Return of the Fish-Eagle

Once decimated by relentless persecution, the magnificent Osprey has been making a comeback across the United Kingdom—and thanks to the dedicated work of the Friends of the Fowey Estuary and other conservation partners, the Osprey may soon breed right here in Cornwall.

The Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is a large and elegant bird-of-prey distinctive in its black-and-white plumage and its skill in plucking fish from the waters of rivers and lakes. Also referred to in older documents as the Fish-Eagle, Fish-Hawk, or Sea-Hawk, the Osprey was once a familiar sight in British skies and bred all across the UK and Ireland. Yet the 1800s heralded a new craze that swept across Victorian England—egg collection. Zealous collectors fervently emptied Osprey nests (and often shot and killed the adults in the process). There was simply no way for Ospreys to survive such an onslaught, and local populations were snuffed out one by one across the British Isles until Ospreys were extirpated from even their last stronghold in the Scottish Highlands in the early 1900s. As the egg-collecting fad finally began to die down, one pair of enterprising Ospreys from Scandinavia noticed all the available real estate in Scotland and decided to make themselves at home. That was 1954, and Ospreys have been successfully breeding in Scotland and slowly spreading throughout the area ever since.

Intrigued by this natural recolonisation, conservationists hoping to speed up the reclamation of the UK by Ospreys began relocating Scottish chicks to Rutland in 1996. The Rutland birds flourished and even returned there to breed, marking the first time since Victorian days that Ospreys have bred on English soil. Since then breeding nests of Ospreys have also been established in the Lake District and a few locations in Wales, slowly but surely returning this noble bird to its historical range. Eyewitness reports from ornithologists from as far back as the 1600s claim that Ospreys once bred on the rocky cliffs of Devon and Cornwall as well. Yet like elsewhere in the country, even by 1892 it was regretfully admitted by the writers of the day that the great birds which had once regularly patrolled West Country rivers had been driven to scarcity. Ospreys do not appear to have bred in Cornwall or Devon at all in a very, very long time.

Yet a few enterprising souls inspired by the success of Osprey nests in Scotland, Rutland, and Wales began in the spring of 2015 to envision the launch of an Osprey breeding program right here in Cornwall. One such soul was Peter Kent, East Cornwall Reserves manager for the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and experienced ornithologist. Kent had studied the Osprey’s historical abundance and tragic decline and he was determined to do all he could to help restore this regal bird to its former homeland.  At his side in this endeavour was Andy Simmons of the National Trust, and between them the Fowey Osprey Project was conceived.

Their goal was to construct artificial nests in suitable locations here in Cornwall similar to those recently erected near Plymouth, structures that would attract the young Ospreys passing through the area and encourage the birds to settle in and stay a while. ERCCIS provided historical data on Osprey sightings in Cornwall and the National Trust spearheaded the physical creation of the artificial nests themselves. Maps and other documents were acquired and a few ideal nest sites near the Fowey Estuary were identified. From the get-go, the Fowey Osprey Project was blessed by incredible community support. The proprietors of Treynthon Manor offered use of their lovely building for the initial meeting of the project in March 2015, in which dozens of people gathered to express their enthusiasm for the return of wild Ospreys to Cornwall, and through their generous donations the initial planning costs for the project were covered almost immediately.

Osprey by Encounter CornwallIn proper Cornish fashion, the hardworking crew who went out to the sites along the Fowey to install the nest poles were graciously given freshly-made cider by a local farm. As one member present at the dedication ceremony of the nests memorably described the scene: “There were signs of Spring everywhere from lambs in the fields, primroses in the hedgerows and even frogspawn and tadpoles in a puddle…I have to say if I were an Osprey, I'd certainly pay [the nests] a visit with such beautiful views!”

And in fact the Ospreys have paid visits; according to the records kept by ERCCIS, Ospreys have been spotted in Cornwall more and more in recent years. They are returning, and they are finding the Fowey Estuary, as the stunning photos taken by the intrepid kayakers of “Encounter Cornwall”.

The future of the Osprey in the UK is now looking very bright. There are hundreds of breeding Osprey couples raising chicks in Scotland, Rutland, and Wales each year and the population only continues to grow. Natural migration combined with proactive conservation measures is even helping the Osprey spread back to mainland Europe and reclaim other lands it once inhabited in days gone by.

In general Ospreys prefer to nest in the same familiar countryside they were hatched in themselves, so it isn’t surprising that the artificial nests on the Fowey haven’t been claimed right away, but it’s only a matter of time before an adventurous Osprey couple looking to raise a family discovers the excellent nesting sites that the Friends of the Fowey Estuary have so willingly constructed for them and then we may have our first native-born Cornish chicks!

If you wish to get involved with the return of this striking bird to Cornwall, the Friends of the Fowey Estuary are always grateful for your support and encouragement, and they would be particularly thrilled to have the assistance of any keen birdwatchers willing to keep an eye on the nests and report any activity (avian or human!). Thankfully, egg-snatching is no longer the hugely popular hobby it once was, but such enthusiasts do still exist—and for this reason many conservation organisations are cautious with the disclosure of their nests’ exact location. Please contact the Friends of the Fowey Estuary at if you are interested in learning more.

Most importantly, please report any sightings of Ospreys or any other exciting critter to ERCCIS, since accurate and updated records are crucial to conservation efforts. Remember, any large hawk-like shape circling lazily overhead could be a humble buzzard, or it could be something much more—so don’t forget to keep an eye on the sky!

 

Article by Caitlin Fikes, ERCCIS volunteer and University of Exeter student. All photo credits to Dave and Karen of Encounter Cornwall.