You’re never too young to learn about Ospreys……..

No two days are ever the same for Osprey Information Officers……or Osprey volunteers! On Tuesday it was Site B for me, today ~ as they say ~ it’s ‘something completely different’, and I’m with Michelle on a visit to Oakham C of E Primary School, where we are going to ‘entertain’ about sixty boys and girls from Reception Class and Year One. That’s right, 60! And they’re all four and five years old….Now I know we like to ‘catch ’em young’ when it comes to getting the conservation message across, but FOUR years old? Even Tim Mackrill didn’t start that young…..did he?

In the car on the way to the school, I share the fact with Michelle that, despite more than thirty five years as a teacher, I never worked with children younger than eleven. She replies that she hasn’t either….but we’ll be fine, won’t we? We both go quiet for a while. At the school we’re met by enthusiastic teachers and classroom assistants, who show us some nine-day old chicks that the children have been watching from the egg stage. That’s a good start. We carry all our equipment through to the Reception/Year One classroom area, and start to set up. The children are not in yet, but we can see and hear them playing excitedly outside. They really are very small. Cups of tea are prepared for us as we run through our activities. Just before 9.00am the children start to come in and sit in rows on the carpet in front of us as we perch on tiny chairs finishing our tea. There are a few older children, aged perhaps 7 to 9, who have been invited to join us because they have shown interest previously. We’re seeing the little ones in two groups of thirty, for about one hour each. Lots of them smile, a few giggle, and one cries. Class teacher Mrs Holland takes the register in an amazing way : Bonjour Emily, Guten Tag Ryan, and so on, each child addressed in a different language! And the children ~ four years old remember ~ respond in the same way ‘Bonjour Mrs Holland’ ! Terrific to see. Then we are introduced, and thirty little faces are turned expectantly on us.

Michelle begins with photos on the screen showing Ospreys. I hold up the big cardboard model Osprey, wings outstretched, to give them an idea of size. They respond really well to Michelle’s questions about colours, claws, beaks, food, nests and so on. They love the video sequence showing a dive and a fish-strike, and we have to play it over and over again. They like the colour-rings, model egg, and the radio transmitter device, and all want to touch them. Mrs Holland calls them all back to their places when enthusiasm gets the better of some of them. A few are quieter and more reserved, but hopefully are getting the message. I would never have believed before today that children as young as this could be taught the basics of migration and even translocation, but Michelle is doing it in front of my eyes, and by their responses the children show that they are understanding what she is telling them. It’s brilliant to watch : at this rate Michelle will be re-writing the Key Stage 1 National Curriculum to include ‘Osprey Studies’.

Now it’s time for Osprey Games : hurrah! The first one, devised by Michelle and Will, is a Drama game, and it’s great fun, so here we go : first of all, let’s imagine we’re a tiny Osprey inside that little egg, all curled up, eyes closed, very, very quiet…..for 37 days. well, let’s make that 37 seconds, and even that is difficult. Next scene : the shell is cracking, you’re hatching!! You can come out, stretch your legs and stubby wings, try and hold your wobbly head up….(note for next time : 30 wobbly heads, 60 stretching arms and legs make for quite a Health and Safety hazard). Next : you’re hungry, but you have to make the food-begging call before your Mummy Osprey will give you a little piece of fish. Cue ear-splitting high-pitched calls from 30 ospreylets, rewarded by laminated fishes dished out by Mummy Michelle and Daddy Ken (well, I have occasionally witnessed direct feeding of the young by male Ospreys). After a big dinner like that you will need to rest ~ most skip this stage ~ and then it’s on to wing-flapping, helicoptering, and finally, finally, the joy and wonder of the first flight, which leads our little Ospreys to all corners of the room, from which, of course, they have to get back on shaky wings. The logical end to the game ought to be migration, but we don’t want to lose anyone and cause a police alert, and anyway, the adults in the room are already looking a little fraught, so we decide to end it there. You had to be there to appreciate the sheer joy on the children’s faces! Well done everyone, especially Michelle, who really ought to copyright this game! For permission to use it at your own Osprey parties, please e-mail her at the Project!!

Next comes the the Fishing Game! For this we recruit the help of the older children, so William, Tom, Freya and Brandon are in charge of groups of chicks who are going fishing out on the Reservoir ( a large sheet of blue plastic laid out on the floor ) for the first time. They have to wait their turn ~ Ospreys never fish in flocks ~ and then they hover over the ‘water’ and try to catch one of the fish with the magnet on the end of their lines. Not as easy as you might think! At the end, the Reservoir has been completely cleared of fish, which are now lined up on the banks in each corner, ready to be counted and organised into species. The scores are written up on the board : each group has captured well over twenty fish of six different species, which shows that the Osprey will catch a diverse range of fish species. Tom, one of our captains, informs me that we should really have included a zander amongst all the other fishes, as there is a single record of the remains of one being found beneath a Rutland Osprey nest. Tom is clearly the next Tim Mackrill.

And finally it’s the end! Where did that hour go? It’s playtime now, so it’s coats on and line up at the door. A few linger and play with all the things we have brought with us. Some of the questions the children ask are quite amazing : ‘When he’s in Africa, how does an Osprey know when it’s time to come home to Rutland Water?’ Answers should be double-spaced, not more than 10,000 words, and headed ‘Ph.D Thesis’. Another question : ‘When there’s a Mummy Osprey but no Daddy, what happens to the little ones then?’ Sadly we know the answer to that.

We are thanked profusely over and over again, and finally they all run outside and continue their Osprey flights around the playground. We’ve got a twenty minute break now…..and then we do it all again!

This is perhaps one aspect of the Osprey Project that not so many people see, but it is absolutely invaluable and deserves praise and recognition. Over the season there will be many visits like this one, and all members of the team will be taking part. It has been a privilege today to be here and assist Michelle. Just before we leave this lovely school, Mrs Holland and Michelle make some arrangements for a return visit, when the children will be able to come down to Manton Bay and see the real Osprey family for themselves. I hope they come on a day when I am there as well…..and I must check on that zander record. It can’t be right…..can it?

2 responses to “You’re never too young to learn about Ospreys……..”

  1. Liz May, Canada

    Hi Ken: Another wonderful blog from you. This is what I was saying before about educating children. I would never have thought that children so young would take in so much. But it sounds like the approach you & Michelle took was enough to win these kids over. It is clear that you really enjoyed your time with them. I’ll bet there were some interesting talks at many supper tables that night. Those kids would have been busting to report your visit to their parents. I really hope you will have the pleasure of their company when they go to Rutland Waters. It will do your heart good to see the reactions when they see the birds live. What a wonderful experience for them & for you. Kind of reminds you of the reasons why you probably got into this line of work, doesn’t it? Keep spreading the word to a new generation. All the best

  2. David Gooden

    Ken that was another brilliant account of the work at the project was a great read and it felt like I was there with you!

    Looking forward to reading more.

    Kind Regards

    David Gooden