HERE’S SOMETHING SATISFYINGLY apt about Ospreys being the leading avian crowd-pullers at Rutland Water, home of this month’s British Birdwatching Fair. Because, while Birdfair is crammed with exhibitors and visitors from all over the world, the Osprey is a species found right across the globe. Even if you’ve travelled to this corner of the English East Midlands from Papua New Guinea, Argentina or Alaska, the Ospreys that you see fishing in Manton Bay will be essentially the same as those you’re used to seeing at home. Even where they don’t breed, they can often turn up on passage, as these are raptors that migrate in order to avail themselves of unfrozen, and fish-rich, waters year-round.
There are a number of subspecies – four are generally recognised, although even then there is argument about whether they are unequivocally separable. As well as the nominate subspecies, or race, Pandion haliaetus haliaetus (the one we see in this country), there’s the carolinensis race, found in North America, which is larger, darkerbodied and has a paler breast, the non-migratory ridgwayi race, found on Caribbean islands, which has a very pale head and breast, and a weak, more indistinct eye mask, and the cristatus race, found in Australia, which is smaller than the nominate and also non-migratory. This latter subspecies has been given full species status by some authorities, as Eastern Osprey, but debate on the subject continues. Looking closer at the birds that we see in the UK, you might think that it would be hard to mistake the Osprey for anything else. After all, they’re large (bigger than a Buzzard, including in terms of wingspan, but considerably smaller than either of our eagles), largely white underneath, they have white heads with a distinct dark ‘bandit mask’, and they have the unique habit of hovering over water (usually freshwater bodies, but also estuaries and inshore seawater on occasion), before plunging into the depths and emerging carrying a large fish. But mistaken they often are. Buzzards are notoriously variable in their plumage, and at distance particularly pale individuals can easily convince you you’re looking at an Osprey. Similarly, at long range, they can look remarkably like gulls in flight, although Ospreys habitually
hold their wings bent at the ‘wrist’ – a dark patch on the underside of the wings (just outside that ‘wrist’) is also a good pointer. The Osprey’s return to the UK is a story told many times, but in brief, they’re thought to have become extinct in this country in 1916, having already disappeared from England as a breeding bird in the mid-19th Century, as a result of heavy persecution, mainly from egg and skin collectors. There are claims that a very few pairs continued to breed in Strathspey in the 1930s and 1940s, but what’s certain is that a pair nested at Loch Garten, on Speyside, in 1954, heralding a recolonisation. It was a very slow process at first – egg collectors continued to take a toll, as did contamination of Ospreys can take even pretty substantial fish
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