Reflections on Site B

Volunteer Ken puts pen to paper after reminiscing about his many visits to Site B over the years…

Tuesday July 12th: 8.00am: Site B: I’ve just arrived at the watch-point after the walk down through the fields and along the hedges. It’s colder today, but dry at least ~ it’s Week 17 of the monitoring season here, and I’ve yet to experience a really wet shift. Now that I’ve written that, no doubt it will pour down in the weeks ahead. My change-over with the early-morning team is swift and efficient as always ~ almost as good as 03 and his mate during incubation.

I settle down. Temperature, wind direction, visibility all recorded. Log begins ‘Female at nest with chick, male on perch nearby.’ All is calm. Have you ever thought about a particular place that you know: ‘This is the most perfect spot in the whole world’? Well, for me, this is it ~ sitting in a canvas chair under an old oak tree, note-book on knee, coffee cup on a flat stone nearby, looking across towards another oak tree, at the top of which is the great structure originally created by 03(97) over ten years ago.

Yes, it was a decade ago, almost to the day, when members of the pioneering Rutland Water Osprey Project must have been in a celebratory mood. Here at Site B, the first English-born Osprey for 150 years had just been ringed, weighed and measured! It was a red ring with white lettering ~ 13(01) ~ and the chick (thought to be a female) had weighed in at a healthy 1500 grams. The records show that some familiar faces were present at this momentous event ~ among them a young Project Assistant called Tim Mackrill! Both Tim and the chick fledged successfully ~ one to become the Project Officer and the other to begin her long and solitary migration on 30th August. Unique among Rutland Ospreys, 13(01) was given a name, chosen by young viewers of the BBC’s Newsround programme. She was called, appropriately, Aqua. Sadly, she never returned, but she was certainly the start of something magnificent ~ her Father 03(97) is still here, sitting proudly in front of me as I write this and guarding the latest of his 24 chicks, blue-ringed 33(11). I feel a sudden strange affinity with the birds and their protectors from those early days, and almost out loud thank them for their faith, courage and determination.

It’s still quiet. The log shows that the chick fed well just after 6.00am this morning, so there is no urgency to find more fish at the moment. Time for more reflection. I was first brought here six years ago now, in August 2005, for an evening watch. The excitement mounted during the walk, and then suddenly we were here ~ with the iconic 03(97) and his long-term mate, the greatly missed 05(00), watching anxiously as their three chicks flew around. I vividly recall that evening ~ gazing around in rapt wonder as FIVE Ospreys wheeled above me, eagerly soaking up Osprey knowledge so expertly passed on by my companion, learning the ‘shift etiquette’ ~ never arrive too early for your shift, and never linger for too long once your shift is over ~ then straining to see the yellow rings on the juveniles and beaming with pride when at last I could read them through the ‘scope ~ 30, 31 and 32! Two of them returned in subsequent years, and one ~ the female 30(05) ~ is still in Rutland as I write this. We had to leave at 8.00pm, but I would willingly have stayed all night! I’ve been here hundreds of times since then. No two watches are the same, as my note-books, diaries and memories testify…..Just flicking back through the pages for May, June and July this year highlights a few pictures in my mind….

10th May: Jays, Cuckoos and Whitethroats everywhere. Ospreys change over incubation duties very regularly, with the female always doing twice as much as the male. Small green caterpillars are descending on silken threads from the oak tree above me. Each time one reaches the ground, a female Blackcap hops out and grabs it I decide to try and reach the next one before the bird does, but I’m too slow and the bird wins every time. Later I find several caterpillars drowned in my coffee cup. I toss them out, but the Blackcap doesn’t come for them. I’ll try de-caff for her next week. I realise that the Cuckoo calling incessantly above me always finishes on ‘cuck’ and not ‘oo’. Is this a generally known fact, or have I just discovered an astounding new facet of Cuckoo behaviour? Must test it out on other Cuckoos.

24th May: I relieve Tom and Ann, just back from their daughter’s wedding in America. It was an outdoor service, and during the ceremony Tom added a new bird to his life-list ~ a Townsend’s Solitaire! Brilliant name, brilliant bird! I look it up in my American field-guide later! I hear on the radio that hatching is imminent at Manton Bay. The excitement crackles over the airwaves as I sit here at my remote outpost. This pair still have a few days to go.

31st May: Won’t be long now. It’s been a long incubation, but they’ve never been alone, not even for five minutes. Six Fallow Deer go leaping through the crop field. During night duty I had them down as SAS men, but they’re clearer today in the bright sunshine. Off they go, pronking like South African Impala. Maybe there’s a cheetah after them. Not so fanciful ~ the Rutland Panther was reported near Uppingham earlier in the month! A brief hail-storm covers everything in white ice-balls for a few minutes, but they soon melt. That must have tested our Ospreys out there. A sudden roar of engines and an ancient Dakota aircraft clatters over the wood barely above tree-top height. It still has its D-Day livery painted on the fuselage. Thousands of pigeons, crows, jackdaws and other birds leave the wood in blind panic in a whirl of wings and a chorus of cries and calls. Just two birds remain unmoved: 03 on his perch on the small oak, and his female on the nest. Devotion to duty indeed. The Dakota pilots of old would be proud.

14th June: On the walk to the watch-point, 03 suddenly appears over me carrying a massive branch which is interfering with his flying. If he drops it, I’ll retrieve it and add it to the artificial nest outside the Visitor Centre at Lyndon….. But he doesn’t, and drops it across his own nest….The crop-field, once a brilliant yellow, then green, is now gashed and dappled with patches of red poppies. First good view of chick in nest.

21st June: The ‘Day of the Swifts’ ~ I’ve never seen so many in one place. Maybe there’s been a hatching of insects, which is providing rich pickings for them this morning. Where can they be going? Not leaving already surely? I decide to follow one for as long as I can, to see if it’s going anywhere in its dashings and dartings. It is going gradually south. I do the same with another, and another, and another. They’re all going gradually south, constantly replaced by hordes of others coming in circuitous fashion from the north. At one point 03 rises with them, towering ever higher until he is just a dot. He doesn’t drift south with them, but east, until lost in the distance. Happy fishing. Marsh Tits, Wrens and Whitethroats are all around me today, busily searching, churring, living. In a St Francis of Assisi moment, I have them all at my feet at once, joined by a Robin, Dunnock and a Chaffinch. I decide not to talk to them as he did ~ anyway, it’s those little caterpillars they’re all after, rather than any homily from me. 03 is suddenly back with a fish, and his mate is still feeding the chick as I leave.

5th July: 03 is absent as I arrive, but before too long I see him approaching from the east. A rakish Hobby engages briefly with him, and an enthralling aerial entanglement ensues, joined by the female, who cannot resist a tumble and a chase. The juvenile watches intently from the nest. The Hobby soon tires of this game, and zooms away at great speed, leaving the Ospreys to settle again. The Swifts are once again plentiful ~ last week’s contingent are probably well on their way to Southern Europe by now. I heard today that a Cuckoo fitted with a satellite transmitter in East Anglia in May is already back in Africa! No doubt the Swifts will be there too before long……………

‘And earthbound men, whom you so little heed,
Shall lift with joy their winter-weary gaze
To welcome your return with summer days’ *

At 9.30 precisely the female embarks on a sudden joyous, exuberant flight, culminating in two complete sideways flip-overs! I’ve only ever witnessed this once before, by the regal matriarch 05(00) several years ago. I remember thinking then that maybe this was some sort of display to an unseen rival, or perhaps a demonstration of the thrill and freedom of flight to the young and still flightless juvenile in the nest below? Or was it just a release of energy and fun as she realised that her task was almost done, and the long confinement at the nest almost over? Who knows? Great to watch whatever the cause. The chick responds with vigorous wing-flapping, up to 20 consecutive flaps at a time. Looking good for a launch in a few days.

And so back to today, 12th July: The chick is jumping around the nest, from side to side, and flapping vigorously. Today or tomorrow? It can’t be long now before the first flight. 03 and his mate seem much more intolerant of Buzzards and Red Kites today, and chase these inoffensive neighbours away every few minutes. I realise quite suddenly that the hordes of Swifts have gone. There are a few scattered ones, but nothing like the dense clouds I saw last week. Where are the ones I tracked carefully last week to determine their direction? I wonder.

‘…..some strange signal that shall bid you fly,

On your far pilgrimage, by ways unknown…’ *


Two days later, the chick flew, thus becoming 03(97)’s 24th successfully fledged chick from the Site B nest. We wish 33(11) well and hope to see him back in 2013!

*Extracts from the poem ‘To Swifts on Migration’ in ‘Verses and Tales’ by Violet Boyd (1954)