The first broods of garden and woodland birds are now wobbling their ways out into the wide world. Very often they are quite without fear, which paradoxically gives us the joy of seeing a wild creature close up, but also the worry that such naïveté will lead to an early grave. This is indeed the case. These fluffy morsels are at the very bottom of the food chain and are sitting ducklings for all the predators that are also raising their own young.
For osprey juveniles it may seem that the mortality rate of about 70% is unusual, and due generally to the rigours of migration, but in fact the same percentage of the smaller birds die to tooth and claw. All things being equal, any couple only has to reproduce themselves once in their breeding lifetime. So, looking at the Bluetits, taking on the nesting box at the lower viewpoint, a brood of up to 10 chicks is never going to be viable. Unless the world is to drown in a Bluetit inundation all that green energy from the sun, transmitted through leaves, champed up by caterpillars, and poked down the throats of hungry chicks, must pass on in flesh to the top predators. So, the sparrowhawk couple visit the feeders every day. Somewhere in the forest their brood of chicks will live or die, depending on the source of supply.
Cruel? It’s a fine line of balance, with the creatures within the cycle doing as they have to.
We don’t need telling, but real cold-bloodedness lies with us; although we are superficially touched by the helplessness of young things; although we wonder intermittently at the intricacies and fine weightings of our amazing planet, yet deep down we condone comfortable lifestyles which depend on our deliberate manipulation and destruction of the building blocks of our world. Over the past week some of the children and grandchildren of the volunteers of the osprey project have been striking from local schools to join with the millions of other young people standing globally, pressing governments to work together to find a solution. They are the ones who will inherit the earth. There is no Planet B.
With only a couple more weeks to go with incubation our female bird has surpassed expectations in her commitment to brooding. Bathed in bright sunlight and open to every breeze that blows she has been diligently turning the eggs and keeping them alternately warm or shaded by lifting her body up or snuggling down. Unring, as we would expect has been keeping them both supplied with fish as well as taking his turn with daytime sitting.
As Spring warmth has been seeping into the bones of the earth insects are now waking up or hatching out in their myriads. A dull rumble filled the air late one afternoon last week – another Chinook approaching up the valley perhaps? But no, the rumble took on a more sizzling tone, reverberating closer at hand and directly above. For a moment or two the sun lost its radiance and our black shadows faded as if a cloud was passing. We all stared up as a swarm of bees undulated through the tops of the pines, each individual weaving its own way to avoid collision with its sisters and the waving branches, following their Queen to a new home.
A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay. A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon. A swarm in July isn’t worth a fly.
Sadly, they passed too quickly for us to follow, so we missed out on the load of hay!
Warm sunshine and bitingly cold wind kept the sky blue over the weekend. What to wear on the trek up to the Viewpoints? T shirts and shorts in the sun and padded jacket and trousers in the shade. For the ferns coming out in the forest – curl or uncurl? – that is the question. Like sleepy mice the furry brown fiddle heads, are stretching out their Spring limbs from under every tree stump and stone and covering up a lot of the brash left from the felling of last year. As the dead wood is shaded from the drying winds and sun it can start the first stages of rotting down into soil again.
The chilly breeze whipped up quite sizeable wavelets on the shingle bank below the Lower viewpoint, and we were fascinated to see our female’s ablutions when she down to bathe after eating a hearty fish lunch. Standing in the shallows she kept bending her head and shoulders forward to duck under the waves and then surge upright again to let the water run down her back, until her feathers were saturated. When thoroughly soaked she rose into the air, flying back and forth over the water whilst shaking herself as vigorously as a brown Labrador dog.
If you live or work or visit a forest at the moment, tree pollen can pack quite a punch! For example, wild cherry is in blossom, the petals as white as the flurries of sleet and hail still sweeping the fell-tops and anthers packed with golden pollen. The first honey bees are venturing out to carry this from flower to flower in their search for nectar, and making sure that a crop of fruit develops in the summer.
Wild Cherry at Whinlatter
More prolific still, the conifers are shedding their pollen for the wind to blow where it will to fertilise the young pine cones. Cars left in the car parks at Dodd and Whinlatter are covered in a fine golden dusting and after rain it is floating on all the drains and puddles in swirls and tide marks of bright yellow.
Necessary for plant reproduction, handy for honey bees, but for the susceptible the itchy eyes and sneezes are the same whether it is hay fever or tree fever!
Pollen water marks
For ospreys along with many other birds, and reptiles, irritation of the eyes due to pollen is a low risk. A ‘third eyelid’ or nictitating membrane sweeps their eyeballs, lubricating and protecting them from dust and foreign bodies. For a fish-catching bird it also cushions the impact of the water as they plunge in to grab their prey. Sadly, we humans only have the vestigial remains of this useful feature – It would seem a better solution than taking piriton all summer!
Crows, magpies, buzzards, and four pairs of herons keep house around the new nest site. It’s a crowded and diverse neighbourhood, unsurprisingly, on the border of a National Nature Reserve. The arrival of two huge predatory looking characters with sharp beaks and claws, taking over one of the properties is not something anyone can blame them for objecting to. They are not to know that it is only the fish in the Lake that need shudder. So, there has been a fair amount of hassle on the street. However, with Unring being a mature bird and, as we will see, the new lady a pretty feisty one, the ospreys have not been driven off. Their biggest test yet came on Thursday. Not from the neighbours but from strangers out of the blue.
It was mid afternoon and suddenly above the nest we could see two more dark shapes diving onto the platform; another pair of osprey attempting a well planned coup. Our female rose into the air accompanied by Unring and for about 8 minutes they were swirling in a series of dog fights over the marsh and field. Then our female realised that the priority was her eggs and swooped back down on them, holding herself flat against the bottom of the nest. Meanwhile Unring chased the attacking female up towards Derwentwater.
This left the attacking male with a clear run for the nest. All to gain, nothing to lose, but it was a lady he was dealing with! A softer touch was needed and he already had a plan B for this eventuality. During the whole fight he had been carrying a fish, which to onlookers had seemed a mad idea but now it looked as if he hoped it would tip the balance. He landed on the nest and thrust the fish towards our female. For a few moments they confronted each other, then after an initial reaction of shock she leaned forward snapping at him. Not good. He did a quick turn in the air around the nest waving the fish seductively and landed again. This time she was prepared and before he had time to balance she went for him beak and claw. No way was she to be lured or bullied off the nest she had chosen for her first offspring. Taken aback and with his own female far away he retreated.
Half and hour later Unring was back on the nest side and all returned to relative peace and tranquillity.
Oh! I forgot to say, whilst all this was going on a fifth osprey flew across the Viewpoint, seemingly uninterested in the fracas below.
The million dollar question is of course, who is this new pair and where are they based? Any ideas or sightings please contact NathanFox.
Yes, she is the one! Last Saturday evening the behaviour of Unring and his new mate changed. Gone were the care-free days of flying together around the valley, gone were the intimate tete-a-tetes whilst perched together on branches. Instead all activity was focussed on to the nest, with the female sitting down in the nest cup on the platform they have decided upon this year. From the telescopes though, we could not see if there really was an egg or not. We looked out for further signs that would indicate she was really brooding. Sure enough over the next few days she continued to sit low in the nest cup, displaying the distinctive ‘shuffle’ where the egg would be turned over. A good clutch for an osprey is 3 eggs, laid at 2 day intervals. As a young bird this female may not have achieved this – but certainly she has at least one. Unring was doing his job too, fetching in fish, sitting within earshot and giving her the occasional spells. All looked to be going well and we decided that we could breath a sigh of relief.
However, Elyssium is hard to hold onto and there were a number of irritations for the couple to deal with. A move of house always means new neighbours – not all of them ready to welcome incomers with open wings. ….. To be continued.
As the birds have moved nest site we don’t have a close up picture from this season. Here is a picture of Unring (left) and the young female he was with for the last part of the season 2018. We have been trying to see if the head markings of lady above match the ones on the head of this year’s. We are still not sure!
Viewing ospreys on the big screens inside Whinlatter Visitor Centre is a must, but what else can you see?
Admittedly, this was a one off but a sharp eyed visitor approached the desk this week to ask if we had noticed the beautiful moth snuggled into one of the displays.
We had not, and after looking at it with a number of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ were not sure what it was. Perhaps a hawk moth?? Luckily our moth expert, (and ex-osprey volunteer) Peter MacQueen was on the end of the phone.
‘The eyes have it nailed’ he said. ‘It is an Emperor moth, Saturnia pavonia – but does it have any pink colour on the wings? No? Then it is a female.’ A male is slightly smaller and has more creamy yellow under-wings and pink lines with a bright pink flash on the edge of the upper wing. They fly in April to late May and like all short lived creatures have to make sure that they pass on their genes during that time. For Emperor moths this is more difficult than it sounds.
Watching Unring and his new mate we think that ospreys’ love lives are not simple. For the majority of the year they are not fertile and it is only when they arrive at the Lakes they have the chance, for about a month and a half, to mate successfully. However, where they lose on length of time they make up on frequency. Over the past two weeks our birds will have mated up to 200 times. Once would actually be sufficient to fertilise eggs, but no-one can know if the female has stored sperm from a previous encounter on the flight here (as have those females that visited Bassenthwaite on the way up to Scotland). Unring knows that to ensure that his genes have the most chance of being successful he must continue to mate until a full clutch of eggs have been laid.
For Emperor Moths just meeting is a conundrum. The female flies by night, coming out soon after dusk, letting loose her pheromones to attract males from up to 5 miles away. However, the male Emperor is a day time moth, and flies in the sunshine. Like permanent alternate shift workers who snatch a kiss as one goes in and one goes out, it would seem Emperor moths have to take slim chances. Only in the narrow door-jam of life between day and dusk can they achieve the brief encounters that ensure reproduction of their kind.
Is the female osprey that Unring is currently wooing going to be the One? We have been watching the romance unfurl with multiple close encounters of the intimate kind and plenty of fishy presents. The lady seems to like the attention and the sushi and is sitting close by the nest and perch platforms for longer and longer periods. Crossed fingers and toes she will stay!
The glorious Easter weather has made the Lake District National Park into a 2,362 km2 Spring garden. Everything is coming into bud or bloom, sometimes faster than you can turn around to look at it! The Blackthorn blossom has been particularly abundant, covering its wicked black thorns with a churning mass of buttermilk flowers. Spikes a straight inch long stab at any unwary animal that attempts to take a munch, (and later in autumn will puncture the hand and ardour of any lured by the promise of sloe gin.)
More curved, but no less black and wicked are the talons of our ospreys. We were watching Unring fishing over the weekend below the Dodd viewpoint. He made a few passes over the face of the water and then dived in with a tremendous splash of white foam. It was too far to see what type of fish he caught but it must have been a good size because we watched him really labour to leave the water and gain a little height. He flew with slow wing-beats, lower than usual, over the willow car, eventually collapsing onto a low branch to start his feasting.
Wrestling with such success against a large fish that will be objecting violently against abduction from its watery home, is due to the arms race of evolutionary adaptation. The feet of ospreys are designed to catch and hold slippery prey. The 8 talons of course stab deep into the body of the fish but to increase the holding power the soles of each toe are covered with small spicules that latch into the edges of the scales. In addition, where most birds of prey will catch their furry meals with three toes facing forward and one back, the osprey can twist the outside digit so that it can catch with two toes on either side, thus equalising the forces in a final Grip of Death.
Anorak, windcheater, parka, duffle, – we have seen every sort of jacket to keep out the wind on Dodd this last week, and have found ourselves having sad anorak conversations on which brands are most effective. However, as is usual with man made inventions, nature has already done it better. Bumble bees have their own unique brand of covering, in their thick furry coats, which enable them to be one of the first insects to come out of hibernation in Spring and survive the vagaries of changeable weather.
Queen bees that have overwintered underground, are out foraging for pollen and nectar in the early flowers. The biggest are the Buff- tailed bumblebees, Bombus Terrestris. They rumble past, like Hercules planes of the insect world transporting food for their hungry brood of bee larvae. Soon these will pupate and hatch out as worker bees, ready to continue their life cycles, vital in symbiotic relationship with the flowers they will pollinate. There are 26 species of bumble bee in the British Isles – follow the link to find out more https://friendsoftheearth.uk/bee-count/how-identify-bumblebees
The bee above was making its way back to a cosy mouse-hole in the bank late last Monday evening.
Since then the weather has warmed up and so intermittently, has our ospreys’ love life – when a female bird appears there is a lot of mating but it’s all still very unsettled as far as commitment and choice of nest site goes