Here is Ken Davies’ lovely account of his first monitoring shift in Waderscrape hide this season.
Sunday Shift No.1 : No Ospreys, but plenty of thrills……!
12.00 midday on Sunday March 19th : I pull into the car-park at Lyndon pumped up and eager to begin the first of 26 consecutive Sunday afternoon shifts in Wader Scrape Hide! 26!! That’s six months of Sunday afternoons….. or half a year! And at four hours a time, that’s 104 hours ahead of us, in the company of visitors from near and far, watching and monitoring (fingers and toes firmly crossed here) the Manton Bay Ospreys.
This is the 11th season that Barrie and I have fulfilled this shift, starting with that first momentous year (2007), when the legendary 08(97) and his young mate 5N(04) first bred here. He may have passed on to that great fish-filled Osprey Valhalla, but she is still going strong – our oldest Osprey at thirteen years old, and now breeding on one of the off-site nests. With thoughts like that we make our way to the hide in the sunshine, with chiffchaffing calls all around us heralding the spring, and green shoots waving in the breeze from every hedgerow. It’s good to be back!
Adrian and Finn fill us in as we complete the first of many shift changeovers this season. No Ospreys to report of course, though the nest stands there invitingly just a couple of hundred metres away out in the water, new camera positioned perfectly, all nearby perches prominent and waiting….waiting for the first touch of those grasping talons. A lone Cormorant sits on the edge of the nest, oddly out of place, intruding, awkward, unwelcome and clumsy. He soon joins others of his clan on the bare limbs of the dead tree near the hide. Thank goodness the dead tree survived Storm Doris! Every year Ospreys use it as a vantage point, thrilling the lucky observers just metres away. Which Osprey will be the first to touch down on its brittle branches this year I wonder?
The shift begins. The monitoring sheets lie open on the ledge, the walky-talky radio handset is primed and ready to crackle into action, the big screen shows the massive vacant nest cup…..and we two enter once again into Osprey World, so missed over the past seven autumn and winter months, so eagerly anticipated and now finally here….. Except that there are no Ospreys……..yet. Instead we scour the bay in search of a Slavonian Grebe, listed in the notebook by Adrian this morning. We do not find it. We do better with the elegant Great White Egret, instantly visible on the water’s edge, and then in flight, and then looking unnaturally huge amongst the small Dexter cattle on the far bank. Images of the gigantic Goliath Herons so recently encountered in the mangrove creeks off Missira in Senegal come to my mind, and I’m subconsciously looking for crocodiles in the channels in front of me……Four Oystercatchers, piping shrilly above us, remind us that this is England and spring is in the air. A male Great-crested Grebe proudly presents his mate with a choice piece of waterweed as they tread the water breast to breast. No Ospreys maybe, but a wealth of riches to watch.
Two visitors join us – a couple from Newark, hardened Osprey observers both, like us waiting in hope and expectation. Another couple from Stilton, and a few ‘in and outers’ as I call them.
‘Are the Ospreys back yet?’
And so they leave, without looking at anything else. Then some familiar faces – fellow monitoring volunteers and a travelling companion on the recent African adventure. It’s good to chat, and the warm companionship of so many Osprey summers spent together soon has us reminiscing about past seasons, past Osprey encounters, past adventures at home and abroad.
Midway through our shift we are joined in the hide by Sam, one of our keenest young Osprey Ambassadors, and his Mum and brother. There is much to catch up on, and they chat enthusiastically about everything they have done since last we met. The spring sunshine has heated the hide up, with the result that many insects which have been spending the winter hiding away in the wooden recesses have woken up and are buzzing around on the glass windows in front of us. Sam and Alex decide they must all be rescued and liberated, so a succession of ladybirds, lacewings and even a wasp or two, find themselves gently caught and given their freedom outside. I hope they find somewhere to shelter when the temperature plummets again later on! Another couple join us with their young daughter, and it transpires that I visited her school in Oakham last season and did an Osprey assembly. In the absence of Ospreys today, I am just lining up a telescope for her to get a close-up view of the Cormorants and Grebes in front of us, when a grey blur flashes at terrific speed in front of me, right to left, gone almost before I can react.
‘Sparrowhawk’ I shout, and all eyes try hard to locate it. As it speeds past, flocks of ducks, geese and egrets rise in panic and alarm, desperately trying to evade this missile-like raptor. It flies into a flock of twenty or so wigeon, and for a moment it is lost amidst a muddled confusion of flapping duck wings and straining necks….until it towers momentarily, holding onto one of them, as the others escape in disarray.
And then it’s on the ground, mantling fiercely over its prey, eyes wild, defiant, bold…. on the grass not one hundred metres away from us. It’s obvious now. This is no Sparrowhawk. It’s a magnificent adult Peregrine Falcon, and we have just witnessed a spectacular moment as it selected and captured its prey. Now it is tearing feathers away from the wigeon (a female, we think) tossing them into the breeze as it hurries to get to the flesh beneath. There is no time to waste, as a Buzzard and a couple of Carrion Crows are already showing interest in the kill, and might try to drive the Peregrine away. It manages to devour a few more pieces before its rivals make a determined attack, forcing the hunter to leave his meal on the ground and fly around in front of us, passing the hide really closely several times and leaving us in no doubt as to this bird’s size and power. It will not leave, but hurtles to the ground again, forcing the intruders to back away. The Peregrine is master again, feeding well, Buzzard and Crow a respectful distance away. Eventually, it appears to break a piece off, and rises with it, perhaps to find a quieter spot to feed in peace. The wigeon’s wings remain, still gently flapping in the wind, but forever grounded. It is not long before the Buzzard takes over and feeds on whatever is left.
The effect of this incident in the hide is fantastic. Four telescopes, and all the binoculars, are trained on the Peregrine at its kill on the grass west of the hide. Ten people, aged from about seven to near seventy, are transfixed. Camera shutters whirr. When the bird flies in front of us, everyone….from the youngest to the oldest….expresses admiration, delight, wonder. ‘Awesome’, says someone. And it was.
Afterwards, people start to drift away. Some to a late Sunday lunch in Stamford, others to a fish and chip supper, and at least one still too excited to think about food! Our relief, Sabine, arrives, as always, with her faithful dog. We tell her of our exciting afternoon, despite the absence of Ospreys. Her shift is due to last until 8.00pm, but of course it will be dark well before then. By next week, summertime will have begun, Ospreys may have returned, and the long Manton Bay Osprey-filled spring and summer evenings will commence – most magical of times down here.
We leave Sabine and Braid to their twilight, and walk back. Sunday No. 1 is over, but hey, there are 25 more to come. Life is indeed pretty good.