Ken has written another wonderful chapter of his diary – read on and enjoy!
An Afternoon with Ospreys
Sunday June 28th
It’s been an unbelievably busy week for everyone here at the Rutland Osprey Project. As well as visits to Lyndon by two primary schools on Wednesday and Friday, we also took the Osprey Roadshow out to our friends at Spratton Hall School for our annual contribution to their Activities Week on Thursday. We enjoyed all the visits immensely of course, and we certainly gave out the ‘Osprey Message’ loud and clear to over 120 children and their teachers during the week. Special thanks to my colleagues Jackie, Abigail, Deb and Tony – without their valued and enthusiastic involvement we could not cater for anything like the number of visits we do. At Spratton Hall, for instance, we had six Osprey activities going on in different rooms – everything from ‘Build your own Osprey Model’ to ‘Hazards of an Osprey Migration’, and even a dramatic re-construction of a real-life incident in Osprey life, when a Rutland Osprey wearing a satellite transmitter was discovered high in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco!
Added to that, we had a role to play in the excellent ‘Wild Rutland Day’, which took place on Saturday in glorious sunshine and involved every member of staff in a huge range of activities covering all aspects of the Reserve’s work! It was a fabulous day, as everyone agreed – from the early morning bird-ringing demonstration right through to the evening activities involving moths, bats and badgers – not forgetting massive numbers of visitors to see the Manton Bay Osprey family and yet another successful Osprey Cruise! Phew – wouldn’t it be nice just to sit down and watch Ospreys for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon?
Well, that’s exactly what I was able to do, and it turned out to be a highly enjoyable four hour stint in Wader Scrape hide – in the company of the always fascinating Manton Bay Osprey family, and a succession of most pleasant and interested visitors from near and far. The weather was not too promising as I arrived, but things started to look up as the afternoon wore on, with sunny spells and gentle breezes. The chicks had been well fed during the morning, so 33(11) did not need to fish again until quite late in the afternoon, when he lifted off and hovered over Heron Bay and caught a medium-sized perch with consummate ease with just one dive. He was away just five minutes! Maya took the fish from him and surprisingly flew off with it, carrying it around for a few minutes with three pairs of orange eyes back in the nest following her every move. She eventually brought it back, but even then did not feed the chicks with it. Instead she held it firmly, as if encouraging the chicks to ‘come and get it’ – one precocious youngster edged up to it and started pecking at it whilst it was still firmly in Maya’s grip. It won’t be long before they are tucking into fish on their own, without any help from her. How quickly the season is going! All the more reason to savour every precious moment we have with the Manton Bay family.
For most of the afternoon, the chicks doze in the nest, a languorous wing from one occasionally rising and falling over the back of another as they lie together. Maya dozes too, the protective membrane flicking up over her eye from time to time. 33 remains on his perch, relaxed but ever vigilant.
A bold Cormorant is swimming and diving after fish in the water just below the nest. An unwise move……Maya’s antipathy towards these greedy fishers is well-known, and she is off the nest in a flash, repeatedly dive-bombing the hapless Cormorant and accurately calculating where it will bob up after each desperate dive away from those extended talons. We give her a cheer each time she forces her enemy under the surface again, until finally, it submerges again and………..where is it? We wait and wait, and Maya scans the surface too. It does not come up. She soon loses interest and returns to the nest. No doubt the Cormorant stayed down as long as it could, and then re-surfaced some distance away, where several others are fishing. There are still more in the dead tree in front of the hide, hanging their wings out to dry, and standing out like gaunt black witches in a line. They all face the Osprey nest, prepared for an airborne attack if Maya becomes irritated again.
All is calm for a while, when another shape in the distant sky catches my attention, gradually getting bigger and approaching us like a huge triangular geometrid moth. But this is no moth, no bird either, but the famous Vulcan bomber XH558, on its final (so I am told) flight before being permanently grounded as a museum exhibit, thus ending the active life of this Cold War relic, which began way back in the 1950’s. Many Osprey enthusiasts are also avid ‘plane fans, and I am amazed at the detailed knowledge that people in the hide share with me as it circles behind Lax Hill before heading off east, showing itself for one last time to the admirers below.
Maya, 33 and the chicks are totally unmoved and unimpressed by the Vulcan. 33 is preening, and Maya is moving sticks around. ‘Call that flight?’ they seem to be saying, ‘Have you seen an Osprey dive? Now that’s flight!’
During quiet intervals, I enjoy observing and chatting with our Sunday afternoon visitors in the hide, and today I have a very pleasant time with a constant stream of people of all ages and levels of expertise. You can always tell if people would like to hear information about the Ospreys and other birds they might be able to see, or if they would prefer to sit quietly and study them for themselves. All the volunteers try to give every visitor what they want, to maximise their enjoyment and increase their knowledge. Today we have some familiar faces – people who come several times each season to see the Ospreys at specific stages of their development. They need little help, but always like to renew acquaintance and share their news since the last time we met. ‘First timers’ are usually obvious, as they enter the new hide and stare around before locating the nest out in the Bay. Once they have their bearings, they settle to watch and welcome a bit of background. Keen photographers with lenses as long as my telescope wait, often for hours, in tense and cramped positions, waiting for that special moment when an Osprey does something spectacular……like all predators, it’s more inactivity than activity, but when it happens the photographer has got to be ready!
All chat stops for a Water Vole, which swims silently through the weed in the water in front of us and makes for the central channel, before veering off into the reeds. Apart from the occasional burst of Sedge Warbler song, and the monotonous tri-syllabic song of the Reed Bunting, the reed bed is pretty silent now – although with Swifts, Sand and House Martins and Swallows flying over constantly, there is always something to hold the attention. I survey the visitors in the hide again from my perch at the end, and feel like Maya watching over her brood. Everyone is quiet at the moment – very different from Wednesday and Friday this week, when we had up to thirty excited youngsters in the hide, all chatting away as they studied the birds and ticked the boxes against the names on the booklet we had prepared for them. ‘My favourite bird used to be the Penguin,’ I recall one little girl saying, ‘ but you haven’t got any here, so I’ve changed it to Osprey.’ Good, well done. It occurs to me that Antarctica is the one continent which never hosts Ospreys at any time of the year, so it is unlikely that a Penguin and an Osprey have ever met….except in this child’s mind.
A charming little family group arrive in the hide after a long walk down from the Visitor Centre. Mum is carrying a one year old in a sling, while another child, aged perhaps five, shyly hides behind Mum’s leg until she is persuaded to come out and look at the Osprey family through the telescope, which has been specially lowered for her. Mum and Grandmother look too. They alternate between the images of the lazing chicks on the big screen, and the real views of the birds through the ‘scope. ‘And what is the bird you are looking at?’ I ask the five year old, whose name is Scarlett. ‘Osprey!’ she whispers, with a smile. They leave, with thanks, and a promise to return when the chicks are flying. I hope they do.
Another visitor has been in the hide for over an hour now, sitting quietly alone and watching the Ospreys intently through a small pair of binoculars. She has a well-travelled air, sturdy back-packing clothing and rucksack, perhaps late twenties, early thirties perhaps, blond hair roughly tied back, maybe German or Scandinavian I reckon. Half an hour later, she is still there, in exactly the same position, her only movements being to take a sip from a water-bottle or to jot a few words down in a well-worn note book. Her gaze is unerring and constant, her concentration unwavering, her whole being totally wrapped up in what she sees through her binoculars. She ignores all else around her, does not react to movement or sound in the hide, does not respond to other sights or distractions. She is immersed, cocooned, totally captivated.
The afternoon wears on, and people begin to drift away, as long journeys home become more pressing, with work or school commitments tomorrow morning. One group must drive from here to Sussex now, having spent a few days in the North and visited the Farne Islands, and using their last day on their way home to visit us here and see the Ospreys. Another family must go even further, to Devon, but will take with them happy memories of the day with the Osprey family in Manton Bay. But the blond girl in the corner is still there.
I am writing a few notes of my own when she suddenly stirs and starts to pack her things up. It’s been over two hours now since I first noticed her. As our eyes meet, I venture a rather feeble ‘You were certainly concentrating there for a long time.’ ‘I was, for sure’, she replies, ‘it is the only way to watch them, isn’t it, if you wish to see into their world.’ Her English is perfect, with an accent reminiscent of Bjorn Borg or a member of Abba. I know immediately that she is a kindred spirit, a visitor from the North who can relate to my own method of entering into Osprey World. I tell her about Site B, about the days when time slows there, and then stops, and how wonderful it is to step through the magic mirror and into the natural world of the Osprey. She in turn tells me about winter in her homeland, when she goes for the day into the snowy forest until she finds one of the Great Grey Owls in a tree, and sits and looks into its eyes until the brief daylight fades and takes it from her view.
‘You must come again when the young are flying,’ I say hopefully. ‘Sadly not possible,’ she replies, ‘ I leave for home tomorrow.’ ‘And where is home?’ ‘About 100km from Stockholm.’ So I was right – no doubt she has already spent many hours with Swedish Ospreys too.
She takes up her notebook, scribbles a few words, tears out the page and gives it to me. An e-mail address perhaps? Or a contact number? No, neither of these – the note simply says ‘Keep watching, keep learning, keep a place in Osprey World for me’, followed by a signature which I can’t read, but might be ‘Inne.’
And then she is gone. I fold the note and put it in my Diary. An encounter to remember.