Thursday, 5 November 2015


strike action Scottish style
I saw an osprey yesterday, nothing remarkable in that you might say but it was November 4th and any self-respecting osprey should be well on their way to their winter quarters in West Africa. It's very late leaving, most having departed by mid September.

It was perched at the top of a spectacularly high ash tree overlooking the water meadows in the middle reaches of the Hampshire Avon. I was huddled under a brolly on the other side of the river, sheltering from the incessant rain. The sight of such a charismatic bird made my day, for I was failing to raise any interest from the river’s big barbel.

good weather for barbel catching - not so good for hungry ospreys
It wasn’t long after landing that the local hoodlums started to hassle it. Crows don’t like birds of prey but their constant strafing hardly made the osprey flinch and it continued to preen rain drops off it’s back, then scan up and down the valley wondering where it’s next meal would come from. Numerous gravel pits and the river itself had kept the bird well fed for several weeks but on a wet day when the waters surface is broken by drops of water, spotting it’s prey would be very tricky.

the same spot in summer - you wouldn't want to leave either
Fellow anglers and friends have told me that this osprey has been around in the valley for several weeks and have suggested it’s a young bird, which is more than likely given their migration habits. The adults leave for Africa soon after their young have fledged, leaving their youngsters to learn how to fish and find their way south in their own time.

As keen birders will know, birds have an inbuilt sense of direction and are able to use the moon and stars to navigate by, even using the world’s magnetism, so finding the correct direction of travel isn’t an issue. What always puzzles me is how they know when they’ve arrived!

I‘ve been lucky enough to film wintering ospreys in West Africa and I guess the extensive mangrove swamps and fish rich creeks give them a clue … and they probably see other ospreys too. Watching them catching flying fish among the breakers was always entertaining, especially when they grabbed them by the wrong end and the fishes ‘wings’ opened up in the wind and caused so much drag that the ospreys had to flop back into the sea to adjust their catch.

Those ospreys were of course the survivors of the perilous journey. Some are shot in France and Spain, some die from hunger or exhaustion but judging by the rapidly increasing number of breeding pairs in the UK, many of them make it to Africa [and return]. They spend up to two years along the West African coast, developing their skills before returning to Scotland, initially to prospect for an available nest site and mate before heading south in July or August. It is just one of these youngish birds that I suspect was watching me from up in the ash tree.

After three hours it took off and headed upstream in the hope of a meal but by dusk it was still hunting as it approached me, alarm calling as a new posse of crows gave it some grief. It turned west to go off to it’s roosting tree in the rain, a reminder no doubt of it’s ‘summer’ in Scotland … and a happy reminder for me of our family summers spent filming them for the RSPB.

Scotland - the mission - film osprey on tree stump with fish
nice one - after several days waiting it's mission accomplished
pike dinner for one
In 1973 I left my promising nine year career as a cameraman at the BBC Film Unit, working on films such as Beethoven, Porridge and Dr.Who to pursue my conviction that wildlife film-making was the job for me. I left behind a good salary to join the RSPB Film Unit for not much salary at all! … but I loved being part of an organisation who were passionate about trying to save wildlife and enhance our knowledge of the issues of the day.

My first job was to edit the 22 cans of disconnected images to create a film called ‘Look Again at Garden Birds’. I even had to cut the negative myself so it was a dramatic fall from the big time to the very small time, though the film did OK and I learnt a lot about story telling. The films were played to a live audience of 2,500 [twice] for the Premier day at the Royal Festival Hall and you certainly knew very quickly if a shot or sequence was held too long or the audience became disengaged with the story you were telling. They didn't start booing but you could just sense their interest flagging.

I shall be forever grateful for the experience, especially as after a couple of years, I took over from Anthony Clay as head of the film unit and could develop stories that appealed to me. I’ll gloss over those years but suffice to say I became fed up with films about blue tits and decided to make a film about the most charismatic bird in Britain, the Osprey. So you’ll be grateful that this brings the blog full circle.

two images from our past as depicted in our 'Catching the Impossible' book
For two years in the mid 70’s my wife Sue and I headed up to Scotland in March with young Katie, [Peter was yet to be born] so that we could build the scaffold and hide at a suitable nest before the ospreys arrived. We would follow their lives every day and then dismantle the scaffold in early September after the family had fledged and departed south for the winter.

Katie and Peter grew up surrounded by wildlife ... more pics from our 'Catching the Impossible' book
Katie and Peter up nr. the nest - they're a lot older now
If I tell you that our children’s first words included ‘osprey!’ you’ll understand just how engrossed we were with their lives, trials and tribulations. In one notable July we didn’t get the camera out of it’s box for three weeks such was the rain, so yesterdays wet bird reminded me of one of my favourite shots in the film, a close up of a bedraggled female trying to keep her young dry in the nest with rain dripping off her beak.
 they have grown a lot - all Mum's good food! 

we built a lot of high scaffold towers - a job at SGB beckoned
looking for dinner on a sunny day
In spite of the challenges, the film was a tremendous success and sold to well over 40 countries. What’s more, the BBC Natural History Unit were so impressed that I was immediately dispatched to Africa to film a lion hunt in the Ngorongoro Crater for the iconic series, “Life on Earth”. We captured a double lion kill in the first three days and another couple too. Then a far rarer event, managed to nail a shot of two male cheetahs pulling down an adult wildebeast. We had finished the filming in ten days when a month had been scheduled so my career has never looked back. Better to be lucky than good they say!
the series of six films were an outstanding success, enjoyed by both anglers and non anglers alike

a series of nine films this time, some even preferred it to Passion but they are simply different
Anyway, as a result of all this the osprey has become an iconic symbol in our lives, the ace fisherman adorning the title sequence in both the BBC’s ‘A Passion for Angling’ and CH 4’s ‘Catching the Impossible’. No wonder I was so pleased to share the river-bank with one yesterday, even if it was raining. It didn’t seem to matter that I blanked.
the barbel did bite but that was the day before the osprey, two beauties to seven plus pounds