Family dynamics in the osprey nest

As the osprey chicks grow and get more boisterous, Alasdair McKee describes how Blue 35 sometimes needs to find some 'alone time'
Image of Foulshaw ospreys and chicks June 16 2020

Foulshaw Moss ospreys and chicks, 16 June 2020

A lot of us are working from home at the moment and having to make all sorts of adjustments to how we go about our jobs.  When one of those jobs is as a volunteer osprey warden, bringing your work home with you isn’t really practical.  I’m not sure the neighbours would approve.  Certainly not the people three doors down with the ornamental fish pond. 

At this time of year we would normally be busy at Foulshaw Moss, greeting visitors, showing them the nest, answering questions and generally telling people everything they ever wanted to know about ospreys.  And then some more.  The coronavirus situation has changed all that and we have had to adapt.

Luckily, we have our live osprey webcam to show us what is going on in the nest.  This allows us to see what the ospreys are up to and follow the chicks as they grow.  Now, over two weeks since they hatched as tiny balls of fluff, the youngsters are filling out at quite a rate.  They weigh six to seven times what they did when they popped out of their eggs and keep growing so fast that you can pretty much see the difference from one day to the next.

They are becoming quite mobile and starting to shuffle around the nest a bit before collapsing in a heap to snooze until the next food delivery.  They even seem to be copying mum.  If she feels the need to spruce herself up a bit, the chicks seem to notice and start having a little preen themselves.

They do need to tidy themselves up a bit.  After about twelve days they start to lose their first, white fluffy coat of down and grow a second downy layer, this time in a darker brown colour.  Now, with their stretching necks and stubby wings, they enter what some call the ‘reptilian’ phase.  They look a bit like the dinosaurs from which they are descended.  And they seem to have the appetite of a velociraptor as they jostle in front of mum for their share of the fish that dad has delivered.

For the first couple of weeks the chicks have spent a lot of time snuggled underneath mum, either keeping out of the sun, or being protected from the rain and the cold.  The adult female still acts as an osparasol or mumbrella when needed, but it’s not so easy for the growing chicks to fit under her now.  They often seem to be struggling to escape from beneath her, like a small child trying to wriggle out of an auntie’s overenthusiastic hug.  For mum to cover the growing chicks when it rains, she now has to prop herself up on her wings to create enough room for them.  This ospilates looks like hard work and she occasionally has to go for a good old wing stretch and check that she still remembers how to fly.

Some of the many people who watch the webcam get in touch to say how worried they are that the chicks have been left home alone, but mum is never far away.  She has a quick flap over to the perching tree, the one we call dad’s ‘shed’, as he hangs out there when not busy fishing.  From there she is just seconds from the nest and, with eyesight five times more acute than ours, she is keeping a very close watch on them.

Another place she goes when she seems to disappear is the one spot that the webcam doesn’t cover.  The webcam.  She will fly up and perch on the camera post, right above the nest where web viewers can’t see her.  When we are on the reserve we see this quite often, especially as the chicks get much bigger and more boisterous and she needs a bit of personal space.

For the chicks the next big milestone will be losing their down and starting to sprout their first proper feathers.  This usually happens when they are about three weeks old.  It will take a few weeks for the feathers to grow fully.  Once they have a full set, then the flapping begins.

It’s great to be able to watch the ospreys on the webcam, but we do miss seeing the visitors to the reserve and hearing all their stories.  We may not be able to do that at the moment, but we try to stay in touch with some of our osprey fans via our Twitter account @Foulshaw2.  There we can let you have the latest news, share pictures and talk about all things osprey.   I hope you’ll join us there and, some time in the not too distant future, we’ll see you back at the reserve.