Saturday, 24 February 2018

Catching the Worm

Migration Forecasts 2018, #1

Yep – it's that time of year again....

The end of February is the period when some early birds are already feeling the urge to leave behind the lazy sunshine of west Africa and head for the wet and still-wintry north lands where they will breed. 

A timely start to migration is important for all birds, and adult ospreys in particular. Even though parts of northern Europe may still be blanketed by snow, they can reach staging areas in Spain, Portugal or France where food is available while they wait for Spring to take a firmer hold.

Atlantic low-pressure weather system (c) McMichael 2018
(Click for full-size)
This time last year, these early migrators had a “goldilocks” window to assist them – and this season, the exact same condition has arisen again. This MODIS satellite picture shows a large circulating low-pressure system in the eastern Atlantic. Winds on its south-eastern quadrant are swinging round to create the long-distance coastal flyway up through Mauritania and Morocco, while still leaving open the Gibraltar straits, where wind speeds will be light.

Running the forecast models a bit further on reveals that a second Atlantic low is developing behind the first, and the models suggest that it will be on the same track. Unlike 2017, this means that the migration “window” could remain open for much longer – possibly out to the 5th March and maybe even beyond that.

GFS model forecast for 25 Feb 2018.        (Click for full-size)

It will be interesting to see what kind of reports come in from the key watch points over the next ten days or so.

Kielder Forest Partnership

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Instrumental Solo

Why don't ospreys migrate together as a family unit?” It has almost assumed the status of Frequently Asked Question, and the answer is simple...
It's because they're ospreys...

Some other species of birds, for example geese and wild swans, do exactly this: they travel from their breeding sites in family groups, with the adults escorting their offspring to the wintering grounds, hundreds or even thousands of miles distant. Without this guidance, the fledglings would never know where to go. But in evolutionary terms, the logistics of this have a very specific result: in a given population and after only a few generations, all the birds end up wintering in the same place! For grazing birds, this is a perfect survival strategy. They assemble in a huge flock, food is not a problem, (grass doesn't run away or hide) and there is safety in numbers with many eyes watching for danger.

But for ospreys and other species that hunt a limited resource, this system won't do at all. They are apex predators, not flocking geese...

A thousand ospreys arriving on a single African lake would exploit the local fish supply at an unsustainable rate. To solve this problem, evolution has arranged matters so that young ospreys have to find their own way in Autumn. They are born with all the navigational instincts needed to do this, but built into those same instincts is sufficient positional uncertainty to ensure that the young birds are dispersed over a wide wintering area. 

This random end-point factor (referred to by scientists as a “stochastic element”) is one of the hidden secrets of osprey migration and is instrumental in forming many aspects of their post-juvenile behaviour.. It has evolved because a general dispersal in winter quarters gives the incoming youngsters a slightly better chance of survival as individuals. 

But where does this "randomness" in the selection of a final destination come from?  That's a whole other story and really needs an article all of its own.

Watch this space... ☺

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Wooden Headphones

... reckless behaviour affecting the conservation of a Schedule 1 protected species

During the Pacific campaigns of World War II, native peoples on many small islands (now generally called Melanesia) came into contact with the products of Japanese, and then Western, technological culture for the first time. Aircraft and ships brought stockpiles of military support supplies – tinned food, construction material, tents and clothing - to the islands, which the inhabitants referred to as “Cargo” - the pidgin word for trade goods. Then, as mysteriously as they had arrived, the service personnel accompanying this logistic effort vanished again, as the fortune of war ebbed and flowed across the region.

The islanders weren't stupid. They knew the value of the goods, but their own culture had no terms of reference to explain how or why all this stuff had been produced and delivered. The Ancestral Spirits had obviously meant the Cargo for them – and if some had arrived, there must be more on the way...

They had observed the baffling rituals performed by the visitors, rituals which preceded the arrival of Cargo. Soldiers marched up and down on the beaches. Others lit fires in straight parallel lines, and then spoke while wearing curious headdresses connected to grey boxes. The islanders reasoned, logically, that if they performed these same rituals correctly, more Cargo would be sent to them.  THAT was how the world of the Spirits had always operated, was it not? 

So they marched up and down. They built “control towers” from bamboo, and carved wooden headphones to use in them. They lit the landing fires, and waited... But, far away, WWII had ended and the aeroplanes never returned. These strange versions of religion persisted in the South Pacific for many years, and anthropologists coined a general term for them..
“Cargo Cults”

In certain areas of Wales, and also in the Scottish borders, some misguided people have been running around the countryside, putting up platform poles for “osprey nests”. The rationale behind this seems plain enough: in the past, ospreys have nested on artificial platforms, therefore many more platforms means many more ospreys will come. Simple, innit?

Except that it's not that simple at all.

We now know that population, dispersal, and nesting dynamics in a recovering osprey population are complicated and have a pattern of development that must be taken into account by any responsible conservation plan. Low population density in a given area means that male birds defend very large nesting territories. Young birds returning to these areas disperse widely, often having to cover hundreds of kilometres in their search for a mate and a nest.

As (and if) the recovery proceeds normally, defended territories become gradually smaller, pre-nuptial dispersal covers shorter ranges, and more local nest sites are taken up. BUT it can take several generations of birds for these changes to happen, and ill-considered attempts to manipulate them cause problems: polygynous nesting being only one of these.

Unplanned platform deployment isn't conservation at all – it's Cargo Cult Ecology.

These hobbyist platform-builders do not understand the underlying processes in a recovering osprey population. But unlike the rather smarter south-sea islanders, they seem to have little or no interest in finding out the real facts, preferring just to perform their Ritual of Poles repeatedly in the superstitious hope that ospreys will magically appear.

The only things missing are the wooden headphones.

Source material:

Cargo Cult: A Melanesian Type-response to Culture Contact” T. Schwartz, UCSD, 1968
A Review of Thirty-five Years of Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) Nesting Data in Rhode Island” E.S. Walsh, University of Rhode Island, (2013)
The demography of a newly established Osprey Pandion haliaetus population in France” Wahl, Barbraud (2016) doi: 10.1111/ibi.12114
Distribution pattern of an expanding Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) population in a changing environment” Bai, ML., Schmidt, D., Gottschalk, E. et al. J Ornithol (2009) 150: 255. doi:10.1007/s10336-008-0345-3
Density dependence in a recovering osprey population: demographic and behavioural processes” Bretagbolle V, Mougeot F, Thibault J-C, (2008) doi:10.1111/j.1365-2656.2008.01418.x

Tuesday, 24 January 2017


Judging the onset of migration

“The time is out of joint—O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Nay, come, let's go together. “
                                                               Hamlet I,v

As we approach the end of January, it might seem as if the time of Spring migration is still a long way off – but in fact, things are already changing for our birds down in Africa...

Long-distance migration is no trivial matter. A bird cannot just one day decide “It's probably time that I was heading back to my summer nest. Better get moving.” Before THAT happens, birds must make physical preparations and some of these preparations can take many weeks. In some species, feathers must have been moulted and new ones grown out. And in almost all species, substantial reserves of body fat have to be laid down as fuel for the coming journey.

And then there's the matter of timing.
"Sunpath" diagrams for 55ºN (left) and 15ºN (right) Click for larger
It's been known for centuries that migratory birds use changes in the length of day (“photoperiod”) as one primary factor in knowing when to migrate. The biological mechanisms of how this works are complicated, and links to further reading are given below. We now know that animals have internal “clocks” that keep track of time over various periods, from daily rhythms to the cycle of the whole year. These timers are moderated by external factors including photoperiod, changes in temperature, and even (in some cases) location-specific alterations in the flux of Earth's magnetic field.
5F in the Gambia [C. Wood]
In west Africa, the ospreys are already measuring changes in the day length and the accuracy with which they have to do this is rather surprising.

Here in northern Europe, even we humans can notice that we have now passed the Winter solstice and the days are growing longer again. 

At a latitude of 54.5ºN (where this author lives) each day is three minutes longer than the previous one (19th Jan 2017) and the rate of this change is increasing by about three to four seconds every day.

But nearer the equator - where our birds are still consulting their ease in the Senegal sunshine - the changes in day length are much less obvious. At 15ºN, each day is only 30 seconds longer, and rate increase is less than one second per day.
This rate-of-change variable seems to be very important to migratory birds. After all, some of them (swallows, for example) are wintering south of the equator – where the days are still getting shorter.

These changes are tracked by photoreceptors deep in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The exact details of what happens during this process are not fully understood, but it appears that some kind of phase-comparison is being made between the amount of light being detected, and the “position” of the bird's internal circadian clock. We suspect this because if either mechanism is interfered with, the bird will no longer be able to evaluate photoperiod changes correctly.
Unringed osprey, Gambia [C.Wood]

But, however it all works, the fact is that the faraway birds are already making their preparations to return for the coming summer.

I'm ready. Are you?

(Thanks to Chris Wood for the use of original photographs)

[1] Evans, P. R. “Timing Mechanisms and the Physiology of Bird Migration.” Science Progress (1933- ), vol. 58, no. 230, 1970, pp. 263–275.
[2] Ubuka T, Bentley GE, Tsutsui K. Neuroendocrine regulation of gonadotropin secretion in seasonally breeding birds. Frontiers in Neuroscience. 2013;7:38. doi:10.3389/fnins.2013.00038.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Cast a Giant Shadow

UV started his second annual migration on the morning of the 10th of September 2016. It would be pleasant to recount that his departure was accompanied by cheering crowds of well-wishers lining the route – perhaps even that the traditional northern colliery band played a stirring march, while fluttered cambric handkerchiefs and a silent tear from the more demonstrative hearts sped him on his way.

Of course, it wasn't like that at all.

Be they ever-so-famous in Internet Land, individual ospreys perform this last act of the summer season unobserved, for the most part. It marks the point where they transition back to the solitary existence of winter, and only those who are directly observed by scope or camera - or have a tracking unit – will have the actual start of their migration recorded as such.

Perhaps it is as well that the trombones didn't turn out, because UV's commencement was an inauspicious one.

For days, a succession of southerly and south-westerly gales had lashed across the west of Great Britain. After the misery of a damp summer almost devoid of sun, it was looking like one of the most turbulent Septembers on record. But by the morning of the 10th, the wind seemed to have changed direction for the better and many birds began to move southwards towards the coast. The adventure was under way. UV was off to Africa at last.

He got as far as Gloucestershire.

Another series of weather fronts raced in, bringing poor visibility and yet more adverse winds. From Kent to Cornwall, thousands of migrant birds were already waiting for a chance to cross into France. An inexperienced juvenile osprey might have joined their ranks but UV is no longer a raw recruit. He paused his migration at the River Severn and went fishing instead. The weather finally relented on the morning of the 16th, enabling our boy to make his move.

And move, he certainly did.

In the following nine hours he covered 373 km. Giving Weymouth no more than a passing glance (as you would) he launched himself out over the Channel. Off the island of Alderney, UV's (wind assisted) flying speeds were some of the highest ever recorded by us for a migrating osprey, peaking at 118 kph.

The accompanying maps show what happened next: UV 'cut the corner' through Brittany and by afternoon the next day was out over the sea off Saint-Nazaire.

Adult ospreys have the same journey to undertake as juveniles of their kind, but they have one major advantage: they know where they are going and - perhaps even more importantly - they know how far they have to go. A migrating adult has the option of breaking the overall route into manageable sections, according to the prevailing conditions and how much each bird has in the way of energy reserves. This strategy is known as “staged migration”.

UV was aiming to stage at his favourite group of irrigation reservoirs – the barragens of south-west Portugal, and he wasted little time in reaching them by the 21st.

He may have got an unpleasant surprise there. Diligent research by Joanna Dailey found that serious drought conditions have been affecting this region, and we believe that many of the dams had unusually low water levels this year. This may have made fishing more difficult for UV and we noted several unusual local movements at high altitudes, where he seemed to be surveying the area and – perhaps – keeping an eye on distant weather conditions with a view to moving on. (We have withheld exact details of UV's foraging locations in Portugal for protection reasons.)

Whatever the fishing situation might have been, it persuaded UV that two weeks in Portugal was enough. On 4th October he was off again, following closely the same route that he had taken in 2014, and this time his navigation was precise. After a 980+ km over-sea flight, his landfall in Morocco was only 14 km away from the previous one.

On that occasion, UV had staged at the remote Gulf of Cintra in Western Sahara. So... would it be Cintra again, this year? It would not. That weather-enforced break on the River Severn had shifted UV's “refuelling” schedule just enough. There were no more helpful tailwinds in the desert but, employing the energy saving 'soar-and-glide' technique on plentiful thermals, UV easily covered the remaining distance to northern Senegal.
UV Migration Map 2016
(2014 route in green)
On the evening of the 11th, as the shadows lengthened on the Langue de Barbarie, UV slept in the very same roost tree that he had used in February of this year.

Because that's what they do.

All of this information comes from lines and dots and plots on a computer screen, the shadow-tracks of the processed data. But Blue UV is no shadow. For all our marvellous technology, we never forget that he is a living creature. As we track their movements, so UV and his kin track our understanding, waiting to see how we apply it to the benefit of all their species.

And that's one hell of a responsibility.


Sunday, 4 September 2016

Parent-offspring recognition in European ospreys

4th September 2016

'How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child' 
                                                                             [King Lear, I, iv]

Over the last couple of weeks I've been inundated by literally two e-mails, both asking much the same question:- 

Do parent ospreys recognise their returning offspring from previous seasons?”

There is no simple answer to this seemingly-straightforward issue. It seems clear that many species of birds can recognize each other as individuals, once they become acquainted. Of course, the term “kin-recognition” encompasses a whole raft of responses and behaviours, but in this article I am going to focus on the question asked, which concerns parent-offspring recognition.

This has been proven in birds that nest communally, and the selection pressures for this ability to evolve in communal nesting are fairly obvious. Mechanisms seem to include both vocal and visual recognition. Penguin adults and chicks can locate each other – apparently by voice – even in the noise and visual confusion of a busy colony. Beecher (1988)[1] showed that bank swallows are able to do much the same thing. Birds of prey, in contrast, tend to nest by territory – but Alcaide et al (2007)[2] demonstrated that these species (ospreys included) also carry the MHC gene sequence, which had previously been associated with kin-recognition ability (and lots of other things) in mammals.

Ospreys, at best, nest semi-communally and their migratory lifestyle complicates the issue still further. Their young leave the nest at the end of summer, and undergo a complete feather-replacement moult into adult plumage before returning north to their natal regions. This means that a returning youngster will be completely different in appearance, calling into question the whole principle of visual identification by the parent.

All this stuff isn't really getting us anywhere...

UV on the nest
(detail from original
watercolour by
K Davies)
To find out more, I turned to one of the most closely-observed young ospreys on the planet. Yes, you've guessed it – it's UV again.

UV is the trifecta for this job: he has a high-visibility leg ring for ease of spotting, he also has a satellite tracker for detailed following, and his parents' nest at Kielder Forest Park is monitored by video recording cameras, (courtesy of Forestry Commission England.) On 1st July 2016, he landed on that nest while his mother was looking after this year's brood of his siblings. Such an event – a year-two returnee alighting on the natal nest and interacting directly with a parent – is sufficiently rare that filmed recordings of it are almost non-existent.

But we got one.
Video (c) 2016 Forestry Commission England
Used by permission
Short though it is, this sequence repays careful study. We know from tracking data that UV approached the general nest area from the south-west, and that he altered course directly towards it when about 1000m up-range. The nest female sees him approach and goes onto the nest to defend her brood. The chicks - of which there are four - cannot yet fly at this date, so they crouch down in response to the female's evident alarm-calls.

UV makes several passes over and round the nest, before finally landing on it. He alights right on the edge, prepared to take the air again at a moment's notice. His mother mantles and calls in protest at his temerity, and within seconds she has chased him away.

Is there any evidence of “recognition” here? The answer has to be “no”... ALL the birds involved behave and react in exactly the same way as if the intruder had been an unrelated individual.

Expert opinion is still divided on the initial question. Some hold strictly to the view that there is no parent-offspring recognition in European ospreys. Others prefer the view that such recognition “ought” to have evolved, and that there is no evidence to confirm its absence. A few (this author included) suspect that the parent birds cannot recognise a returning youngster, but that the youngster has some instinctive awareness of the kinship.

 But all are agreed on ONE thing: it doesn't make a blind bit of difference who is right! The returnee is no more welcome at a nest site that any other osprey would be, and the breeding adults would always react in exactly the same way, offspring or not.

So is that the end of the story? Not quite.

UV nabs a free meal at Nest 2
(Forestry Commission / J Dailey
For the remainder of summer 2016, we continued to follow UV's activities. He remained interested in Kielder Forest, and intruded at all the osprey nests there on several different occasions. All the nests, that is, except N1a... He only made one more return visit to his parent's nest and did not land on it again. For most of the time, he maintained a discreet distance from it while moving around the Park.

 Does this mean that UV is somehow aware that the parental nest is not a proper place for him, whereas all the others are fair game for investigation? I am not sure. Only the birds know these things for certain.

And they're still not telling.

[1] “Kin recognition in birds”: Beecher, M.D. Behav Genet (1988) 18: 465. doi:10.1007/BF01065515 

[2] “Characterization, Polymorphism, and Evolution of MHC Class II B Genes in Birds of Prey”: Alcaide, M., Edwards, S.V. & Negro, J.J. J Mol Evol (2007) 65: 541. doi:10.1007/s00239-007-9033-9

Saturday, 13 August 2016



When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”
        Arthur Conan Doyle The Sign Of The Four (1890)

Strange things have been occurring at several of the monitored osprey sites, this season. Unaccountable, worrying things that seem - on the face of it - to be so far removed from the usual that they defy explanation.

17.7.2016 Fledgling Z0 “Ceri"
falls from a perch at MWT Cors
Dyfi and sustains serious injuries
(Infra-red illumination)

[Montgomeryshire WT]
Fledgling birds have been falling from their perches. Youngsters have appeared to have difficulty in walking, holding their legs or talons at strange angles. Some have flown and failed to return; others have gone off their food, seemingly ill, only to recover later. One chick (at MWT Cors Dyfi) has been so badly hurt that she went into circulatory shock and died. And on social media and the forums, everyone has been asking:-

What the hell is going on? 

These are wild creatures and every moment of their lives is at hazard. Bad things can and do happen to individuals, whether they are under observation or not. It's Nature. Flying is an instinctive ability, but the judgement of speed, distance and timing are not: these are acquired skills and they have to be learned and practised. Young inexperienced birds sometimes have accidents, and the outcome depends very much on chance and circumstances. Usually, they get away with it unharmed – but not always. 
We on the other hand are not wild birds. We are human beings and one of our less-rational habits is to search for patterns in isolated events, where often none exist. Psychologists even have a term for it: “apophenia”. Scientists are trained to recognise this trait in their own day-to day work, and to eliminate it in favour of objectivity and rigour.

There's an app for that...

Statistical mathematics include a set of tools that can tell us whether the frequency of an event (or series of events) is higher, lower, or the same as might be expected to occur by chance. Numbers were crunched and the answer came back: it was higher. Not by much, but detectable.

30.7.2016 Osprey W7 sustains
apparent grazing impact injury.
Close-up of bruising and
swollen leg joint.
[BGGW Glaslyn Wildlife]

This begged the next question: could there be some underlying factor that was affecting some of these birds but not others, even though the incidents were happening in widely-separated nest locations and at different times? Powerful minds (much more powerful than mine) applied themselves to the problem. The 'usual suspects' were rounded up: provisioning rates, environmental pollutants, fungal toxins... one by one, they were eliminated from the inquiry. Exotic diseases were invoked: could it be bird flu? Avian malaria? Trichomonosis? Any of these can affect lower body function but they have other symptoms, too, none of which seemed to be present.

The leg rings themselves were checked on, and checked on again. But all were the same rings as had been used in previous years, made from the same materials and fitted by the same teams. It wasn't the rings.

Other theories were suggested, from the mildly unlikely to the just-plain-bonkers. Recessive gene mutations? Nope. Calcium deficiency causing paralysis? Can't be. Short term variations in the Earth's magnetic field? Gimme a break.

Perhaps there IS no answer. Alternatively (and it's just another theory) the answer might have been staring us in the face, all the time...

Kielder osprey Y0 fledged on 15th July, out of
view from the nest cameras. She did not return
to the nest after fledging. Current whereabouts
unknown. [Img: Paul McMichael]
I was chatting with young Damien the other day. Damien is one of the guys on the local red squirrel conservation survey, and he gets the job of installing the higher-level trail cameras and bait trays. Part biology student and part gibbon - with vocalizations to match – Damien is not a happy arborealist these days.

Duuude... real gnarly climbing up there... like, slippy and slidey, y'know... maaad dangerous...”  

And this is a bloke who will happily hang from a branch by the crook of one elbow while thumbing tweets into his mobile with the other hand. The boy's prehensile. If Damien thinks that working up in the trees has suddenly become “mad dangerous”, then something is amiss.

My UK readers will have noticed that, in 2016, the notorious British Summer has been even less summery than usual. Rainfall - markedly in the west and north - has produced totals for June that were 30% higher than the moving average. The figures for July are not likely to be much better. Cloud cover has been over 90% for almost 90% of the days. These unsettled conditions have featured blustery winds, variable in direction and gust strength. In technical terms, it's been rubbish.

What effect might such unseasonably poor weather over such an extended period have on the environment?

Wet and humid conditions are ideal for growing the algae and moss that has
been troubling our Damien. Branches of deadwood trees (exactly the ones that are favoured by ospreys for perching) never get the chance to dry out, making them slippery and even liable to breakages. Cloud cover makes for poorer visibility, more difficult judgement of distance, while gusting winds are the last thing that any fledgling bird needs to encounter on its first experimental flights.

Any one of these factors could cause a problem on its own – but put them all together and they stack: generating a persistent and cumulative rise in the accident rate that we start to notice.

And so we mustn't give in to that seditious inclination of ours: that everything that happens must have a single identifiable cause and agent, so that we can hold someone or something “responsible” before dashing off in pursuit of the next conspiracy. I find no mysterious or even sinister forces at work here. There's an underlying rough-and-tumble to any wild fledging season - and the rougher it gets, the more tumbles it produces. In certain isolated years, all the adverse factors combine in one relentless stream of bad luck and unhappy accidents.

I blame the weather – but the weather didn't mean it. All these incidents are still just Nature, doing that stuff She does.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author himself, and are not intended to be representative of any other organization or group.