Three Day Eventing…..with Ospreys of course!

I’ve just completed three days of very varied activities as a volunteer with the Rutland Osprey Project. The whole process put me in mind of the Equestrian Three Day Event that we experience each year at nearby Burghley. But my three days had special ingredients that even Burghley cannot boast…..yes, that’s right, the magnificent Ospreys!

Here’s the story of how my three days panned out……

Day 1 :  The Dressage : Afternoon Shift at Manton Bay, 1.00 – 5.00pm

Everything has to be in first class order for the many visitors expected this afternoon. Four telescopes in place, adjusted to different heights for every physique, whether long, short, or in between. Log-books and record sheets set out to record every movement of 5R, his mate, and any possible intruding Ospreys. Radio intercom and mobile ‘phone tested, batteries checked. Michelle’s new ‘Who’s Who’ A4 folder ready at hand for visitors to refer to. Our own clothing adjusted to show clearly the logos of the Project.

1.00pm : ready for action! And ‘action’ is the appropriate word, for even as we begin the shift, an intruding young female Osprey (00/09) actually lands on the nest and incites 5R’s mate to do something about it! After a moment or two, she does, and the young pretender is sent packing. We explain to visitors what is happening. 5R’s mate returns a few minutes later and starts shuffling around in the nest. She is not relaxed, looks edgy, sits down deep, stands up again. Her mate is not around, but she is not calling or food-begging….she looks distracted, unsettled, anxious. Is she still worried about that young intruder? Or is there something deeper stirring inside her….?

The afternoon proceeds. The mood of the jittery female transfers to the hide, and we, together with our visitors, wait in expectation. 5R returns, with no fish, but we are glad to see him back. He greets his mate, and asserts his conjugal rights with some enthusiasm. The weather, which has been threatening something monstrous all afternoon, suddenly deteriorates markedly, and a wild rain and hail storm, driven onwards and directly into the hide by a vicious northerly wind, drives us all away from the open flaps to seek shelter at the rear of the hide. We move the chairs and the telescopes to save them from a complete drenching. The water in the reservoir before us starts to heave and churn, with white crests on the waves such as you might see on the open sea. The Ospreys sit facing it, hunched and still, he on the perch, she in the nest.

It ends as quickly as it began, and we mop up and move forward to the front of the hide again. The Ospreys are still there. Visitors who were trapped by the storm decide to take advantage of this dry spell to make a run for it and strike back towards the Visitor Centre. Other birds start to fly and feed over the water, and suddenly it feels like summer, with Sand Martins, Swallows and Common Terns passing by.

4.10pm : The radio intercom crackles into life. It’s Paul : he’s in the Visitor Centre watching the pictures being relayed to the big screen from the nestcam. His words reverberate through the hide : ‘We have an egg. I can see an egg in the nest. Repeat : We have an egg in the Manton Bay nest.’ This is great news! She must have laid it in the last few minutes, maybe even during that storm or just before it. Amazing, fantastic. We can’t see it from here, of course, but we can sense the jubilation up in the Centre. Within minutes, Tim Mackrill and Information Assistant Lizzie appear in the hide to share the moment with us. Tim has been down at the nightwatchman’s shed checking that everything is ready for the night shifts, which will now need to start immediately. 5R and his mate look down into the nest and admire its precious contents. We can almost hear him saying : ‘Well done, it’s a beautiful egg. You have a break now, and I’ll look after it for a while,’ and with that he settles down for his first turn at incubation. Our 5.00pm relief has arrived, so our routine is completed with a smooth hand-over, and we begin the walk back, thankful that the rain is still holding off.

Back at the Visitor Centre, we are shown a recording of the moment, just an hour ago, when the egg was first revealed to the watching world. We hope another two eggs will follow in the days to come. Five long weeks lie ahead…for the Ospreys, the watchers, the night-watchmen, and the thousands worldwide who will follow progress on their computer screens. Day 1 of our three day event comes to a close. Can the next two days match it?

Day 2 : The Cross Country : Morning Shift at Site B, 8.00am – 12.00pm.

The rain is still heavy and unrelenting as we start the cross-country walk from the parking spot to the Site B watch-point. My equestrian analogy is very apt this morning, as about fifteen thoroughbred race horses are in the fields. Some of them stand still and morose under the trees, trying to find a little shelter from the pouring rain, but half a dozen or so decide it would be fun to canter around, and perhaps spook the young bullocks which are crowding around the gate to greet us. I am just preparing my horse-whispering routine (it works for bullocks too!) when they all decide to gallop away from the gate and disappear into the rain and mist, thus leaving us free to enter their field and make our way to the watch-point. We trudge on in the rain, unable to pause as we usually do to check for warblers and other birds at the usual sites. Eventually we arrive and receive the report from the early shift. 03 is on the new perch ~ a skilfully and strategically placed T-perch which allows him a good view whilst also providing a bit of shelter. His mate is incubating, the top of her head just showing above the rim of the nest. She has been covering the eggs most of the time ~ ever since she finished the trout he brought in very early this morning.

It’s a real treat to be back here, our first shift at Site B since the end of last July. Three Ospreys yesterday at the Manton Bay nest, another two here today ~ what a  privilege it is to be here, sharing in the safeguarding of these wonderful birds! 03 looks very fine! Fifteen years old this year, and in cracking condition! 24 chicks already in the past ten years, and eggs in the nest yet again! No wonder he looks proud, disdainful of the rain and tolerant of those strange bedraggled figures watching him through their telescopes a few hundred yards away. Conditions remain awful. I’ve brought a complete change of clothing with me, so get changed into a warm, dry sweater, soft shoes and socks, and pour a cup of steaming coffee! Conservation at the sharp edge, or what?

At about 10.00, the rain at last relents, the clouds lift and even part, and life outside our shed begins to stir. The Ospreys change over, she taking an exuberant flight over the wood in celebration. Other Site B residents venture out for a look around ~ a Stoat watches us with his beady eyes before running back, black-tipped tail held high. My friend the Jay (I met him last year) comes very close again, but I’ve nothing for him ~ ‘Maybe next week’ I tell him. A Blackcap is in full song above our heads, and ten Fallow Deer timidly and daintily cross the field in front of us. Yes, it’s wonderful to be back!

More change-overs follow, with the female doing by far the longest stints on the eggs, as normally happens. We chat, drink coffee, and let the whole Site B atmosphere penetrate into our very souls once again. After a splendid reunion with our afternoon relief and a friendly exchange of news and views, we begin the walk back, thankfully this time in dry conditions. All the livestock has disappeared to the far end of the field, so we have an uninterrupted passage back to the car.

A brilliant morning! What does Day 3 hold, I wonder?

Day 3 : The Show Jumping : Morning Assembly at Copthill School, Uffington, Nr Stamford.

It’s still pouring with rain as I arrive, together with lots of Mums and Dads and their children, at Copthill School, Uffington (near Stamford). Tim arrives just a minute later and we go into a bustling reception area, where everyone is preparing for the school day ahead. Our brief this morning is to meet about 200 boys and girls, aged 5 – 11, in the school hall, and talk to them for about 20 minutes about the Rutland Water Osprey Project. Tim sets up the lap-top as the children file in and sit very quietly with their teachers as they wait for us to begin. Tim projects the pictures onto the massive screen on the stage, and I tell them about the lives of Ospreys, what they look like, what they eat and how they catch fish, how they come to be at Rutland Water, how we know them as individuals, and so on. The children are very responsive, with loads of hands going up at every question, and very knowledgeable. Some of them have read the book Sky Hawk, about a boy and a girl who found an Osprey nest in Scotland. ‘But you don’t need to go all the way to Scotland to see Ospreys’, we tell them. ‘They live just about ten miles from where we are now!’ Tim takes over and shows them live pictures from the Manton Bay nest, and then traces 09’s epic migration back from Senegal, using images from Google Earth. Time flies by, and we have to stop. What an excellent audience! What a lovely school! We end by inviting them to come and see us later on in the season. As they are filing out past us, one boy turns to Tim and says : ‘Do you ever get Ospreys who don’t come back?’ ‘Yes’, he explains, ‘ unfortunately that does happen a lot, but that’s nature, and it makes up for it when Ospreys that we know well come back year after year.’ The boy is satisfied with the answer, and re-joins his classmates.

We are about to leave, but then we are asked if we have time to have a brief chat with the pre-school children (that is, three and four year olds), who don’t come to the main assembly. We agree, of course, and are taken to a room where we find a group of tiny children sitting on the carpet with their teachers and classroom assistants. They look expectantly at us and Tim suggests I might read to them from our new little book ‘Ozzie’s Migration’, which I just happen to have with me! We take it page by page, holding up the pictures each time as we go, and, with a lot of help from their brilliant teacher, we tell them the story of Ozzie’s journey from Rutland Water to The Gambia. They follow most of it, stop me to tell me about the little chickens they hatched out last year, and about their own little brothers and sisters called (among many others) Olivia and Alfie ~ not sure how we got on to that! One little girl astounds me ~ I am holding up the page which shows Ozzie flying over France, with John Wright’s great picture showing the Eiffel Tower below Ozzie as he soars over the city, and I ask :  ‘Does anyone know where Ozzie is in this picture?’  ‘Yes, he’s flying over Paris’, the little girl says immediately ~ remember she is just four years old! Even her teacher is surprised (and pleased) by her quick response.  With Ozzie safely in The Gambia, and the teacher needing to get on with her day’s work, we leave them and make our way back to reception, and take our leave. Thank you, Copthill School, for letting us come and tell you about the Ospreys! We hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.

And so, my Three Day Event is over. I’m off today ~ and yes, it’s still raining ~ but in another couple of days it all starts again with another afternoon shift at Manton Bay. The opportunities for volunteers are far-ranging and exciting at Rutland Water, as I hope these three days have shown, so why not come and join us? Just ring Tim, Michelle, Becky or Paul and you can be sure of a friendly welcome!