Bird Watching (UK) - - Species - WORDS: MATT MER­RITT

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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