Roy's blog

Taking ownership

The Isle of Wight Sea Eagles featured in two things that arrived on my laptop today. The first was a video that Steve, the sea eagle project officer, had been given by a fisherman fishing from his boat south of the Isle of Wight.  Looking towards Blackgang cliffs from the Channel it showed a big cloud of gulls milling around after fish over the glassy sea and then one of the eagles flying through them and diving down to snatch fish from the water. This wasn’t a case of perching on a cliff or tree and patiently waiting for a fish to swim in range. This was a conscious decision to fly out over the open sea to hunt fish, encouraged by the swarming gulls.

G274 regularly catches fish around the coast of the Isle of Wight (photo by Ainsley Bennett)

The tracks from the eagles’ satellite transmitters are also showing us their flights out to catch salt-water fish, especially in calmer weather. When they were younger they started to catch grey mullet in estuaries around the Island, but now the older ones, enjoying their second winter, are much bolder and capable of fishing in the open sea.  Even eating small ones while in flight. Last week one of them, G274, flew two-thirds the way across the Solent to fish and then returned to the Island. This behaviour is very important for the future because fresh fish is excellent food to feed any future ‘islander’ eaglets in their nests. 

The second was details of how to buy packs of a lovely Christmas card featuring one of the sea eagles in flight over the Isle of Wight with the distinctive Needles Lighthouse in the distance. It is the result of a competition for young artists organised by the Ventnor Exchange’s Brave Island programme. The winner is Charlotte Parr-Burman and her card design is beautiful as well as very evocative of one of eagles looking out into the Channel for fishing opportunities. And the proceeds from the Christmas cards raise money for the Ventnor Foodbank. Packs of cards can be purchased at their shop in Ventnor or online here.

Charlotte’s winning Christmas card design

For the reintroduction team it’s really great to see how the sea eagles are becoming part of the Island’s life and times. We have also been amazed at the enjoyment expressed by many on the Isle of Wight and across England who have seen one of the huge birds fly over them during lockdown. I love it that communities are taking such interest and ownership in having the sea eagles back home after two centuries of absence.

Happy Christmas and wishing all a better 2021

The Bearded Vulture in the Peak District – a doomed wanderer or an icon of the urgency for rewilding

I’ve just read my latest copy of British Birds where it is reported that the bearded vulture in the Peak District might be repatriated. It says that any intervention would be a last resort but the bird will be returned safely to its ‘home reintroduction area’. It’s not ringed, radio-tagged or marked so is not a freshly released bird from one of the reintroduction projects in the Alps, the Massif Central or Andalusia, so where in fact is its home? So the main question seemed to be about the authenticity of it being a wild bird, just like the one that visited the UK in May 2016. It’s matter of whether you can count it on your British life list, but that hasn’t discouraged the hundreds of birders that have ventured into the hills and enjoyed seeing it.

The bearded vulture has captivated birders in the Peak District (photo by Indy Kiemel Greene)

But why should it be repatriated if it’s a wild bird?  For such a long-distance wanderer it could find its own way back to wherever it came from if it is in good condition, has found enough food and decided it did not wish to stay.  So why is there not enough food, even though it follows other scavengers, such as buzzards and ravens, to the remains of a few dead sheep?  And if there were enough food, why not leave it in case another bearded vulture might turn up next May, and vultures might (again) breed in Britain? In fact, instead of repatriation why not bring in some others from mainland Europe to join it? For at some stage the very successful bearded vulture projects will mean the present range becomes full and young ones will have to find new breeding places. What a marvellous prospect.

Worldwide, vultures have had hard times. In India and Pakistan the common three vulture species crashed from millions to 20,000. The cause was poisoning through ingesting the veterinary drug, diclofenac, commonly used there to treat cattle. Research and conservation has stemmed the decline. Nearer home in southern Europe vultures suffered from the 1970s EU regulations requiring the removal of dead farm animals from open land, but fortunately sense prevailed and derogations allowed for ‘vulture feeding places’ or ‘restaurants’ to be established. The vultures bounced back but in Britain we don’t even see that there’s a problem here. The countryside is too tidy!

The problem is that modern humans have broken the ancient food chains whereby large scavengers cleaned up the dead in nature. Nowadays by law, except in exceptional circumstances, farmed livestock have to be collected and removed, while the large predators which killed wild deer, and left as much as they ate, are long gone. And life for carrion eaters, from vultures to burying beetles, is nearly made impossible. In my new book, Cottongrass Summer, I’ve written of the appalling impacts of removing biomass and bones from the environment. 

As a start, no carcasses should be removed from nature reserves or designated sites. Deer hunters must use copper bullets to prevent lead poisoning. And the establishment of ‘raptor feeding places’ should be extended from the successful red kite locations that have been so appreciated by birders. I’ve recommended that several ‘carrion restaurants’ should be set up on the south coast to attract white-tailed eagles, both the newly reintroduced ones and the increasing wintering birds from the mainland. Specially fenced enclosures of a couple of acres, to exclude dogs and foxes, where local farmers could leave dead livestock would be a boon for nature. It would start another process in essential rewilding.

In fact, a few enterprising farmers could set up eco-businesses where birders and photographers, in hides, could enjoy the close up spectacles of sea eagles, buzzards, ravens and even white storks. It works in Spain and Portugal. And then vultures cruising the coasts of France might see the thermalling carrion-eaters and cross the English Channel to investigate.  It’s not too far either, for vultures regularly cross the Strait of Gibraltar, while in November 2008 over a hundred griffon vultures flew a much greater over-sea journey from the Spanish mainland to the Balearic Islands, and some stayed to breed on Majorca. The Peak District bearded vulture is an icon of that rewilding future, so for goodness sake start a vulture feeding station immediately. It is a National Park and this should be a priority. To allow it to starve would be irresponsible.

The Peak District bearded vulture is the second to be recorded in the UK (photo by Indy Kiemel Greene)

Encouraging golden eagles to return to ancient haunts

Trees for Life put out a press release today about golden eagles successfully breeding at their Dundreggan reserve for the first time in living memory. The news item went worldwide and I was interviewed on Sky News this morning and talked with the Radio Canada this evening. It a long interesting story, which I partly covered in my blog of 5th October 2015 but it’s worth re-telling. 

On 30th June 2010, I left home at 10.30am and collected David Clark and Ryan Munro, from Alladale Wilderness, on my drive north to the RSPB Forsinard Reserve in the Flow Country

The manager, Norrie Russell, took us by argocat some of the way and then we walked across the hills to an eagle nest with two big young. The reason for the trip was to fit satellite transmitters, as part of our eagle studies. We ringed both young before returning them to their eyrie. Transmitter 57107 was fitted to the young male, the female’s was 57106. We had a great walk back in the evening sun and finally I reached home at midnight after a wonderful day’s fieldwork.

One of the juvenile eagles tagged by Roy in 2010

The male eaglet left his parents in October and ranged widely but the female stayed with her parents until after the New Year. During his wanderings he arrived at Dundreggan on the 17th November 2010 and roosted there overnight in a cliff, before departing north the following day. This is part of Glen Moriston, which runs north and west of Loch Ness. It was an area I knew well in the late 1970s and 1980s when I monitored golden eagles in the Highlands. In those days this glen though was a black spot for illegal persecution so the ancient breeding sites were unoccupied. By 2008 Dundreggan estate had been purchased by Trees for Life during the time I was one of their volunteer board members.

During the collection of satellite data from over twenty eagles I noted that many chose to visit long abandoned nesting areas, and this led to me suggesting the idea of building a nest on the new reserve with the Alan Featherstone Watson, the founder of Trees for Life. On 5th October 2015 I went to Dundreggan and explained to the staff how to build an eagle nest before we headed for the location. Alan had asked a local climber Ewan to come with his climbing gear and after fixing ropes, he and I abseiled into the best ledge. To my amazement the overgrown ledge contained the ancient stick remains of an eagle eyrie, probably from the middle of the last century. I cleared the ledge of vegetation, including a small conifer that was blocking access, and then we hauled up bundles of sticks tied to our rope by the group of helpers below. Arranging the sticks and adding moss and grass resulted in a good starter eyrie for prospecting eagles. 

Roy and Ewan building the eagle nest on 5th October 2015
The completed nest

Doug Gilbert, manager of the reserve, reported an eagle over the cliff that winter but it was not until last month that I heard the exciting news that a pair was rearing a single eaglet in our nest. He reported that they had built a big structure on top of our original nest and it’s very likely they had started taking an interest in the ancient breeding site last year. 

This is an exciting development and demonstrates that eagles will successfully return to ancient nesting places when illegal persecution is ceased. Sometimes by their own actions and sometimes with help. Five years may seem a long time to wait for successful breeding but we have built nests in other good places and are still waiting for them to be occupied. For Trees for Life it’s an accolade to their management of their rewilding reserve and there’s every likelihood that this pair will decide to stay and become regular successful breeders. The interest today has been very encouraging and it’s given us a chance to point out that it’s part of the ecological restoration of degraded lands: an icon of restoring nature. And for fun it’s created amusing headlines – my son-in-law Whatsapped me to say he liked the quote “an octogenarian conservationist dangling from a rope”.   

Can you help us?

We will be building more Golden Eagle, White-tailed Eagle and Osprey nests this winter. If you would like to help us with this important conservation work, then please consider making a donation to the Foundation by clicking on the donate button below. All support is very gratefully received.

My new book Cottongrass Summer is published 16th July

This spring and summer has seen the most spectacular display of cottongrass sedge in the Scottish Highlands – whole vistas of snowy cottongrass heads blowing in the wind. Here near my home the moors, which suffered a severe fire and were blackened last spring were respledent in white, as though a late snowfall had covered the ground. In the forest bogs the scene was equally beautiful and one day in July I stopped to photograph acres and acres of white on the hill road from Altnaharra. Locals have all been talking about it and trying to recall early years of such beauty. My new book starts with a chapter about the importance of cottiongrass in northern Scotland and explains how the plant can be an indicator of ecological renewal or the opposite of over-grazed land. I am delighted with the production of the book by Sara Hunt of Saraband Books and also by the first reviews.

Specially signed copies can be purchased here and may be paid for by bank transfer, cheque or paypal. 

I hope you enjoy it and if you do please buy one for a friend.

My 60th Anniversary of Ospreys

Today, 8th April 2020, is the 60th anniversary of my first ever sighting of an osprey. I was a week into my new work as warden at the RSPB’s Operation Osprey at Loch Garten in the Scottish Highlands. Each day we waited for the pair’s arrival after their previous year’s successful rearing of three young. It was a very exciting time, but also an anxious one, for this was the only nesting pair.   8th April was cold and grey, and it was raining on my early visit to the still-empty nest. I returned to the forward hide in the early afternoon and checked the eyrie with my binoculars, then scanned the old trees dotted across the peat mosses. And there he was, perched on a branch of an ancient pine, preening his wet feathers. To me he was fantastic – he had just winged in from a 3,500-mile migration flight from Africa. I’ve just checked my diary – ‘after an hour of preening, he carried a dead stick to the nest at 3.35pm, and in quick succession five more, snapped in flight from nearby trees. He rearranged his old nest before leaving to fish at 3.50pm’. I hurried back to our camp to phone the news to George Waterston at the RSPB in Edinburgh.

The nest at Loch Garten

The female arrived ten days later and they went on to rear two more young for the fledgling osprey population in Scotland. They were seen that year by thousands of visitors to Loch Garten – one of the world’s first public viewing sites of a rare breeding bird. It was also the start of my life’s involvement with these beautiful fish-eating raptors, which have contributed so greatly to my enjoyment and involvement in nature. This afternoon I had planned to visit Loch Garten and walk up that long familiar track to view the ancient nest tree – now long-dead but standing, with the present osprey eyrie in the tree next door. But Loch Garten is out-of-bounds in these worrying days of the pandemic. I’m fortunate that I will likely see an osprey passing our house today from one of the local eyries. Early this morning, on my laptop, courtesy of a webcam, I watched the female on a nest at Poole Harbour. Reminding me of the male at the Loch Garten nest in April 1960, she was staring up into the skies looking for her mate, hopefully the male which she met last summer, coming in en route from West Africa. He’s a bird we translocated from the Scottish population to Poole Harbour in 2017; she, in turn, is descended from ospreys moved to Rutland Water from nests in northern Scotland.

Once we get an all clear and are free again to travel, I’ll make a pilgrimage to that special Scots pine at Loch Garten.

Meanwhile, watch out for more osprey news on our first podcast of 2020 – coming soon! You can listen to all our previous podcasts here. 

Spring in uncertain times

It’s very strange not to be going out birding when the signs of the coming spring are beckoning, but at least I have more time these days to watch the going-ons in the garden. The stoat that lives in our roof has turned from white to brown during these first two weeks of our isolation, while Phoebe’s nest box, built at Scouts and finally fixed yesterday to the end of the Wendy house, has attracted a pair of great tits, this early morning taking ownership. As I type, though, I’m thinking of larger birds.

The young white-tailed eagles we released last August on the Isle of Wight have had a busy few weeks.  Despite occasional short wanderings, the four eagles had settled into a winter routine, three staying on the island and one having gone to live with red kites and buzzards in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Most of their time was spent just sitting in big trees watching the world go by and learning the life of the countryside, watching in particular other carrion eaters, for they lived off dead birds and small mammals, as well as dead deer and a fox. They may also have caught rabbits and a mallard and one may have hunted grey mullet in an estuary on the Solent. Four living successfully through their first autumn and winter, and on into April, is a success at the start of the reintroduction project.

Way back in 1968, on Fair Isle, three out of four young sea eagles which we released there survived the winter on the island, before, in spring, the two females departed. In those days they left and we had no idea where they had gone. They were, in fact, never seen again, but I always hoped that, when soaring several thousand feet above that remote Shetland island, they may have seen Norway and headed home. Much later, during the releases of the 1990s in Wester Ross, one young sea eagle, individually identified by its coloured wing-tags, flew north to Shetland and, years later, was proved to be breeding in Norway, so we know that at least one did make the long flight over the North Sea.

Now, of course, it’s all so different. Without leaving my desk I can check each eagle’s tiny satellite transmitter on my laptop. Within an hour, the data on each bird’s travels will appear on my screen in digital and map form. Despite my being restricted to home I can have a daily catch up on wild creatures, whose lives continue despite the tragedies affecting the world’s human population.  Until a month ago, we would generally find each eagle sticking closely to its usual routines, sometimes living for days within a few square kilometres of wooded countryside.

This past month, though, it’s started to be very different. My colleagues Tim and Steve are likely to phone me with the latest news before I’ve got online. One eagle made a big circular flight to Kent and back to the Isle of Wight; the Oxfordshire wintering bird headed west to the Forest of Dean and north to Stoke, and then to Rutland Water. One settled in Wiltshire and later did a day trip to the Somerset levels and back. Each day brought something new – see Tim’s summary of recent happenings here.

And then we got a report of the first immature sea eagle not from the reintroduction, sighted in Wiltshire and Hampshire. It had a metal ring and, with the help of Swedish colleagues, we established that it was probably from there. Other birds were then reported, from Buckinghamshire to Kent to East Anglia – there was a small influx of mainland European wanderers. We were very grateful to people who sent in photos, as we can use them to identify individuals, looking for nicks in their big flight feathers or other distinguishing features.

We always hope that one or more might be attracted to join the Isle of Wight birds, but we also have to accept that these ‘new’ ones might encourage the island birds to wander. We’d like to hear of sightings, without encouraging anyone to leave home base, for these are eagles that fly over towns and villages on their journeys. Great photos have been already been taken from suburban gardens. Please report sightings here.

Eagle behaviour such as this, and that of the bird which returned to Norway, raises a fascinating question: from what distance can one large eagle see another, soaring on a clear day?  It looks as if they do go and look for – and maybe follow – each other. I remember how one golden eagle, which I was satellite tracking in Scotland, flew 40 km from Angus to Tentsmuir in Fife to check out a pair of white-tailed eagles, before tracking west to Perthshire.  On Saturday, we saw similar behaviour from young sea eagles. One flew from Rutland Water to the south Humber and, yesterday, on to the North York moors, while another flew from Berkshire to roost overnight just 5 miles from the Humber bird, then also flying north to the North York moors.  Were they alone? Or were they following a wanderer from over the sea? It’s a shame that people cannot see them but checking their progress on GoogleEarth is far more than I could do with those first errant Fair Isle eagles.  We are staying home, but they are free to fly, and we can follow them as they go.

All of the young White-tailed Eagles have wandered widely since late March. Check out their recent movements here.

 

Catching-up before Christmas

I’m sorry I haven’t written a blog for three months, but this past autumn saw me very busy at my desk and I’m delighted to say that I’ve finished writing two books. Collins is publishing the first next summer and it’s a big, exciting book about all the reintroductions, translocations and species recovery projects that I’ve been involved in over the last six decades: sea eagles, red kites, ospreys, red squirrels and a range of other birds and mammals. It’s been fun to rake through my diaries, field notebooks, papers and photos to tell an intriguing story of successes and, sometimes, failures. The shorter book is called Cottongrass Summer and is being published by Saraband. It’s fifty-two essays about nature conservation seen from the inside in an uncertain world. Much of the time, as I wrote, I also watched the antics of the local red squirrels collecting nuts in the hazel trees below me, often burying some in the garden. From the same window, I now see a beautiful ermine (white stoat) nosing around the woodpile. More often she raids the bird table for scraps, in fact she’s surprisingly vegetarian for a stoat. We also hear her footsteps, for she lives in the roof space of our front room.

Looking back on the summer it was really exciting that we could start the reintroduction of white-tailed eagles to the Isle of Wight and also have a really successful third-year with the osprey translocation to Poole Harbour. Of course it’s the birds themselves which are markers of success. I’ve just looked at the satellite data and seen that three of the sea eagles are living on the Isle of Wight and one is in Oxfordshire. Two of the eagles on the island, a male and female from different locations, are always together and acting like a young pair. If they survive they could easily stay together to breed, but it’ll be a four-year wait – fingers crossed. It’s been great to watch people in southern England learn about sea eagles in their midst; despite their massive size, they are so unobtrusive. Perching in trees after a meal is what they do most of the day, but sometimes they soar and fly in view. It’s been great to see the beautiful photographs that some photographers have sent in – especially the pair flying over the Solent with the female carrying a small branch. They’ve also been making life more interesting for the local buzzards, crows and jackdaws, and in Oxfordshire the sight of a sea eagle followed by a gang of red kites is something special. Let’s hope the eagles are as successful as the kites we reintroduced.

Two of the Isle of Wight eagles earlier this autumn – male G2-74, and female G3-24, have spent much of the past three months together (photo by Nick Edwards)

With the Dorset ospreys, I was thrilled to bits when the guys from Birds of Poole Harbour reported the return of one of the young males translocated in 2017. At just two years old he was an early returner and he was in luck, because a young female osprey was summering at Poole Harbour and had been visiting osprey nests built in the area by the team. They stayed together for the rest of the summer and also took a great interest in the eleven young ospreys, translocated from the Scottish Highlands, once they had been released. This female had behaved in the same way with the previous years’ young and I’m sure these interactions are important for establishing new populations. The 2019 cohort were released in great condition, which should have helped them migrate all the way to West Africa. It was sad that a fox killed one a few days before it was due to leave, but that’s nature. Unlike the sea eagles, the ospreys disappear for the winter, and it’ll be very exciting to see if the pair survive their migrations and return next spring. That would be a landmark, and we should see other translocated young return to Dorset.

LS7 and CJ7 on an artificial nest at Poole Harbour this summer. We hope they will return to breed in 2020.

Both projects are aimed at restoring iconic species to the lands where they once lived but, as ever, I love the way these projects bring together great teams of people. The yearly sea eagle project starts with those who monitor nests in Scotland and let me know of suitable young. Then it’s collecting time, with Tim, Ian and Fraser climbing trees and cliffs, followed by the safe transport of the eaglets to the Isle of Wight, where our colleagues in Forestry England, Steve and Leanne, take over, helped by a group of enthusiastic volunteers. With the ospreys the southern part of the project is carried out by Paul and Brittany of Birds of Poole Harbour, again helped by a local dedicated team of helpers. This year my wife, Moira, has produced twelve podcasts of our fieldwork – it’s great listening. You can listen on our website here, or subscribe/download on all major podcast platforms.

Our Foundation receives some very superb support from donors to carry out these exciting projects but to maintain our vision we need donations – large and small. As a starter in 2020 we aim to translocate 12 young sea eagles to the Isle of Wight and 12 young ospreys to Dorset. Please help if you can, either by writing to us direct or by donating on our website.

This week we can help you if you are still thinking what to buy a friend for Christmas. Why not send us a charitable donation in their name? We’ll do the rest. Click here to make a gift donation and order your card.

Wishing you a Happy Christmas and an excellent New Year

Roy

So far, so good…

Last week, I visited the white-tailed eagle release area where Forestry England and the Foundation are embarking on a project to restore the sea eagle as a breeding bird to the Isle of Wight and the English Channel coast. The first six young have thrived since they were brought south from Mull, Skye and Wester Ross. Of course I had received frequent CCTV footage and photos of them growing up since they arrived there on 25th June; but I was delighted to see them in outstanding condition and ready for release. The hacking cages built by Pete Campbell, his metal work team and Dick Milner, the joiner, were the best I’ve seen. Daily supplies of plentiful fish and dead rabbit carefully threaded through a hatch in the back of the cage by Steve Egerton-Read, the project officer, meant that they young had grown and their plumage was perfect. And they had not seen a single person, important for keeping them truly wild birds.

Continuous monitoring was achieved through a superb CCTV system in each cage and on the roof, which allowed Steve and the team of volunteers to monitor progress. On Tuesday 20th we gathered at the site, with a contingent from Scotland, – Ian Perks, Dave Sexton and me, – joining Tim Mackrill, Steve and the team for the important step to catch up each bird so that our highly skilled raptor vet, John Chitty, could examine each bird before release. He passed all of them fit and ready for release, and also collected tiny blood samples to confirm sexes and for future DNA studies. Then we fitted small satellite transmitters to each one so that their movements post-release could be tracked. At this age these are now powerful birds, with very sharp bills and talons, and require careful but firm handling. By afternoon all was completed and they were back in their temporary homes.

Each of the birds were given a health check by vet John Chitty (right) prior to release.

It was a 4.45am start next day so that the team could lower the cage front door in darkness, which allows the young to come out in their own time when first light starts to illuminate the release area. Finally the big Mull female came out and perched on the front door, bouncing along the branch from side to side. She looked around but was slow to fly, so the male came out in a hurry and beat her to the first flight, which was into the nearby wood. Next morning and another pre-dawn start to release the other four young eagles. It’s a time of change for those who have looked after and watched over them for two months, and a time to wonder about the massive leap of releasing young sea eagles back to the Isle of Wight after an absence of 240 years.

The successful release was covered by a BBC crew and will feature soon on the ‘The One Show’. There has been tremendous interest and support for the project, and we have started to produce podcasts of our fieldwork that are now available on many of the podcast platforms. Our latest podcast covers the release of the eagles last week. To listen, click the link below.

Before release, we were not sure what they would do – would they stay nearby or would they just fly off in all directions and distances? In fact, they all stayed close by, within a few kilometres and three remained in the immediate vicinity. Those ones started to return to the feeding platform and the top of the cages where Steve placed fresh fish each day after dark, so as not to disturb them. Most of the time they perched in trees at the edge of woods, spending their time watching what was happening in their new world. For such a huge bird they can be surprisingly unobtrusive, and despite many reports of people seeing them, we were able to confirm from their satellite tracks that only a couple of people would have seen them in the first days. We are keeping the release location confidential for the welfare of the birds, but as they start to disperse, we’ll be posting regular updates on their movements. We also hope it will be possible to set-up a public eagle viewpoint once the settlement patterns of the birds are understood.

We are very grateful to two generous donors, who have allowed us to get the project underway and to employ a full-time project officer. We are very careful with funds for these projects do cost money and as well as general support donations which come in through our website or mail, we would welcome help with paying for certain equipment. For example someone to sponsor the top-class CCTV equipment (£11,000) or the satellite transmitters at £1200 each and with the white-tailed eagles being so good at hiding in woods a thermal imager for the project would be extremely useful. You can make a donation or get in touch via the support us page if you would like to help this ground breaking project.

Two of the eagles perched together after release last week. Both of these birds are females (photo by Tim Mackrill)

The released eagles are now growing in confidence on the wing (photo by Steve Egerton-Read)

Poole Harbour Osprey Translocation 2019

Really great news that 11 young Scottish ospreys, the class of 2019, are now flying free at Poole Harbour, in this the third year of the translocation project we are running in partnership with Birds of Poole Harbour and local Poole-based business, Wildlife Windows. It was a difficult year in Scotland to collect young because the weather was very changeable; we also found that there was tremendous variation in the ages of the chicks. For example, one nest contained three big young of over five weeks old while at the nearest nest, there was a single chick that was less than two weeks of age. This was of course due to the difficult weather on migration in April for the birds coming back through southern Europe from West Africa, reflected by many summer migrants ,including the house martins that nest on my neighbour’s house.

My monitoring in the first days of July showed which pairs had young suitable for us to collect under licence from Scottish Natural Heritage. We also made a decision to delay it for a couple of days so that we knew the young would be larger. Tim Mackrill came up to help me finish off the holding pens where the young live on nice soft beds of moss and hay, just like nests. It’s where we keep the birds for the few days between collection and translocation to Poole. Each day, new chicks are placed together in ‘sibling’ units of three, which very quickly learn to eat the cut-up trout. During this time they cannot see people.

The chicks are translocated to Poole at approximately 6 weeks of age

Ian Perks climbing to one of the Osprey nests

The tree climbing team was again our friends, Ian Perks and Fraser Cormack, who are not only brilliant climbers but are also very careful and competent with the young. During our three days of osprey ringing, we collected nine young ospreys and on the last day Tim had a long drive north to Caithness and back, to collect two young male ospreys from a nest on farm, where a week earlier with our farmer friend we had ringed three excellent osprey chicks, one female and two males.  That night Tim and Ian drove south and the next day the eleven young were safely in the hacking cages at Poole.

In the spring, I had visited the new location for the osprey release, which had been set up on private land by Paul Morton of Birds of Poole Harbour and Jason Fathers of Wildlife Windows. I regarded it as an excellent release site with much better places for the ospreys to perch once released, and with greater security. On 30th July, Tim and I revisited and met up with the full team including Paul, Brittany and Jason, and the two new assistants Lucy and Olivia. I was immediately struck, when viewing with the CCTV in each cage, that the young ospreys were all in excellent condition, with all of them feeding well on trout and looking very ready to be released. During the morning all of them were caught so that we could re-measure and weigh them, and, importantly, to carefully attach a tiny 2 gm transmitter to a central tail feather for monitoring purposes during the first few weeks.  I was immediately impressed that all were in perfect condition. Like many migratory birds they lay down fat on the sides of their breasts as a store of energy for the long flight south. That evening I departed for Scotland very satisfied that the third year of the project was looking great.

Roy with one of the young Ospreys after fitting it with a tail-mounted radio transmitter. This helps the team to monitor the young birds after release.

Four days later, just after dawn, Tim joined Paul and the team at Poole and started to remotely release birds in sequence from the hacking pens. The ospreys quickly found safe perching places in large trees near the hacking site and within a day, the first of them were coming back to the cages or the special feeding platform nests for trout. It was fascinating that within a day of being released the two ‘resident’ ospreys now living in Poole Harbour found the new arrivals.

Adult female, CJ7, on one of the feeding nests with a translocated juvenile

Paul and Brittany had told us about the return in Spring of the Rutland Water female CJ7, which has decided that she wants to breed in Poole Harbour. She regularly visited nests that had been built by us around the harbour and, finally in late June, she was joined by the two-year-old male LS7, which was translocated to Poole Harbour in 2017 and was seen in Senegal that winter. Once they found each other they were regularly at nests, carrying sticks and the male taking fish back to the nest for the female. Of course it was too late this year for them to breed, but we hope that both survive the next migrations and their winters in Africa and that they meet again next spring at Poole. That would be magnificent: the first ’mullet hawks’ to reclaim the ancestral breeding grounds.  And of course others might return and join them, while migrants, especially females, passing over the harbour might decide to stay for it is absolutely top-class osprey habitat, with plentiful supplies of grey mullet.

The Foundation has made a series of podcasts about our projects; the first about the collection of young ospreys for Poole is now out. Click the link below to listen.

The exciting return of Morven’s son – carrying on from his illustrious mother

Some ospreys remain in my mind for many years. There are old favourites like Logie, the first that I tracked with a new and highly accurate GPS satellite transmitter in 2007. Another was her neighbour, Morven. She tried to take over Logie’s nest in April 2008 but was quickly kicked out when Logie got back from Guinea Bissau. As a five-year-old local bird Morven spent the summer visiting osprey nesting places in the North of Scotland. On 9thJuly I live-caught her and fitted a transmitter when she was near the nest belonging to Beatrice – another of the Forres clan. Soon we learnt about her life. Instead of going south in late August she flew north to the Caithness trout lochs, not far north of the distinctive mountain named Morven. It’s a landmark across the Moray Firth from where I live near Forres. She was observed there by my old friend Stan Laybourne before migrating south. Winter quarters proved to be on the coast of Mauritania.

We satellite-tagged Morven as an adult in Moray in 2008.

Morven migrated to Mauritania after we tagged her in 2008. He transmitter to continued to provide data for a further five years.

Perseverance paid off because the following spring she bred with Logie’s old mate Talisman and reared one young. Logie had disappeared in September 2008 on autumn migration.  Morven’s annual migration pattern was then established; after breeding she flew north each year to Caithness for a few weeks trout fishing and then migrated south to the Mauritanian coast.  On the spring migration north she stopped off for a short break on the Villiviciosa estuary in North Spain, before the last leg to Moray. In 2011 she bred again at the same nest but with a new male, yellow HA, and reared 3 young, they reared one young in 2012 and three in 2013. But in 2014 her mate was killed by a new male, and they were also kicked out by a younger pair and moved to unused nest some miles away.  Morven was too late to breed in 2014 but she and her new mate reared two young in 2015 and one in 2016.  In March 2017 she was live-trapped at an artificial osprey nest on the Villiviciosa estuary by osprey biologist, Doriana Pando, and the defunct transmitter was removed.

Morven and her mate, Talisman.

Some ospreys were very delayed by bad weather in 2017 but not Morven, who gave up waiting for her mate and moved to join an old male at another nest in the Forres area, and there she reared three young. In 2018, she was at the Spanish estuary on 20thMarch and returned to incubate eggs, but the nesting attempt failed, possibly due to pine martens. She has not been seen since.  15 years of age she contributed much to osprey conservation. She nested in three different eyries with four different mates which is unusual for ospreys. Some of her young were translocated to the Basque reintroduction project and one in 2015 to start the Swiss project. We also satellite tagged her single young in 2012 and named him Stan, in memory of my Caithness birding friend, who had died. Sadly, we lost contact with Stan off the Cape Verde islands after an incredible nine day, 5000 kilometres migration over the Atlantic Ocean via the Canary Islands.

Importantly in 2017, one of her young, blue colour ring LS7, was translocated to Poole Harbour. LS7 was a young male, the first to fly from the hacking cages at Poole Harbour when we started the latest reintroduction project in partnership with Birds of Poole Harbour and Wildlife Windows. He was a winner, attacked by a peregrine on his first flight at 05.45am on 31stJuly 2017, he soon settled down to feed up from fresh fish supplied by the project team.

LS7 was the first of the birds to fly after release on 31st July (photo by Tim Mackrill)

He was the first to leave on migration  on 25thAugust and his post-fledging period of 25 days was equal shortest of the eight young that year.  On 22ndJanuary 2018 he was seen and identified on the  Ile des Oiseaux by Adam Lene a ranger in the Sine Saloum National Park in Senegal. Both Tim and I have visited this fantastic sandy island off the mangrove swamps, it’s an osprey Mecca.

LS7 was seen at Ile des Oiseaux in Senegal on 22nd January 2018. Wintering birds – both adults and juveniles – often perch together at this osprey Mecca (photo by John Wright).

It’s a long two-year’s wait to see which ospreys have survived their migrations and extended stays in West Africa and then return to the UK. LS7 was our first return as a two-year old when he was seen and identified by Paul Morton on 12thJune. Almost immediately he met the well-known female, blue CJ7, which fledged from a nest at Rutland Water in 2015. She has been a regular at Poole Harbour and this spring was building up nests around the harbour and keeping an eye out for a mate.  Too late to breed in 2019, their activity together bodes well for the future. These recovery projects rely so often on small numbers of winners, which have survived their first years learning the migration routes and wintering sites, and the associated dangers of bad weather and predators.

In a few week’s time the next group of young Scottish ospreys will be in the Poole Harbour hacking-cages ready for release from the end of July. I guess both LS7 and CJ7 will take an interest in the new cohort of ospreys and hopefully they will survive to start a breeding population in the south coast estuaries. Then we can say the mullet-hawk is truly back. If LS7 is the pioneer of that exciting future then he will be following in his mother’s illustrious life.

LS7 returned to Poole Harbour on 12th June (photo by Alison Copland)