A Rutland Triptych

Here is the latest installment from Ken’s Diary…

Day 1 : Osprey and Phalarope Sundae!

Picture the scene : on a calm and sunny early June Sunday afternoon, a pair of Ospreys are contentedly feeding their three young on a roach which the male brought in a few minutes ago. Meanwhile, on the water beneath the nest, a pair of small wading birds, about the size of skylarks (but far more colourful) are nodding this way and that on the surface, nimble as clockwork toys, darting sideways to snatch at microscopic insects, pirouetting daintily on the water like restless little sprites : Red-necked Phalaropes.

And where do you suppose this idyllic scene is being played? On a pool in a clearing amid a remote Norwegian spruce forest? Or perhaps on a river tumbling down the slopes of the Canadian Rockies? A Shetland Isle perhaps, or a Hebridean hideaway? Captivating as all these locations are, the scene just described is taking place in none of them. No, as I am sure you have guessed by now, I am watching Ospreys and Phalaropes during my usual Sunday afternoon shift in Wader Scrape hide, here at Rutland Water in Central England ~ yet more evidence (if any were needed) of the Reservoir’s importance as a breeding, staging, and wintering post for a huge range of avian species.

Most visitors today have come to see the Osprey family ~ and they are not disappointed. 5R is bringing good-sized roach in every hour or so, and delivering them to the nest after eating just a little himself. On one occasion, he leaves the Bay and disappears over the hill, but just four minutes later (yes, that’s right ~ FOUR minutes!) we see him returning over the water with yet another roach safely stowed below. Obviously a success with his first dive! An unerring marksman indeed!

All visitors, whether regulars or first-timers, take their fill of the Ospreys and their happy domestic life. Three other Ospreys visit during the afternoon, but their incursions are brief, and hardly register on our Richter scale of intrusions. During calm spells in the busy hide, we casually draw the attention of our guests to the little birds bobbing on the water not far away. ‘You might be interested in two very unusual visitors we have in the Bay today,’ we say, ‘they’re Red-necked Phalaropes.’

‘Red-necked what?’ comes the reply from all quarters of the hide. ‘Phalaropes,’ we repeat, and I try to explain (without sounding too much of a clever-clogs of course) that the word ‘phalarope’ is a shortened form of the family name Phalaropodidae, or ‘coot-footed’ birds ~ an allusion to the lateral lobes on the feet which resemble those of coots and form paddles that assist with swimming.

‘It’s not in the index to my bird-book’ says one chap. I gently move the index on a couple of pages for him. ‘Oh, it doesn’t begin with ‘f’ then,’ he says, rather less loudly this time. We pass our own field-guide around, open at the correct page, so that everyone can see an image of the little birds they are looking at. It’s actually not surprising that so few of our visitors (mostly non-birders) are unfamiliar with Phalaropes. There are only three species of Phalarope in the world ~ all scarce, and downright rare in the middle of England in June! There’s the Grey Phalarope (or Red as it’s known in the USA), then there’s Wilson’s Phalarope (named after Alexander Wilson, 1766-1813, American ornithologist), and finally there’s Red-necked Phalarope (or Northern in the USA) ~ the ones before us this afternoon. Confused even more? Yes, so are our visitors ~ so we just allow them to look at them through the telescopes and enjoy the view.

I remember we had a book of animal and bird poems at home long ago, and one of them was called ‘Red-necked Phalarope.’ It began like this :

‘Reader, I do sincerely hope
You know the Red-necked Phalarope,
A circumpolar water-bird,
Of whom few folk have ever heard.’

People feel better about their ignorance when I recite that to them! The two Phalaropes in front of us are almost certainly on their way north to the breeding grounds in Shetland, Iceland, Norway, or some other equally distant region. I am confident they will not be here tomorrow, so we encourage all our visitors to study them while they have the chance ~ they are unlikely to encounter another one for a very long time. At 3.10pm they care incredibly close to us ~ spinning on the surface ‘light as cockleshells, deft as butterflies.’ It is the brightly coloured female who is making all the running, chivvying the greyer male along the water in front of her. All three species of Phalarope (and the related Dotterel) have reversed sex roles ~ the female takes the lead in courtship and, after laying the eggs, she takes no further part in incubation or nurture of the young, leaving all these duties to the male. Female Phalaropes then bond together and have extended ‘hen parties’! Cue another verse from that poem :

‘The Phalarope, besides red-necked,
Is also horribly hen-pecked.
For nubile Phalaropes, I fear,
Each mating season seems Leap Year.
The female bird is big and bright,
The male a small and sombre sight.’

All Phalaropes ~ males, females and immatures ~ spend autumn and winter at sea in tropical Southern Oceans, doing just what they’re doing here and now ~ bobbing and darting, flicking and flirting. It has been a rare privilege to be here today in congenial company with friends old and new, watching Ospreys and Phalaropes. As afternoon fades to balmy evening and our shift ends, I reflect on our good fortune. ‘Just perfick’, as Mr Larkin would say.

Day 2 : Monday, and back to school !

At first light, so I’m told, people were searching the Bay for the Phalaropes. They are not there. Our surmise was correct, and ‘suddenly, as rare things will, they vanished’ (Browning), probably during the clear night, continuing their journey northwards after a pleasant day in Rutland.

Today, Tim, Deb and I are taking the Osprey Roadshow to English Martyrs Primary School in Oakham, just a couple of miles or so from the Reservoir. We receive a warm and friendly welcome at English Martyrs School and soon we are telling our audience of about 100 children aged 4 – 11 and their teachers all about the very special birds that live nearby. Some of them are very knowledgeable, and answer our questions confidently. Later on, we are with Mrs Scott’s Year 4 class. Their special topic this term is ‘Journeys’, so the material we have brought on Osprey migration, satellite tracking and flyways is ideal. Tim shows them the Google Earth tracking of 09(98)’s epic journeys. They gather around the screen and follow with rapt attention : young minds discovering the wonders of nature via modern technology.

To end, we go out onto the school field and play ‘The Migration Game.’ Soon we have about 20 young Ospreys flying to all corners of the field, desperately trying to avoid dangers and hazards such as sandstorms, shooters and fishing nets. Some make it, and some don’t, as in real-life Osprey world.

Everyone agrees that the visit has been a success, and Tim is even subjected to a knee-high hug from one grateful little boy.

Afterwards, back at Lyndon, all is fine. 5R continues to supply his growing family with fish, and staff and visitors are enjoying the sunshine and wildlife of the Bay ~ well, apart from a few forlorn and disconsolate Phalarope twitchers who are one day too late. ‘Too Late the Phalarope’, as the title of one of Alan Paton’s South African novels goes.

Another brilliant day. I wonder what tomorrow might bring? Well, if it’s Tuesday, it must be……….

Day 3 : Site B in the Tuesday Sunshine!

It’s two weeks since the first hatching at Site B, so it is possible today to spot the heads of the chicks as they stretch upwards for food. All is peaceful during the morning ~ regular feeding, spare fish in the nest, 03(97) on guard nearby. Song birds are still on good form all around. A flickering Cuckoo and a rakish Hobby enliven the scene. Red Kite and Common Buzzard omnipresent. Muntjac and Fallow Deer saunter past, ignoring us. The idyll is complete

03 delivers a new fish at 10.08am, and his 28th, 29th and 30th chicks accept the pieces of fish offered by their mother. Thus it ever was. Way back in 2001, his firstborn chick 13(01) took fish in just the same way. Sitting here in the sun, it occurs to me that none of my experiences over the last three days would have taken place without the exploits of the pioneering 03(97). Directly and indirectly, this bird has launched and furthered careers, boosted the local economy, inspired writers and artists, provided countless insights into Osprey life and lore, and enhanced the lives of countless numbers of people, young and old alike.

I look up from these scribbles and he’s there, of course, proud on his post, looking directly over at me. Three women on horseback pass by, away to the east. He looks at them, but does not move. They disappear round the edge of the wood, and I too slip away to the west, at the end of my ‘Three Day Rutland Experience’.

Same again next week? Yes please!