Monday, 17 August 2015

Dark Skies and Dancing Ospreys

Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.” 
D. Adams – The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy - Ch1

If Douglas Adams had ever visited Kielder Forest, the same thought might have occurred to him. At over 65,000 hectares, it's the largest working forest in England. The main crop is sitka spruce, grown in “fields” or forestry blocks on the nutrient-poor upland soil.

It's thirty years since I was last in Northumberland. I've arrived here after a long drive from Worcestershire the previous day to meet with Joanna, and also Martin the FC ornithologist. We gather at the grandiose-sounding Kielder Castle – which is actually a rather modest 18thC hunting lodge, now housing the small cafe where visitors can view video feeds from the osprey nests. The nests themselves are in remote areas of the forest, far off the tourist trails and cycling paths around the reservoir.

Kielder Water from Leaplish
Today will be a special treat, because Martin is going to accompany us up into those less-frequented areas. After spending the winter doing interpretive desk-work on the satellite tracking data, I need to get a better idea of the layout at Kielder and how the various parts of the landscape relate to each other. To this end, we have special dispensation to enter the working forest roads – which are closed to the public due to the presence of harvesting machinery and heavy transport in those areas.

At that moment someone else appears, unexpected and unannounced, and you could knock me down with an osprey feather. It's Pip Rowe – heroine of the “Search for 7H” in Morocco and all-round good person. There is a spare seat so we pile our gear into Martin's 4x4 and set out for higher ground...

From the upper track on Castle Hill, we can look down on the weir at Bakethin and the viaduct. In the distance westward is the high ground of Black Fell (379m). Last night, Joanna and I were over there at the Kielder Observatory, built in 2008 to take advantage of this specially-protected “dark sky” zone. We were supposed to be spotting auroras but cloudy conditions on the night prevented any live viewing. However, Matt and the other staff astronomers put on a good show of “let's have a look at what you would have seen”, using existing photos and graphics on the big screen.

Kielder Observatory

It's a remarkable and interesting facility, and well worth a visit if you are in the area.  

During my reverie, Martin and Joanna have been jumping in and out of the vehicle to unlock and then secure various gates. We are now well into the “operational” part of Kielder forest, with its patchwork of plantation blocks in various stages of growth. This monoculture of trees at identical heights is one reason that FC have erected nesting platforms for the ospreys (who prefer to have a good view over neighbouring timber) and also many dozens of nest boxes for the forest's population of tawny owls. We can see one of the osprey nests in the distance but there is no sign of the youngsters there. Where are they?

The track gains more altitude. A buzzard drops from a branch and flies along the track just ahead of us, giving a great close-up view before it wheels away down one of the firebreaks. The road continues with many junctions and more gates, and by now I have little remaining idea of where we are or where we're going. It's all trees. Even the redoubtable Martin seems slightly unsure of the route – this is a seldom-visited part of the forest and only the rangers come up here on their regular rounds.

We emerge under a big and glowing sky into an area of clear-fell that has been harvested and replanted. In suitable places, FC conservation staff take advantage of the heavy machinery being deployed for planting, to dig shallow ponds. These provide much-needed habitat for amphibians and insect life, and a source of fresh water on the isolated uplands. They also, it would seem, provide bathing places for young ospreys... 

Which is exactly what the young ospreys are doing, right in front of us!

The pond itself would not win any awards in a “Most Spectacular Medium-sized Pond” competition – but obviously it's a special place for the birds, and now for us. With no disturbance from walkers, no more forestry operations for the next twenty years or so, and a clear view over the surrounding landscape, ospreys can gather here in peace. As we watch, two juveniles dance and circle each other on the far side of the slope, not a care in the world between them. They are too far away to identify by leg rings, but the sight is enthralling.

Eventually the birds depart in the late afternoon and it's time for us to move on as well. I've been deliberately vague about exactly where the Pond of the Ospreys is. It will always be a special place for Joanna, Pip, Martin and me, but the location must remain secret - so that next season another generation of birds can come here, undisturbed, to bathe and circle and dance again under the dark and shining skies of Kielder.

17th August 2015