This is my favourite season for wildlife because it’s the time of year when migrating birds head back to the British Isles. It also marks the return of the fabulous Osprey from Africa.
This thrilling white bird of prey is one of my favourite summer visitors. Not only is it a real stunner, it’s a superb hunter of fish and a very good parent.
Ospreys are spring and summer residents in the UK so a trip to look for early bird arrivals in the English Lake District was a treat this week.
The Bassenthwaite Ospreys have been coming to the Lakes for their summer ‘holidays’ since 2001 when they nested successfully for the first time in 150 years.
The ospreys have returned every spring since then and have raised at least one chick every year. This is down in no small part to the conservation work of the Lake District Osprey Project.
The birds arrive back from Africa in late March or April, breed, nurture their chicks and leave in August and September when they return to the west coast of Africa.
I was excited to discover if this year’s new arrivals were sitting on eggs so we headed to Bassenthwaite Lake for some birding action.
We arrived in Bassenthwaite near Keswick on Saturday lunchtime so took a quick look down by the lake in case the birds were hunting for fish.
After sitting on a large boulder for about 40 minutes, we’d had no sightings of the birds despite the sunny weather and clear skies. Would the ospreys make an appearance? At first, nothing – not even a faraway sighting.
Then, a breakthrough – we spotted an osprey hovering very high in the sky on the thermals over the far side of the lake above the coniferous forest. Bingo – this was our bird!
Although the bird was some distance away, its white plumage was clearly visible. But it wasn’t long before it disappeared back over the hills. Ten minutes later, it returned for a brief fly past, then headed way beyond the fells.
Ospreys are difficult birds to identify from a distance because they often fly on high and alone.
You need a telescope or binoculars to spot a flash of their white and slightly mottled underparts and long, outstretched wings.
Sometimes you can only see them as a distant silhouette so it’s easy to mistake them for a large gull. The trick is to look at the bird’s silhouette against a grey sky so you can identify the bend in its wings and its tail feathers.
Ospreys try to fly with the minimum of effort so they use thermals at every opportunity so looking up high in the sky is a good plan.
We had hoped for a closer view. In my dreams, I had visions of the male bird plunging into the waters 20 feet away and emerging with a large fish in its talons.
I’d seen this spectacle from close quarters a few years back when I was lucky enough to see ospreys at Loch Insh in Scotland. But this time I wasn’t so lucky.
The Osprey has specially shaped talons (two facing forwards, two backwards) which are perfect for grabbing fish out of the water in a stunning aerial display. It’s one of nature’s great spectacles.
With no close-up views of the birds, we did the next best thing and headed up to Dodd Wood, one of the official osprey viewing points overlooking Bassenthwaite.
There are two main viewing points. The first is a short hike uphill from the car park where wardens will help you identify the birds from a safe distance to avoid disturbing them.
With the help of super-powerful telescopes, I was eventually able to see the osprey’s nest, with a bit of coaching from the warden.
The nest is a large, ramshackle affair but it was a thrill to see that the birds were back even if I couldn’t identify the female bird.
The helpful warden explained that the nest was in front of the “round cauliflower tree” in the far distance, “left of the broccoli-shaped tree”.
Eventually, I could see what he meant. Just as well I have a strong visual imagination!
The nest was near the top of unprepossessing, dead-looking tree with large, bare snags.
I guess it’s hard to land in a bushy, green tree if you’re as large as an osprey. These birds have a wing span of around 1.5 metres. Rather like storks, it’s easier for them to pick a bare-looking nest site without too many obstacles.
Most exciting of all, the female osprey was sitting on three eggs. We couldn’t see her or the eggs as she was lying quite low to protect her precious chicks who are due to emerge anytime soon.
These bird have the slightly strange names of Unring and KL. They arrived back from Senegal in early April, a flight of around 3,500 miles.
I’m told that the parents are brilliant egg-sitters. They do their duty ‘on the eggs’ until the chicks emerge and then it’s a case of feeding the fluffy youngsters with large volumes of food so they can put on weight quickly.
Although our view of the bird wasn’t great, I’m told that it’s sometimes better to walk further up the hill to the upper viewpoint for a better angle on the nest.
If you’re lucky, you might be rewarded with the sight of a male bird bringing in a fishy treat for his partner.
Watching the ospreys always sends a shiver of excitement down my spine. Not only do they look amazing appearance, it’s a sobering thought that this bird was almost lost completely from the UK.
Once upon a time ospreys would have been widespread throughout most of British Isles.
During the Middle Ages most large houses and monasteries had fish ponds which attracted this fish-eating bird of prey.
Unfortunately, many of the birds were hunted and killed.
The persecution of ospreys continued into the 18th and 19th centuries with gamekeepers, egg collectors and trophy hunters being the bird’s main predators.
Habitat loss added to their list of woes and the osprey became extinct as a breeding species in Britain.
But with modern conservation things have improved for the osprey over recent decades.
In 1954 pair of the birds nested at Loch Garten in the Scottish Highlands, raising two chicks, but persecution by egg thieves remained a big problem.
It was a long time before a healthy population of ospreys started to re-establish themselves. They began nesting again in 1954 after birds from Scandinavia found their way to Scotland.
There are now over 200 breeding pairs of ospreys in Scotland plus a further 50-100 across England and Wales.
Male ospreys tend to return to breeding sites close to their original birth places when they are aged between 2-3 years. They often come back to the same place year after year.
It’s brilliant to see these bird thriving in the UK again. I can’t wait for this year’s chicks at Bassenthwaite to emerge from their egg shells!
I’ll be watching the Bassenthwaite webcam with eagle – or should that be osprey – eyes.
Osprey watching – Tammy’s top tips
Why not try your hand at osprey spotting with my top tips for spotting this impressive bird?
Ospreys live almost exclusively on a diet of fish so look out for them hovering over lakes looking for their next meal.
The ospreys are easily recognised by their large wingspan, white head, pale underparts and dark brown upper parts.
Also look up to see the birds soaring very high above lakes and surrounding hills in areas where they are known to be present in summer.
The birds catch their fish close to the surface of the water by plunge-diving or crashing into the water feet first. Look out for their aerial manoeuvres and diving antics.
Dodd Wood and the Whinlatter Forest are two of the best places to watch the ospreys in the English Lake District. Both sites have viewing areas.
They are located a short drive from Keswick on the two opposite sides of Lake Bassenthwaite.
Whinlatter Forest has a visitor centre with an osprey CCTV camera link-up where images are relayed back from the bird’s nest.
There can also be views of the bird from a quiet walk alongside Bassenthwaite Lake down by the Lakeside Lodges along a marked path. Don’t forget to look high in the sky.
Please don’t get too near the ospreys or disturb them.
There are many places to stay in this area of the northern Lakes including hotels in Keswick, the Lakeside Lodges on Bassenthwaite and several Caravan Club certified sites for motorhomes, caravans and camper vans.
We stayed on this small farm site which has gorgeous views over Mungrisdale – although it has no shower block so you’ll need to have your own on-board facilities.
Ospreys in Scotland, England and Wales
Another good place in England for osprey watching is Rutland Water in the East Midlands which has benefited from a project to reintroduce the birds.
Why not take to the water at Rutland? Take a bird watching cruise on the Rutland Belle boat during the summer season.
In Wales one of the best osprey sites is the Dyfi Osprey Project near Machynlleth.
Also look out for the ospreys at the Queen Elizabeth Forest from the viewpoint over Loch Katrine.
Loch Leven, famous for its trout, is another place where there’s a good chance of seeing these amazing birds.
Find a high vantage point at any of the above locations and don’t forget your binoculars.
All the above osprey sites have webcams on their websites where you can watch live pictures of these birds if you’re unable to travel to see them.
Find out more about Ospreys on the RSPB website.