Fisher king: The osprey returns to Hertfordshire
PUBLISHED: 11:13 11 September 2017 | UPDATED: 11:14 11 September 2017
The spectacular fish-eating bird of prey, the osprey, has been sighted in Herts at this time of year as it refuels before flying to Africa. Charlotte Hussey of the Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust celebrates its return
Osprey, while widely distributed worldwide, were exterminated in Britain by collectors in the early 20th century. Years of conservation effort to protect Scandinavian osprey that naturally colonised in the years following the demise has meant that this amber listed species can now be spotted across the UK, including in Hertfordshire.
While osprey populations have increased in this country they are still a rare sight and a real treat to see outside of their strongholds. The main UK outpost is Scotland but they can also be seen in north Wales and breeding took place in the Lake District in 2001 – the first osprey nest in England for more than 150 years. Osprey were also introduced at Rutland Water in the east midlands in 2001 where they are now an established breeding species.
Osprey, which have a wingspan of up to 1.8m and are recognisable by their distinctive ‘highwayman mask’ face markings, are migratory birds and most overwinter in Africa, arriving in the UK in late March and April to breed before leaving again in late August and September. When the birds first arrive they are keen to get to their areas of breeding and stop briefly only to feed. Osprey almost always return to their previous nest site, with older more experienced birds arriving first, and newly established pairs having to find new suitable sites after migration. This is no easy feat as osprey nests are large – often over a meter wide – and as the birds feed almost exclusively on fish, the nests are usually within five kilometres of water. Osprey also prefer an open area around the nest to make landing easier. They will happily take to man-made structures such as pylons, as well as artificial nests specifically made for them.
The birds usually pair for life, coming together once a year to breed. New chicks spend up to eight weeks in the nest, fed primarily by the mother with fish. Over these weeks the chicks begin to move round, eventually preening and exercising their wings until they are ready to attempt a first flight. Fledglings will return to the nest for at least two weeks, eating food the parents bring back and honing their flying skills until they are able to catch fish for themselves.
At three to five years osprey will begin breeding and they often won’t return to the area in which they fledged until this time. They sometimes arrive the year before, when a newly formed pair will establish territory and build a nest together ahead of breeding the following year.
After adults have ensured their offspring are fledged and feeding for themselves they will make their way down to the south of England before heading to Africa. This is the best time to see osprey in Hertfordshire as the birds will make sure they are in peak physical condition for the long flight back south. This means lots of fishing and preening.
Hertfordshire has good habitat for osprey – large bodies of water – during this important time for refuelling. The lakes, reservoirs and rivers of the Colne Valley, Lee Valley and notably Panshanger Park in Hertford are good places to spot them.
Since the turn of the century an osprey has been seen every September in Panshanger Park, spending anything from a few days to a couple of weeks in the area.
The Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, together with park owners Tarmac, have created a special osprey viewpoint for visitors. The trust has also been working hard to encourage visiting osprey in other Herts areas and in 2007 invited Roy Dennis, who was responsible for osprey reintroduction at Rutland Water, to identify areas of the county osprey might stop. A number of the trust’s nature reserves, including Broadwater Lake, Stocker’s Lake and Amwell were listed, as well as surrounding areas, like Holyfield Lake in the Lee Valley. The trust has since installed artificial nesting platforms and perches in these areas with help from external funders and hopes to continue this work in other suitable areas around the county.
Keep an eye on the trust’s Twitter account @HMWTBadger and the Herts Bird Club website hnhs.org/herts-bird-club/home for up to date news of osprey sightings in the county this month.