Ken Davies, our dedicated Osprey volunteer and diary-writer, has once again written an inspiring piece on Site B from his shift on Tuesday. That day happened to be a rather special one, so, on behalf of everyone at the Rutland Osprey Project, I would like to wish Ken a very Happy Birthday!
“A Birthday with Ospreys.”
Once upon a time there was a little boy whose birthday was approaching. His Mother said to him, as she did every year, ‘What would you like to do on your birthday?’ The little boy had already made his list, and his reply went something like this : ‘I want to see a tiger, ride in a space-ship, and have a picnic on the top of Mount Everest.’ His Mother nodded and said that she would see what she could do. On the day itself, a visit to Bristol Zoo, a trip to the local fairground, and a walk with a picnic hamper to the top of nearby Silbury Hill – and all three wishes were granted!
Magical days of childhood, recalled now, well over half a century later. As I packed my rucksack last night, my intentions were clear : I’m spending my birthday this year (or part of it anyway) with the Ospreys! And the thrill, the expectation, the excitement, surge through me once more! I’m seven years old again, and I’m off on my birthday adventure, travelling through wild uncharted country, fending off hostile natives and herds of wild animals, to reach my goal in far-off Osprey Land. Never mind that it’s pouring with rain and blowing a gale – this is a treat, a privilege, a once only dreamt of opportunity to visit once more the hallowed ground of Site B!
As I arrive at the parking place, the weather could not be worse : heavy rain, wind, cold – it might be November rather than the end of May. I just hope the chicks are warmly snuggled down underneath their Mum this morning. A friendly man with a Labrador is walking up the road through the gloom, and we have a strange conversation. He obviously knows why I am here, and I know he knows I know he knows, if you follow. We are both guarded, but we part with a cheery ‘Good Luck’ – he off to a hot breakfast, I to a soggy walk. I reach the hut, which is dripping on the edge of the wood. I unlock, take down the shutters, set up the ‘scopes. Then I take off my wet upper layers, change into a Val Doonican sweater, and exchange wellingtons for a cosy pair of furry boots. This is more like it : let the birthday shift commence!
As I hoped, the female keeps the chicks well covered. She is wet through herself, and keeps shaking her head to remove droplets from her face. 03 is on a nearby perch. The log tells me that a large trout was brought in at 6.18pm yesterday, so probably a large part of that is still in the nest. I watch through the ‘scope. Everything looks fine. The wind is strong, and I have to bolt the door of the hut from the inside to stop it rattling and even blowing open. My wet things are dripping in the corner. Kayleigh calls just after 8.30am to see if I’m OK. I tell her it’s my birthday, and she says she wishes she had known – we could have had an Osprey Party in the hut, complete with balloons and a special cake! I look around and conjure a bizarre image of it decorated, a big banner across the front.
After a celebratory coffee and a warm croisson (well, it is my birthday!), I get down to serious watching and monitoring. Then the first real treat of the morning : a sudden movement in the grass about a metre in front of me distracts me. What was that? A rabbit perhaps? No, too dark. A weasel? No, too big. There it is again, stealing through the grass at breakneck speed, leaping, twisting, turning. A Stoat! And suddenly there is another one, and they rush about together, ignoring the wind, the rain, and the entranced watcher in the hut, so close. Good job I’m not a rabbit – I would be easy prey! I’ve heard that Stoats have a fatal power of mesmerizing rabbits – well, let me tell you it works on humans too! I watch fascinated for several minutes, until they seem to tire of their game and slink away, long sinewy bodies, warm reddish-brown coats with a black tip to the tail. It was like my own private ‘Springwatch’ – in fact, if you watch the opening sequences tonight you’ll see exactly what I saw today.
If that wasn’t special enough, even better is to come. At 9.15am 03 moves from his perch back to the nest, where he finds a good piece of last night’s trout. He takes it back to the perch and tears off a few beakfuls for himself, before returning it to the nest. At this point the female rises from the chicks and starts to tear pieces of trout off for them. She reaches way down into the cup, almost overbalancing at one point. At first I see nothing, but then……is that a little wobbly head reaching upwards, distinct highwayman’s mask clearly visible? It is, it is!! The tiny Osprey accepts three pieces of fish, and then, just as I think things just cannot get any better, a second head, somewhat smaller than the first one, appears by its side, also desperately reaching upwards for a share of the breakfast. It receives two pieces, before subsiding back again, leaving its larger sibling to complete the feeding session. It last twelve minutes altogether, twelve amazing minutes as we all – the Ospreys, the chicks and I – strain every muscle, and, in my case, every optical nerve, to catch each detail of this stunning episode. This is my first view of Osprey chicks this year, and they are two of a mere handful which have hatched in England and Wales so far. Of course there may be a third chick nestling down in the cup too ; let’s hope so!
The pattern is repeated at 10.40, and again at 11.30, but on both these occasions only one chick is seen. By the 11.30 feed, only skin and fins remain of last night’s trout, and my last view is of the female gulping down the tail-fin. 03 is watching, and knows he will have to go off again for another fish before too long. Conditions are still poor, but no doubt he knows a few sheltered bays and lagoons where fishing will be easier. For the moment, the family settle down to see out the rain and the wind. The young ones are fortunate to have such experienced and devoted parents ; their prospects are good.
Another movement far away to my right catches my eye. It’s a figure on a horse, walking slowly down the track between two fields and coming towards me. Through binoculars I see it’s a very wet and bedraggled horse, its rider swathed in dark green oilskins which cover the back end of the horse as well. We often have horses and riders here. They are usually smart and jaunty, and often stop to have a chat and even a peep through the ‘scopes. Today’s figure is neither smart nor jaunty, but looks sad and vaguely unsettling, plodding slowly up the track through the gloom. I imagine I will see them at close quarters when they reach the gate and go down into the wood behind me, but when I look out again, both horse and rider have vanished. Where did they go? I scan around but there is no sign of them. I’m getting wet out here, so retreat back into the hut with a shudder, thoughts of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse going round in my head. I think I’ve been spending too much time on my own recently!
As the hut creaks in the wind and the door and shutters rattle, I finish my coffee and attend to some very nice birthday messages which have come through on my mobile. I send replies, telling everyone about Osprey chicks, Stoats, – but not the mysterious horse and rider. With just a few minutes to go before the shift ends, I complete the log and get kitted up for the long walk back. Fortunately the rain is relenting at last, though the wind is as strong as ever. Once back at home, my birthday takes on a more relaxed and conventional style, with cards and messages from friends, family, former colleagues and students, drinks with neighbours, and lots of good cheer, delicious food and sublime music. I am indeed a fortunate man.
One more happy thing to record. Our Project Manager, Paul Stammers, has Osprey contacts all over the world, and one of his friends in Italy, Alessandro Troisi, recently brought out an exquisite little book of Osprey sketches, made in August 2013 during a visit to Finland. Paul bought several copies, and gave them to friends and colleagues. I received mine on Sunday. Thank you Paul, it’s just perfect. I’m looking at it now and deciding which pictures to scan for my Diary. I hope you approve of my choice.