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OBVIOUS BIRDS #74: Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

By alicebg, May 8 2017 06:52PM

Few birds in Britain are as celebrated as the Osprey. A major symbol of conservation and a tourist attraction rolled into one, this bizarre raptor proved over half-a-century ago that Nature had an economic role to play - a lesson that still seems lost on developers, farmers and landowners across the country. Nonetheless, the Osprey's enduring public appeal remains a positive beacon.

The problem with Ospreys is that they're not an easy spot. Confined to generally remote locations, heavily controlled and managed, they also keep erratic hours, so you're not likely to see them in your back yard (there are exceptions - see below). Watching Ospreys takes planning and luck.

My first-ever Osprey encounter probably constitutes a near-miss, though it was certainly great fun. It occurred at Bassenthwaite in the Lake District - as magnificent a setting as you can imagine. Bassenthwaite offers a bit of a dilemma for the would-be birdwatcher: on one side of the lake is an observation platform from which potential Osprey views may be obtained; on the other is a reserve/visitors' centre which offers trails, lots of other birds (Siskins were much in evidence when we visited) and various creature comforts. Since the weather was decidedly dicey, and we had non-birdwatching relatives in tow, the SO and I went for option B. Thus my first live views of Ospreys came via a video link to the distant nest where a male was in attendance on chicks that could only just be discerned. But as we watched, the huge female came blasting in to take over domestic duties, to audible gasps from those watching. A bittersweet moment: part of me relished the close-up views, the rest of me wished I was on the other side of the lake.

It would be a few years and a bit further west before I could finally, unequivocally 'cop' an Osprey. This would be at Abergaslin in Wales, a strange, flat site at the foot of Snowdonia, ringed by mountains. That it possesses its own railway station (on the Welsh Highland line) only adds to its surreal charm. Abergaslin has plenty of interesting birds but Ospreys are, of course, the major pull. We had the same relatives with us as before, and again the question arose as to how to keep them entertained while we hunted for rare raptors. Initial indications were not promising: the nest was an awful long way away, barely discernible even through a telescope. A video link confirmed the female was present, but she was showing no signs of going anywhere - everything was quiet save for the inevitable Buzzard spiralling high overhead. A few people who'd arrived at the same time as us gave up and moved on - our companions seemed anxious to do the same. Then, out of the corner of my eye I spied two birds approaching from our left - both of them looked pretty big. Rapid binocular deployment dismissed the first one as a Carrion Crow, but the second - well, the second was a male Osprey. I think I uttered something suitably profound, like "Fuck me, it's an Osprey!" - it was one of my all-time birdwatching moments. For a while it seemed the bird was actually clutching a fish, but as it passed directly overhead we discerned it was a tight bundle of straw - on the video link, the female looked suitably unimpressed. We, on the other hand, were thrilled.

I have another possible Osprey sighting in my list. Ospreys migrate to their northern nesting sites from Europe, and whilst doing so can be glimpsed in quite parochial locations (Bill Oddie once reported one flying over his house). One early spring day I was out on my beloved marsh, and something told me to look directly up. High above, at an altitude I normally associate with aircraft, could just be made out a very large bird. Even through binoculars I could see no details, other than immense size and an overall seabird-like impression. I'll never know for sure, but though it could just have been a very large Gull, it could just possibly have been an Osprey - I know which I prefer to believe. No two ways about it, Ospreys rock!

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