Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Osprey Watch

Young male osprey with
missing primaries in one wing. 
On the rare occasion when Hanna and I get a day out together, we like to visit nature reserves. You might call it "professional interest" but to be honest, it's just what we like to do. All the same, I can't help making comparisons and I'm always on the look-out for good ideas to steal for Paxton Pits.

This week we visited the ospreys at Rutland Water where the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust has built an osprey themed visitor centre and several hides. We were impressed.

I always say that the best thing about Paxton Pits is our volunteer programme. Just having an enthusiastic person to give you a warm welcome and answer your questions is priceless and it must be extremely unusual to have almost all of the public side of the reserve's operations run by volunteers. Those views were reinforced at Rutland Water where were made extremely welcome by a voluntary information warden in the centre and by two of her colleagues in the main hide. They were very enthusiastic and well informed. I think we could have our own volunteers dedicated to showing people birds and wildlife at Paxton.
Observatory windows.

The Centre itself is not large but it has three or four large windows overlooking the lake and a busy bird feeding station. One wall is dominated by a huge TV showing activity at an osprey nest, about a mile away. You can see the images live at Osprey Watch.

I immediately homed in on the feeders because they were so busy with finches, yellow hammers and tree sparrows. An occupied kestrel nest-box was also clearly in view, so there was plenty to keep us busy. However, we only had two hours at the site and the walk to the osprey watching hide takes about 15 minutes. I went away thinking we need more window-space at Paxton.

Kestrel box with female.
Ospreys are only here in the summer, so the centre was just opening up for the season with new signs being erected and one of the hides undergoing repair. The work was being carried out by a large team consisting of staff, trainees and volunteers. The Trust's operation at Rutland is large as they manage a huge area and the Anglian Water Birdwatching Centre at Egleton, where the annual BirdFair is held, so there must be some economy of scale that enables them to field a large number of staff where they are needed at any one time, using a gang-bus and 4X4. I was jealous. I was also impressed by the standard of hedge laying at Rutland where they run training courses. We do a good job too, but theirs would win prizes in a competition.

Staff at the osprey centre were very visible and took part in the reception of visitors at the desk, but I got the impression that volunteers do this work quite often too.

Tree sparrows.
The osprey nest through a 20x lens.
British ospreys are always viewed from a distance and surrounded by high security to prevent anyone stealing eggs or taking pot-shots at the birds. The model for this kind of observation centre is the one at Loch Garten in Speyside which was, for a long time, the only successful nest in the UK. It is a shameful fact that we persecuted our ospreys to the point of extinction and there is still resistance in many places to having them back. This spring, a large number of red-kites were poisoned on the Black Isle in Invernesshire by someone who did not welcome their reintroduction, so our ospreys are still in a precarious position compared to those in the USA.

As at Loch Garten, visitors are kept a long way from the nest so they do not get brilliant views of the birds. This unhappy situation is rescued by having volunteers armed with telescopes and a video link from the nest itself. It works really well but what a contrast with our visits to Maine where ospreys are so much more confiding, nesting on pylons, cranes and telegraph-poles all along the coast. I'm sure that our ospreys have had to learn to fear man and that, if they had not, they would not be here now.

At the hide we saw swallows, sand martins, a house martin and quite a few wildfowl and gulls but no sign of the water voles that have been re-introduced there or the water rails that sometimes eat them. We were told to come earlier next time!

On our way back to the car we heard chiff-chaffs and a little grebe and we saw a little egret, but the most remarkable sight was of a raven being pursued by a carrion crow. I can't wait to go back. Get yourself up there as soon as you can.

Thanks to the volunteers and staff at Rutland who made us so welcome.