What a magnificent bird! This beautiful photograph was taken just last week from the Seaton Marshes bird hide, and it has persuaded me to feature the species in this week’s column even though its a bit late to go out there and see one.

 Osprey move through our patch twice a year on their mammoth migration. Wintering in tropical West Africa, and breeding in the North of the UK. Osprey tend to dash through in the spring and saunter past in the Autumn.

 Young fledglings and failed breeding birds will come through first, as early as late July but more normally August. The parent birds will then follow along on their own familiar route towards the end of August. For several years the Axe estuary has hosted an osprey for much of September, and this year was just such an occasion.

 Osprey are huge birds of prey, dark on the back with a pale underside and striped face. Their long squareish wings are rather thin, and with a good view it is hard to confuse them with any other bird in Britain. However, a jolly good view of a wild bird is something of a myth, its seldom the case that the first glimpse you get is anything more than just that, a glimpse. No, more often a snatched silhouette or banking profile is all you can see, and it is often easy to misidentify a diving black-backed gull or even a fast moving buzzard at distance, with a majestic Osprey - as I have found to my embarrassment on a number of very public occasions!

 The feet are the business end of an Osprey. They are fish specialists and capture their prey by diving into the water feet first. The big, heavy feet are furnished with very large, long talons which themselves are replete with barbs on the underside to assist in gripping slippery fish. A feet-first plunge will often see the bird totally submerged, and a vigorous shake as the Osprey flies off sheds this water in a boiling haze. If you are lucky enough to see one catch a fish you will notice that they always prefer to carry their meal head first to a favourite feeding perch. In the Axe, they seem to be particularly partial to our huge thick-lipped mullet that cruise so lazily at the water’s surface.

 The migration journey is so massive, so unfathomably difficult, its very hard to comprehend just what these birds put themselves through. A fabulous project by Roy Dennis, in the Highlands of Scotland, has fitted Osprey with small GPS units, and the flight of several birds can be followed in real time on Google Earth. Now, normally I am something of a dispassionate naturalist, distasteful of any unnecessary humanisation of wildlife. However, by giving each chick a name and tracking it personally, I challenge any of you to not get emotionally embroiled in this stunning natural drama.

 A couple of years ago two chicks from a nest site in the eastern highlands set off on migration. One made its way through central England and passed through the Axe Valley. I saw the young female Osprey in the afternoon and watched her trace on the GPS that evening. What a thrill! She eventually made it to The Gambia, safe and sound.

 
Her brother was not so fortunate, bearing south west from Scotland he flew down the Irish Sea and out into the Atlantic, never in sight of land. Possibly confused, possibly disorientated, this young male’s trace stopped after an ominous period of circular meandering in the open ocean. 

 For more information visit www.roydennis.org