What have you been getting up to for 30 Days Wild? Here volunteer Sally-Ann shares her experience of volunteering on the osprey project at Rutland Water.
The magic of ospreys: volunteering at Rutland Water
I am a volunteer on the osprey reintroduction project at Rutland Water. I’m one of an army of volunteers dedicated to monitoring the ospreys’ every move, from March to September.
My most recent volunteer shift in May followed the usual format. After meeting my fellow volunteer, Ken, at the Lyndon centre we walked down to the Waderscrape Hide. As is his custom, we recorded every bird species we saw (or in most cases heard). Whitethroat, blackbird, blackcap, reed bunting, robin, he announces confidently. All I hear is lovely but indecipherable birdsong. He also points out the spotted leaves of an orchid yet to bloom. Once we arrive at the hide, I look through my binoculars to see the stars of the show.
Perched on the nest atop a telegraph pole stands the female Maya. Head and neck tilted 90 degrees to an almost horizontal torso covered in chocolate feathers. White feathers fan from the back of her head in the breeze reinforcing the peculiar angular effect of her stance. Chicks are nestled in the egg cup beside her, sleeping off the fish the male 33 had caught earlier. He stands idly by on another slanted telegraph pole.
I’ve always loved birds of prey as long as I can remember. From an early obsession with owls, to a love for Kestrel in the TV show Farthing Wood as a child, to a fondness for the red kites that regularly hovering over our garden. But there is something magical about ospreys, the fishing hawk, that mark them out from other birds of prey. I don’t know if it’s their rarity in the UK, especially here in England. Or despite their arrogant and unique appearance, with stern eyebrows lining their heads above piercing yellow eyes, there’s something personable about them. Their clumsy nest building with giant sticks and the odd cowpat. Maya delicately feeding her chicks. 33 diligently providing the family a bounty of fish. Likely it’s this attachment I’ve gained from following their lives and that of their chicks intimately that makes them so special. Whatever it is, I feel a thrill of joy whenever I see them.
As an osprey monitoring volunteer, I undertake shifts once a month accompanied by a fellow volunteer. We watch Maya and 33’s every move and write down anything of interest and what time it happens and for how long. This includes catching fish and what species, when the chicks are fed or what they are doing once they fledge. We also talk to visitors about the ospreys and the project.
For me, watching ospreys as a volunteer has been a gateway to birdwatching and learning how to really appreciate nature. As wonderful as seeing ospreys is, sometimes they don’t do all that much! This creates the perfect environment to settle down with my binoculars and feast my eyes on the variety of life on the water. You might expect four-hour shifts sat staring out a window to be dull but the time flies by. I’ve seen sand martins, oystercatchers and water rails, a great northern diver, and even hunting barn owls. Cormorants crowd a dead tree opposite the hide. Egrets are flashes of white on the distant shoreline. Grebe pairs dance on the water. It’s not just the birds, the sight of water voles, a fox, a stoat and a muntjac have also featured on my shifts.
Three years ago, I didn’t know a great crested grebe from a lapwing. I’d never heard of a reed bunting or a sedge warbler, both a common sight at the hide. Now I can name most birds on the reserve. But it’s not about ticking species off a list. I become like the wildlife I watch, completely in the moment and attuned to my surroundings. The stresses of modern life melt away.
Volunteering with the ospreys has also been a gateway to new opportunities. I’ve met a huge variety of fascinating people. I’ve seen excited children grasping at the telescope to see the ospreys, filling me with hope for the future.
As a result of volunteering, I joined the Wild Horizons group run by Leicestershire & Rutland Wildlife Trust. The group hosts workshops and events to help young people get into conservation careers or to encourage them to follow their passion for wildlife. This group, and its mentors, have recently played a role in helping me get a new job where I’ll be writing stories about projects just like the osprey reintroduction programme here in Rutland.
So, I have a lot to thank the Rutland Water ospreys for. All I can hope is that I can return the favour as a volunteer, in some small way helping them thrive for generations to come.