There is something mesmerising about a large bird of prey in flight. It’s not uncommon to see once-endangered red kites soaring on the thermals as we go about our daily business, and yet, if I see them while driving from A to B, I can’t help but keep glancing up in awe at their grace and power. It’s almost as if they are visiting from some distant exotic land and don’t really belong here.
I have the same reaction when I come across buzzards and even owls – they halt me in my tracks. So I can just imagine the hullabaloo resonating around my home village of Ampleforth when a pair of ospreys were spotted hunting in the local ponds, as my dad describes in his column from 25th October 1980: ‘The most exciting event in Ryedale’s natural history calendar must surely have been the recent visit of a pair of ospreys.’
They had been seen fishing in the lakes near Ampleforth, while in Coxwold an angry mob of rooks had harassed a visiting osprey that they saw as a threat. Dad himself spotted one above Byland Abbey, and my brother reported seeing a pair half way between Ampleforth lakes and Coxwold.
Ospreys are big birds, about half a metre long, with a wingspan of up to 1.5 metres. They have a dark brown upper body and white underside, with the larger female sometimes dappled with brown speckles. They have a hooked black beak and a white head with a brown ‘Zorro’ slash across the eyes.
The local sighting was such a newsworthy event because the once common osprey had been driven to the brink of extinction in the Victorian era by over-zealous collectors of eggs and bird skins. In fact, they were completely extinct in England by 1840, and in Scotland by 1916.
After 40 years, a breeding pair was spotted making a nest near Loch Garten in the Cairngorms in 1956, and following that, breeding pairs have been spotted there every year since 1959. Numbers slowly began to rebuild, and by 1976 there were 14 known pairs and this had increased to 71 by 1991 and to 158 by 2001. Although they were reintroduced to England in 1996, it wasn’t until 2001 that the first successful breeding pair was reported here. Now, there are believed to be around 300 pairs across the UK, although they are still a protected species.
The migratory birds are resident in the UK between March and October before heading south to West Africa for the winter. They can fly up to 430km in one day, stopping near large bodies of water en route to rest and refuel. And that is why they were spotted in and around Ampleforth in 1980, as they were taking a wee break before continuing on their journey to warmer climes. But how special that must have been to see them, knowing that they were so rare, likely coming from the very few that had so recently re-established themselves in Scotland.
Ospreys are one of the few birds that only eat one type of food – fish – which is why they make their homes next to bodies of water. They are very impressive when hunting, and can soar up to 70 metres high while hunting, their laser-accurate eyesight enabling them to spot their prey so far below. They then dive vertically at incredible speeds until pulling up at the last second to extend their talons ready to grasp the unsuspecting fish swimming just below the surface. They plunge up to metre into the water to grab the fish which is then whisked away to the nest or a nearby tree to be eaten.
Ospreys are monogamous, and return to the same nesting site year after year. New nests are often built in the very tops of trees, and are up to 150cm wide and 60cm deep. Each year they return, the birds give their home a bit of a refurb, adding more branches, leaves and moss, so that the nests can extend up to two metres in width.
I don’t know if there any nesting ospreys in North Yorkshire today, but if you visit the RSPB website, it gives a comprehensive list of nature reserves and bird sanctuaries where you can see them. Obviously now might be a bit late in the year, but perhaps put it on your to-do list for 2021.
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 23rd October and the Gazette & Herald on 21st October 2020