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DOP 2009 - 2019: A Dyfi Decade (Part I)

Posted: Sunday 3rd February 2019 by Emyr MWT

Let's quickly look back at the last 10 years, and forward to the next...

In a few weeks' time we will open DOP for another year. Those feelings of excitement, apprehension, elation and child-like adventure are still as palpable today as they were ten years ago - despite being a decade older and, so they say, supposedly wiser.

DOP 2009 was, however, as different to DOP 2019 as you could possibly imagine.

We had one second-hand portacabin that was donated to us, a pair of cheap Chinese-made nest cameras, two TVs, six volunteers and me. We had no nest microphones, toilets, water, cafe, 360 Observatory, information panels or money. Oh, we didn't have any ospreys either.

We had borrowed £40,000 to develop an osprey project for one year and frankly, people were laughing at us. I won't mention any names.

10 years ago - February 2009. Three vans and a lot of ideas.

 


Changes

That first 2009 year was, implausibly, very successful.

By the end of the season we had tripled the number of volunteers, started a truly community-based project and, critically, secured European (promise I won't mention the B word) grant funding to develop and run the osprey project for another three years. I remember, vividly, explaining to those very important funding decision-makers that it was only a matter of time before ospreys would breed on the reserve - despite not having any. In fact, Wales had just one pair - and they were the first to breed in Wales for centuries, 30 miles away.

 

The Glaslyn osprey pair 
 

 

Despite all the odds, we got the money and made good use of it. We hired Janine and Alwyn - who are still with us - and in 2012 put the first High Definition cameras on an osprey nest - a world first as far as I know. Four of them. We had microphones too - we could hear sounds from the nest for the first time.

By 2014 we had built the amazing, award-winning 360 Observatory, hired a full-time Education Officer (Kim is still with us too) and we found a second porta-cabin for the ever-growing volunteer population. We had recruited a second seasonal People Engagement Officer, built a cafe, toilets and a website with Live Streaming.

In 2016 we installed 4K cameras on the nest for the first time and were, by that time, completely financially sustainable. In other words, we were able to fund (just) ourselves without any grant funding. This remains the same today.

Stunning high-frame rate 4K cameras allowed us to tell the osprey's story in astonishing detail

 

Ten years on from those rudimentary beginnings, we have a burgeoning social media following over many platforms. I chose my words very carefully here - this very fact has been responsible for DOP still being here today.

Without our Facebook page, Friends of DOP, Twitter, Youtube and latterly Instagram, we wouldn't make anywhere near enough income to maintain DOP. The people reading this blog fund DOP today.

With five DOP staff and over 100 volunteers by 2019, I like to think that a decade on we have a healthy, progressive, engaging, friendly, educational and immersive osprey project.

Kim: Education at DOP

 

Ospreys

We have ospreys too.

Well we kind of did in 2009 as well, but we were a far cry from having any breeding birds. We had Monty, all on his own, and we sometimes went for weeks without seeing him. The camera quality was so poor, and the distance from the original tower hide so great, there was even a debate about whether Monty was male or female.

The fact that Monty is a very 'dark' bird didn't help. The lack of any other ospreys in the area didn't help either - how is one to figure out what gender a bird is if there are no other birds of his kind to interact with? Behaviourally, for those limited moments we could see him, it was practically impossible to tell.

Monty - male or female?

 

I will say this though - I called "male" when I first saw him. In fact, Alwyn and Janine did too, hence why we called 'him' Monty.

The problem was the following year. In 2010 Monty came back and paired up with another bird - a male. They were food sharing, perching together, cohabiting the nest; they were even seen trying to mate - with the new bird on top!

Monty & Scraggly - the Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau of the osprey world

 

The great Roy Dennis came down and said we have a beautiful female - pointing at Monty on the screen. To be fair to Roy though, it was only a fleeting glimpse that he had, but boy, those first two years were confusing.

Of course, we now know that what we were observing were two inexperienced males, finding their way in life. In a normalised osprey population, this kind of behavioural interaction would probably be extremely rare; there would be a network of other nests in the area with birds constantly moving around them on a regular basis. With just one pair of ospreys within 100 miles, however, this is the behaviour we saw and I feel truly blessed to have seen it.

 

Rich Science

A year later in 2011 Monty did breed for the first time - with a female.

Nora was a Rutland-born bird, as were the next two females to breed with Monty: Glesni and Telyn.

 

Between Monty and the three Rutland-born females, we've had 21 chicks in all, 18 of which have survived to start their migration and of these, at least four have returned as adults. One has bred - Clarach in Aberfoyle - and another bird has had a failed breeding attempt - Merin in Denmark.

Both Gwynant and Tegid have been spotted back in Wales. Will either of these boys be the first ever known Welsh ospreys to return to their native country to breed in 2019? We'll know quite soon - I have high hopes.

Gwynant returned to Wales in 2018

 

Here's the thing: apart from the obvious headlines above, over the eight consecutive years that Monty has been breeding with us at Cors Dyfi Reserve, we have been meticulously recording all kinds of ecological data. Behavioural data of this kind is usually sampled - a behavioural ecologist may come in for a month or so and record one or two key behavioural traits, usually for a few hours a day, five days out of seven.

This is called sampling. That data is then 'extrapolated' to cover a whole season, or longer, and considered scientifically significant - which it is. If you think about it, how else could you gather that data?

Sampling like this happens all the time - in the medical world for example or in population research. Political pollsters don't always get it right - they sample a tiny fraction, usually a thousand or two people, and then stretch those results out to cover the whole population constituting several millions. They are usually in the right ball park however - never out by more than a percentage or three.

If you travelled the whole of the UK this year and visited various hospitals to count how many new-born babies had blue eyes and ended up with 200 blue-eyed infants out of 1,000 babies counted, would it not be valid to say that 20% of the whole UK population born in 2019 have blue eyes? Probably.

But a sample is just that - a sample.

For eight years now we have been watching these ospreys like a hawk. A fish hawk. We have continuous mega-data - not samples.

This is what raw data looks like:

 

We know the exact times of arrivals, matings, eggs, hatchings, fledgings and migrations. We have recorded every single fish to have been caught by the ospreys over eight years and every single species. This is not sampled data gathering - this is holistic, uninterrupted behavioural observations 24/7 for 160 days per season for eight years straight. We even have, for two seasons, the exact times Monty took turns incubating eggs; not sampled data - actual continuous data for 40 days and nights.

We must not forget the ringing and genetic data. We know with 100% certainty the sex and weight of each offspring at c5 weeks old as well as how old they were, to the nearest minute, when they took their first flight.

I can't tell you how 'rich' this information is in the context of understanding osprey ecology and behaviour, particularly as all of them have one thing in common: the same male bird throughout, Monty. Over the next couple of years we will be putting this data through various scientific analyses and trying to figure out if there is anything interesting and significant, scientifically speaking.

Are flounders mostly caught at high tides only? Are Dyfi River fish populations changing over time? Were incubation times significantly different between the three females? Do male chicks fledge earlier than females? Are the birds hatched out of Egg No 1 afforded a better survival chance than those hatching out of subsequent eggs in the same clutch?

Dyfi male osprey chicks fledge 1.2 days younger than their sisters. Is this significant scientifically or just random?

 

There are a hundred other questions we would love to have the answers to, and soon, I hope, we will. Behavioural information of this richness is practically unprecedented, unheard of. There's a lot more coming on this soon with the arrival of a new staff member - watch this space...


A Decade of Success - and Tears

It would be wrong of me to just sit here telling you just about all the good stuff that's happened over the last 10 years, the rose-coloured highlights. Things have gone wrong too.

We lost two chicks in the nest in 2012 due to a horrible summer storm, Ceulan in fishing nets in December that year, we lost Ceri in 2016 just a couple of days after fledging and we've lost two breeding females along the way - Nora and Glesni. We've had the painful Blue 24 saga too. There have been tears of pain as well as joy.

Blue 24 finally became a mother in 2018 at eight years old

 

We've been fighting to keep DOP alive too, it's a perennial battle. We're a small wildlife charity with no big umbrella organisation to prop us up if something goes wrong; one mistake could be the end of us. We've had break-ins, planning rejections, perches and cameras collapsing mid season, camera malfunctions days out of guarantee, internet nightmares, live streaming problems, microphone issues and many other things I'd rather forget about.

The last 10 years has, though, been good to us on the whole. However, as a community osprey project in 2019 we have developed and progressed as much as it's realistically possible to over the last decade. We've hit a developmental and operational bottleneck and we're stuck in it.

There's good news though. Really good news.

Watch out for Part II of this blog next weekend. I'll set out the framework of how we intend to make the next decade of DOP as successful as the first and future-proof us for a long time after that.

The future is bright and is almost upon us. I hope you'll be joining us for the journey.

Read Emyr MWT's latest blog entries.