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Christmas Blog: 2017

Posted: Monday 25th December 2017 by Emyr MWT

"I'm so lucky to be alive right now"

Throughout 2017 I've repeatedly heard people say this phrase or something very similar to it. Whether it be on TV documentaries, radio, but particularly on DOP social media or in person. But why are people saying this and what do they mean?

Nain a Taid

I used to love visiting my grandmother's house as a child. She would tell me stories about the time she used be a morwyn (maid) at Glynllifon, the stately home of Lord Newborough and the hardships of my grandfather's working conditions and life in general. I never met Idris, my Taid, he was a chwarelwr (slate quarry man) and had died of Consumption many years before I was born.

To me they were just stories, albeit interesting ones. It's only when one grows older that you fully grasp the hardships that these people endured just to keep going, how tough it was just to stay alive.

Nain was born in 1901; a time before aeroplanes, radio, telephones and antibiotics. To get an urgent message to someone quickly you summoned a horseman, if you had the money or knew someone with an animal, and they would take the message to the recipient for you.

Einstein was yet to publish a little theory he was mulling over about how the universe worked and Charles Darwin was less than 20 years deceased. Yet, despite feeling so close to these times both on a physical and cultural level, the world we inhabit today seems utterly unrecognisable to the world our very near ancestors lived in.

If Einstein wanted to travel from London to New Zealand as a young man, the fastest journey time he could have achieved was three months on a ship. Today he could travel London to Auckland in less than a day (23hrs 30 mins with Singapore Airlines to be exact), almost 100 times quicker.

A380 top speed: 634 mph; 100 years before the Titanic's top speed in 1912 was 26 mph

To send a message, say a photograph of his baby boy born in 1903, and get a reply from a relative in New Zealand, it would have taken Einstein six months a little over a century ago. Today the photograph of a radiant looking Einstein with little Hans would get to New Zealand in 0.064 seconds via email, travelling at the speed of light (or very near to it), something that Einstein Senior knew quite a bit about.

That's 121 million times quicker than taking it there himself on a clipper. That's progress.

Albert and Hans Einstein


As Einstein was just starting his life, Darwin was approaching the end of his.

After a lifelong scientific quest to unravel the mysteries of life on earth, including long voyages of his own on the Royal Navy's brig, HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin died an old man in 1882, never really understanding the mechanism of inheritance. He, as everybody else did, understood that familial traits were passed on from one generation to the next; after all, his great work 'On the Origin of Species' in 1859 was predicated on the very basis of information transfer between generations, but he never knew how that transfer worked.

HMS Beagle being hailed by natives during the survey of Tierra del Fuego, South America, painted by the ship's artist


An American, a New Zealander and an Englishman walk into a pub

The potential start of an infinite number of 20th century jokes, but this one was not humorous in the least, it was deadly serious. Towards the end of Einstein's life, Francis Crick, the Brit of the three, abruptly interrupted the lunchtime of the patrons of the Eagle pub, Cambridge, in February 1953 with a rather profound statement. He and James Watson (the American), declared that they had "discovered the secret of life".

And indeed they had. Between the three of them, Maurice Wilkins being the New Zealander plus Rosalind Franklin who produced the first X-ray photographs of DNA, they had worked and deciphered the code of life of everything that's ever lived - they had unravelled, literally, the inner workings of the DNA molecule. Cue great celebrations, plaudits, Nobel Prizes and other honours (although Crick turned down his CBE in 1963).

A rather monumentous plaque on the wall of the Eagle pub, Cambridge

From Eagles to Ospreys

Back in around 2010 I started to feel a little uneasy about one particular aspect of Welsh osprey behaviour.

We've known for many years that northern European ospreys are highly 'philopatric', especially the males. That is, when they are old enough to breed, male ospreys tend to nest very close to their own natal nests where they hatched. Not every single bird obviously, but on average, on the whole.

There are numerous studies and books out there referencing research from many global osprey populations that highlight this positive philopatric tendency. It's difficult to put exact figures on it as they differ between regions, but let's be highly generic here and say that within a typical British osprey colony, the vast majority of males choose to breed within 50km (31 miles) of their natal nests. We call this 'natal dispersion'.

A satellite tracked male osprey, Blue UV, prospecting right above his natal nest at Kielder Forest as a three-year-old in May 2017



Rutland: Close Relations

Thanks to the amazing work of Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust, ospreys have been breeding at Rutland Water for almost 20 years now. Following a successful translocation project bringing young osprey chicks down from Scotland to Rutland in the 1990s, they now have a flourishing colony of around double the current Welsh population.

All those pioneering translocated birds that returned as adults to breed have now passed away but their legacy, their descendants, live on. Every single one of the eight males that currently breed in Rutland are Rutland-born birds; a classic example how strong this philopatric tendency is within ospreys.

To date, six Welsh offspring (four males, two females) have returned to the UK as adults and been recorded breeding; five Glaslyn birds and Dyfi's Clarach. Yet, none of these birds are nesting anywhere near their natal nests as they do in Rutland, the average natal dispersion being 330km (205 miles) away. Why?

I'll write another blog about this strange state of affairs in 2018, but for now, let's concentrate on the four Welsh nests we currently have and the birds that occupy them.

Here they are:

*ON1 was the original Welshpool nest in 2004, one chick fledged, no further breeding.


So we have eight birds here and not one of them is a Welsh bird. The six Welsh birds that we know of that have returned to breed are hundreds of miles away. What on earth is going on?


The Hypothesis

All Welsh and English osprey chicks are ringed when they are young, so we must try and provide an explanation as to why 88% of our breeding Welsh birds (seven out of eight) are unringed. They're clearly not Welsh or English birds. If we count Dai Dot too, that's five out of five, 100% of the males that are not ringed, yet males are known to be highly philopatric. This presents a rather annoying contradiction.

Around half of Scottish osprey chicks are ringed in the nest, so there's your answer right? They must all be Scottish birds. Problem solved.

But hang on a minute, let's apply some science to this. If 50% of all Scottish males are ringed, the chances of getting all unringed birds in Wales is 32/1, the same odds as flipping a coin and getting five heads (or tails) on the trot. But factor in the highly philopatric nature of Scottish males, then these odds are suddenly reaching astronomical proportions. How many ringed Scottish males have been recorded breeding in Wales or Rutland (the same latitude as Glaslyn and Dyfi) over the last 20 years? None.

Are they French/German/Scandinavian/add your own country/ birds? No, for the same reasons as above.

There is a rather large elephant in the room with us here, peering over our shoulders, smirking - can you see her?

The unringed male, Aran, returns to his Glaslyn nest with a garfish



My hypothesis is that most, probably all, of the five unringed males are Welsh. Some of the females are too.

Imagine for a moment another osprey nest, a hypothetical one, in mid Wales somewhere that is unrecorded, unmonitored. It's been there for a long time, maybe 20 years, maybe more. This nest has been 'conveyor-belting' ospreys out at a rate of two or three per year, all unringed of course. Now, suddenly, all those '???s' in the Natal Nest column in the above table start to make sense.

These unringed birds (especially the males) would have, once adults, returned to mid/north Wales to breed as adults. Voila.

Say, hypothetically again, this ON0 nest has been there for 18 years knocking out an average of two birds each year, that's 36 fledglings. Take away two year's worth as they're too young to have returned, that leaves 32 birds. Around 30% of ospreys survive and make it back to the UK as adults, so that leaves nine or 10 returning birds. If the hypothesis is correct, we must account for these 10 ospreys.

Today we call these birds Monty, Dai Dot, Aran, Dylan, Delyth and, wait for it... Mrs. G. Why not? the time-scale fits.

Could even the Glaslyn female have come from ON0?

We have other unringed birds around too, maybe they're from ON0 also? Rutland have unringed females on their nests - are these from ON0? Rutland females breed in Wales, wouldn't it make perfect sense for Welsh females to make the same reciprocal natal journey east?

It's all very well coming up with a hypothesis or two, but is it true? More importantly, can it be tested scientifically?

Well actually, yes.


Genetic Research

This is where Watson and Crick et al come back to our story.

You'll know that we have been keen on setting up a Welsh osprey DNA study of late. Well, this is exactly the reason why. If I'm right and most/all these birds come from the same Welsh nest, they'll be related to each other (or at least some will).

If ON0 exists, it is unlikely that the same parent birds have been present throughout, but certainly not impossible. So, some of the birds may be half brothers/sisters and some may not be related at all. In a nutshell, the closer the breeding years the more likely that the offspring from these years will be related.

Monty and Dai Dot, for example, were probably born in the mid 2000s, so they could well be full or half brothers. The same for Aran and Dylan, they were possibly born c2012. Some birds may have come from the very same clutch (year) of course, so they would almost certainly be full siblings.

Dark eyes, dark chest plumage, similar underwing patterns, similar DOB - are these birds brothers?

So, all we had to do was catch all these adults and extract some of their DNA from them. But why bother? 100% of their DNA is in their offspring and we pay these guys a visit each summer anyway to ring them; just take saliva swabs while we're at it. Two birds, one stone.

Dr. Helen, Ilze and the guys at the genetics department at Aberystwyth University have been working on various Welsh osprey samples for the last couple of years. Here are the blogs: Part I, Part II and Part III. There will be more in the new year.

So what we need, on a very basic level, is a measure of the degree of relatedness between all the samples. The scientists are working on this and when I spoke with Dr. Helen and Ilze at our Christmas party in the 360 Observatory last week, they're pretty positive that we will, ultimately, achieve this. It's not as simple as human DNA, more work needs to be done and we need more samples, preferably, in coming years, but it's do-able.

Scientific study, particularly with something as pioneering as this, invariably takes time. Patience will be our master for the next year or two, but we'll get there.



Eitha is a girl!!

While collecting DNA samples for the relatedness research, we also took the opportunity to test each bird to see whether they were male for female.

Two more samples have now been retested that originally failed to present a decisive result. As predicted at ringing, Eitha is a girl and Glaslyn's Blue W0 (2015) is a boy.

Eitha's retested DNA sample confirmed she is a female

So, the ringers at each Welsh nest have correctly sexed 21 out of 22 birds of those sampled. Believe me, this is a remarkable achievement. To an untrained eye (like mine) these birds look practically identical once you see them close up at the bottom of the nest. The ringers assess gender not just by the size and weight of the bird (lots of overlaps here), but also how they 'feel' in their hands. Decades worth of experience of ringing thousands of birds play a big part in getting this many right.

Actually, I would go one step further and say that between them, the Welsh ringers have got them all correct.

Tony Cross has ringed all our Dyfi birds and only once (out of 16 birds ringed over seven years) has he said, " I really don't know, it could be either". This was Blue W1, the oldest of the three 2015 chicks.

We decided to call this bird Merin at the time, flipped a coin, and went 'female'. If DNA could ascertain Merin's true gender in years to come (as it did in 2017, Blue W1 is male), then the name 'Merin' could be used for either sex. Celyn, on the other hand, is a girl's name and conversely Brenig a boy's name. We also put a large question mark next to Merin's name, the only time we have done this.

Here's part of the ringing blog from 2015:


So 10 out of 10 to the ringers, or more accurately, 21 out of 21. I'm giving them a 100% success rate. It is Christmas, after all.


"So Lucky to be Alive"

Indeed we are. If I had a pound (£) for each time I've read "we're so privileged/blessed/lucky to..." on our social media pages in 2017 whilst referring to reading, learning and watching the Dyfi ospreys, and other nests, I'd buy shares in a crisps factory.

Even 10 years ago we couldn't have done this DNA research, the technology has progressed so much in that time (and got a lot cheaper). And talking of 10 years ago, 2007 saw Apple's Steve Jobs announce the world's first smart phone. Nowadays we take pictures, book flights, watch films, do our banking, monitor our heart rates, tell the time and even watch live ospreys - all on a telephone. It beggars belief.

If you could bring four people, non-relations, back and sit them round your Christmas dinner table, who would they be?

Imagine tuckin' in to your sprouts, Archimedes and Newton on your right, Darwin and Einstein on the left next to the tree. Imagine explaining to them some of the advances humanity has brought to bear over the last few years. Imagine their astonishment, their gasps, their wonder, their awe. The truth is of course, if it wasn't for these guys, and many others, we couldn't have reached this far.

Imagine, finally, a person born let's say in 1928. It is conceivable, indeed almost inevitable if they lived to be a centenarian, that this person will have lived through the discovery of penicillin, the invention of the jet engine and the discovery of the basic apparatus of life: DNA. They will have witnessed space flight, humans on the moon, a successful heart transplant, a telescope in space, the advent of television, the internet, emails, digital photography, smart phones and, before they die, see humans walk on Mars, 35 million miles away at its closest point.

We've worked out answers to some of the most profound questions that our ancestors grappled with; the age of our planet and the universe, how matter is made up, what the earth's life forms looked like going back millions of years, how continents move, the relationship between space and time and what causes diseases. We've arguably advanced more in one person's lifetime than we have in the last 10,000 years.

These breakthroughs have ultimately helped us gain a greater understanding of the world around us, including our beloved ospreys. Imagine what the next 10 years will bring. Imagine what the next 100 years will bring. Yes, we are some of the most fortuitous beings of all time to be around right now.

Photo of the earth taken whilst orbiting the Moon, Christmas Eve 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders ©NASA

And Finally

Music is very important to many of us, especially at Christmas, and I will soon be retiring to the music room to listen to some Tchaikovsky as per festive routine. I said that I wouldn't mention violins in this year's Christmas blog, and indeed I won't.

So I'll mention the piano instead. Did you know Darwin dabbled on the piano? I'm not sure how good he was, probably not very, as he preferred to listen to his wife, Emma, play.

Here's a short video of Darwin's actual piano at his house with Richard Dawkins using it to illustrate many of the points I've made above:


Einstein was a much better musician than Darwin and also played the piano. The instrument he loved and excelled at, however, was the violin (sorry, couldn't help myself!).

Einstein once said that while Beethoven created his music, Mozart's "was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master." Einstein loved playing Mozart violin sonatas; talk about genius squared.

From all of us at Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust, have a great Christmas and we wish you all a healthy and joyous new year.

Nadolig llawen i chi gyd.






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