Poole Harbour Osprey Project

One of the first initiatives that our Foundation was involved with was the Rutland Osprey Project. In July 1996 the first eight six week-old ospreys were translocated to Rutland Water from nests in northern Scotland in the hope of establishing a breeding population of ospreys in central England for the first time in over 150 years. A further 56 birds were moved over the course of the next five summers, with another 11 released in 2005. The project has been a resounding success with 117 young ospreys fledging from nests in the Rutland Water area since 2001. In addition it has resulted in the recolonisation of Wales and led to similar projects in Spain, Italy, Portugal and Switzerland. Now we are extremely excited to be involved in the second English translocation project at Poole Harbour in Dorset.

A young translocated osprey making its first flight at Rutland Water (photo by John Wright)

Poole Harbour is one of the best places to see ospreys on the South Coast. In autumn it is not uncommon for six ospreys to be present in the harbour with migrant birds attracted by the abundance of salt water fish such as mullet. In fact it is no surprise that in Hampshire and Dorset the old local name for osprey is ‘mullet hawk’. We know that ospreys once bred along the whole of the south coast and over the past eight years a concerted effort has been made by to attract passing ospreys to stay and breed at Poole Harbour by building artificial nests. Although there has been some interest by ospreys, most notably this summer when two year-old Rutland male S1(15) and a female have been present in recent weeks, none have stayed to breed. This is not surprising given that male ospreys in particular are highly site faithful, with most settling to breed very close to site they fledged from; Rutland Water males have nested an average of just 11 km from their natal site to date. So whilst it is common for two year-old birds such as S1 to summer south of their natal site, once the urge to breed grows stronger they nearly always head further north.

Two year-old Rutland male S1 on one of the artificial nests at Poole Harbour (photo by John Wright)

Given the breeding biology of the species and the fact that the techniques for the transportation, care and release of young ospreys are now very well understood, we believe that a translocation is the best means of establishing a population on the south coast of England. Poole Harbour is perfectly suited to act as the nucleus of this new population and a firm base from which the population can spread east and west along the coast, as well as further inland. In the short term it is possible that the presence of the translocated birds may tempt others, such as S1, to stay and breed, but there is no doubt that in future years, as osprey colonies in Rutland, Wales and the south coast grow, birds will move between these populations. The Poole Harbour population will also act as an important stepping stone to the expanding population in Orleans Forest in France. We know the Rutland project has completely changed the distribution of ospreys in southern Britain, and the Poole Harbour project is likely to be similarly important.

Poole Harbour will act as an important link between populations of ospreys in England, Wales and France

Scottish Natural Heritage has granted a licence for Roy Dennis to collect and translocate the first eight young ospreys to Poole in July this year. They will be held in large holding pens at a confidential site for two – three weeks to acclimatize to their new home and prepare for their first flights. Once released they will be provided with fresh fish on artificial nests, to replicate normal osprey behaviour, and are likely to remain around Poole Harbour for a further six weeks (the normal post-fledging period) before beginning their long migration to West Africa. During this six week period as the birds grow in confidence on the wing they will imprint on the area and adopt Poole as their new home. We hope that the first translocated birds will return to Poole in 2019. It is planned that a total of 60 birds will be translocated over a five year period.

The project is a partnership between the Foundation, local charity Birds of Poole Harbour, and Poole based-business Wildlife Windows and is part of a wider conservation recovery plan of osprey in Western Europe and the Mediterranean region which was recently commissioned by the Council of Europe and authored by Roy Dennis. This plan was was adopted in November 2016 by all member States of the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats of the Council of Europe and it can be viewed here here. We believe that this is an incredibly exciting and important project and we hope the whole of the community in Poole and surrounding areas will enjoy seeing breeding ospreys again on the South Coast. If the experiences in Rutland are anything to go by, there is much to look forward to. We’ll be sure to keep you updated with news over the coming weeks.

If you would support the work of our Foundation and help us to undertake more proactive projects such as the one at Poole then please consider becoming on of our special Conservation Champions.

Appalling rain, sodden ospreys, vulnerable chicks

Yesterday was the most appalling day of rain; it started overnight and just kept just bucketing down all day. By evening the small river across from my house was a raging torrent and as I looked out into the gloom before going to my warm bed, I just could not help but think of the female ospreys on their tree top nests trying to keep their young ones warm and alive. I was sure they would have been absolutely soaked and they would need to be really good mothers to keep the chicks sheltered. And the males would find it really difficult to find fish in the flooded waters. This morning the rain was still pouring down and everywhere was flooded. At least I knew from the weather forecast that it was due to stop at midday, but the female ospreys didn’t and they just had to sit there crouched over the young, open to the elements.

At midday it did stop, within an hour there was a nice breeze, and soon the sun came out. Late afternoon I decided I would go round and monitor the nests in the closest part of Moray to my house. At the first nest, B01 – what I still call Logie’s old nest, the male was perched in the sunshine on his favourite dead Scots pine and his mate was carefully feeding her young in the top of the larch tree. Already their feathers were dry and he had obviously just brought in a fish. The young at this nest are under a week old so I could see her putting tiny bits of fish down into the nest but I did not see her chicks. At the next site, the female was stretching her wings above the nest, quickly brought a small stick back and added it to her big eyrie and then shuffled back to keep her brood warm. Next stop it was domestic bliss in the tall tree by a barley field; female feeding young and her mate perched on the side of the nest – he again must have just brought home a fish. It was beautiful watching them through my telescope against the evening sun.

I next checked on Morven, an old well-known female. She was the last one to lay eggs in this area and when I scoped her nest from my car I could not see anything. But then just the white top of her head poked above the edge of the nest. She was sitting very tight incubating eggs and keeping very low down in her nest. At the next site, the earliest breeder in this area, the chicks must have been recently fed for they were lying quiet in the nest while their mother stood on the edge preening her feathers. My final visit was to the eyrie used for many years by Beatrice; the new female there was sitting high in the nest and she was brooding very small young. Six pairs of ospreys and all had come through the appalling weather safely. These female ospreys really have to put up with some bad weather and I’m always impressed by how well they protect their young from very heavy rain – I’m told we had 2 inches in 24 hours!  But what I do know is that if heavy rain continues for more than two days and nights, young ospreys do die in their nests. Thankfully not this time.

New beginnings

Last month I spent a few days in the Basque country to see how the Osprey reintroduction project was progressing with my colleague there, Aitor Galarza. So far this year they have recorded six translocated ospreys returning from Africa to the estuaries on the Bay of Biscay – all of them males. In April, the male which has been guarding a nest in Urdaibai reserve, exactly where the young Scottish ospreys were released, attracted a female Osprey to stop. All looked good, she was on the nest for some days and blue N1 was excellent at providing fish, but after feeding up she left him and flew on north. A big disappointment but we have seen this happen before in other projects, such as the translocation of Scottish ospreys to Rutland Water in the late 90’s. It’s always a question of patience and suddenly a female will decide to stay and the recolonisation of lost breeding areas begins. The first female to breed at Rutland Water was not one that we translocated, but one that was persuaded to stop off on her journey north by displaying males with nests.

Tim Mackrill was one of those who saw these things happen. He started at Rutland Water as a volunteer when he was at school; then went on to do a degree at the University of East Anglia and subsequently join the staff at Rutland Water Nature Reserve. By this time I knew him as “young Tim” as opposed to my great friend Tim Appleton the founder and manager of Rutland Water Nature Reserve – who to me was “old Tim” – I should have said “older Tim”. We got to know Tim better when he came north to research a dissertation on the fishing strategies of ospreys in the Highlands for his university degree. More recently, I was delighted that he researched the mass of satellite tracking data that we had built up on ospreys migrating from UK to West Africa – including the very first use of satellite transmitters in 1999 and our ground-breaking use of GPS and GSM transmitters with Google Earth mapping and immediate display on our websites. This resulted in Tim gaining his Ph.D. at University of Leicester. I was then very excited that he asked to join my foundation to help us carry out exciting projects on birds and mammals. It’s a new beginning for us and I am so happy that the future looks bright as I get older – we have changed our name to the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation to reflect our broader reach and it would be great if you would like to help us continue with our bold and proactive projects. Click here to find out how you can help.

Over last weekend, I got good news from North Spain. When Brian Etheridge and I were there in May, Aitor showed us some estuaries further to the west where two males were located. We met Carlos, a local birder, at an estuary holding a single male and encouraged him to get his man-made nest up quickly. Within days we learnt that the male took it over, started adding nest material and then attracted a potential mate – an unringed female – his photo to right. Let’s hope she likes the plentiful mullet and this male, and that next spring she will return – it’s too late to breed this year. Another step in the project started by Aitor and his colleagues to restore ospreys to North Spain. We are proud to be partners.