seven other birds were released in late July. 03 made his first flight, described in the day’s monitoring notes as a ‘short, but surprisingly competent’, just after 8pm on 27th July, before landing on a nearby dead tree.
A week or so later the young Ospreys were enjoying their new-found freedom, exploring further and further from the release pens, and beginning to learn about their new home. It was here that my first encounter with 03 took place. I was a fifteen year-old volunteer and the sight of eight newly-released Ospreys flying around Lax Hill was awe-inspiring: something I will never forgot. Of course I didn’t realise the significance of 03 at the time, but he was one of the birds that myself and the team monitored that summer. On 4th September 03 set-off on his maiden flight to West Africa. Little did we know what an important bird he was to become.
Just under two years later, on June 14th 1999, 03 was sighted back in Rutland for the first time. His return, and that of another of the 1997 cohort, 08(97), signified that the project – the first of its kind in Europe – could work. During the course of that summer and the next, 03 and 08 both established territories. 08 took-over one of the artificial nests on the nature reserve, and 03 built a nest in the top of a stag-headed oak on private land close to the reservoir. Site B, as it later became known, was a thoroughly English setting for the Scottish Ospreys who was to become known as Mr Rutland.
In spring 2001 hopes were high that either 03 or 08 would breed. As we would come to expect, 03 didn’t disappoint. In mid-April he was joined at his nest by an unringed Scottish female. We speculated that she may have been an old breeder who had been ousted from a nest in Scotland by a younger bird; a defect in her right eye perhaps betraying her ageing years. Whatever the case, the fact that one of our translocated males had managed to attract a female who was heading north was an encouraging sign.
By early June the birds had been sitting on eggs for five-and-a-half weeks and we were eagerly watching the nests for signs of hatching. Then on the morning of 6th June we noticed a change in their behaviour. 03 arrived with a roach and flew straight to the nest with it. This would usually signify a change in incubation duties, but this time the female remained in the nest. She stood up and carefully inched her way to the side of the nest. She then tore off a piece of fish and delicately offered it down into the nest cup. It was clear that the first Osprey chick in central England for over 150 years had hatched. Two days later the team checked the contents of the nest with Roy Dennis, using poles and a mirror. They could clearly see the tiny chick and two unhatched eggs.
Six weeks later we visited the nest to ring the chick; a landmark moment for the project. We didn’t know it at the time, but that first youngster was one of 32 chicks that 03 would go on to father over the course of fifteen summers at Site B. When his unringed mate failed to return in 2003, 03 quickly attracted a new female to his nest. 05(00) was the first translocated female to breed in Rutland and it was fitting that she did so with 03. Together 03 and 05 raised a total of 17 chicks between 2003 and 2008, and they remain the most successful breeding pair in the Rutland colony.
Many of the offspring reared by 03 and 05 returned to Rutland in subsequent years and themselves became old favourites: most notably the two 2004 chicks, 5N(04) and 5R(04). 5N paired up with 03’s compatriot – and perennial bachelor 08(97) – and bred successfully in Manton Bay in 2007. Then when his sister and her mate moved to an off-site nest in 2009, 5R(04) took over the Manton Bay territory and bred successfully with Maya for the first time in 2010.
Sadly 05(00) failed to return in 2009, but she was quickly replaced by an unringed female. That though was only after an incredible battle between her and another female who we later discovered originated from Argyll in northern Scotland. The sight of two (presumably) Scottish female fighting over the Site B nest was another sure sign that the project was working.
The new unringed female and 03 formed another successful pairing and raised 14 chicks between 2009 and 2014. By spring last year 03’s legacy was becoming clear. Twelve of his offspring had returned and raised a total of 43 chicks between them. Furthermore, four of those 43 had then also gone on to breed successfully. So aside from being a grandfather many times over, 03(97) was also a great-grandfather to 15 young Ospreys.
The natural world can be a harsh place and 03’s ageing years suddenly became apparent in April last year. As usual 03 had been the first Osprey to return to Rutland; reclaiming his regal nest for the fifteenth time. Soon afterwards he was joined by his mate, and within two weeks they were incubating a clutch of eggs. Then the drama began.
Site B has been a sought-after nest ever since 2001 and, over the years, 03 often had to repel attempts to oust him by young males eager to breed. This, we are sure, was the reason that he returned earlier and earlier each spring. 03 usually had little trouble defending his nest, but 2015 was a different story. One of his grandsons, 51(11) suddenly set his sights on Site B. This young male was incredibly aggressive and it quickly became apparent that he was too much of a match for ageing 03. Within a matter of days 03 had been usurped from the nest. He retreated to a regular haunt, Horn Mill Trout Farm, in an effort to regain his strength. Luckily for 03, help was at hand. Just as 51 was getting settled on the Site B nest, another Osprey – and another of 03’s grandsons – entered the fray. 30(10) was also attempting to breed for the first time and after some spectacular aerial battles he ousted 51 from Site B. 30’s unexpected intervention allowed 03 to return to Site B, and to our surprise, 30 made no further attempt to take-over the nest. Instead he retreated to an artificial nest, and 51 did the same. Things were back to normal at Site B, and soon afterwards the female laid a replacement clutch of eggs. Sadly, though, it soon became apparent that they weren’t viable and it wasn’t long before 03 and his mate gave up on them. Nevertheless they remained at Site B for the rest of the summer and we were hopeful that both would be back this spring.
Sadly, we now know that neither 03 nor his mate have returned. We always knew that it would happen one year, but we have become so accustomed to 03 defying the odds and making it back each spring, that we fully expected to see him in all his splendour this March. It is all the more sad that his mate has failed to return too. We do not know what has happened to either bird, but the perils of migration appear to have taken their toll.
Although it was desperately sad not to see 03 this spring, he has left behind an incredible legacy on the 20th anniversary of the Rutland Osprey Project. The latest chicks to hatch at the Manton Bay nest mean that he is now a grandfather 57 times over and a great-grandfather to 22 Ospreys. That tally is sure to increase over this coming summer – and for many years to come. I personally feel privileged to have shared eighteen summers with this wonderful Osprey. It is true to say that these birds become like old friends, and it was always a thrill to see him back at his nest each spring. I know that John Wright who has studied 03 more closely that anyone through his fabulous artwork and photographs – just a fraction of which we have included on this post – feels the same; as do the hundreds of other people who have enjoyed monitoring the Site B nest over the years – or perhaps even watched 03 fishing from the Rutland Belle or at Horn Mill Trout Farm.
It is fitting that 03’s place at Site B has been taken by one of his grandsons, 30(10) this spring. 30 has failed to attract a mate this year, but we are sure that it won’t be long before he follows his grandfather’s lead. Who knows, maybe he’ll be the first Osprey back in Rutland next spring?