Wild Wonders has become like an old comfortable shoe – you only miss it when it’s gone. And for me - at least in photographic terms - it’s just about gone. As the final ‘dream team’ images have piled in over the summer – and very impressive they are too – I embark on my final mission, to capture probably one of the continent’s most celebrated conservation successes: the osprey.
Ospreys are fish hunters so it seems sensible to go where there are lots of fish. And so to Kangasala in southern Finland. Not to a remote wilderness lake but a working fish farm!
Day 1: After a cold (and unplanned for) night in a very dark hide, I’m woken at 0600 by a loud splash outside – the first osprey of the day has plunged into the murky waters in search of its prey. If ever there was a design award for birds, these efficient predators would be right up there. Circling effortlessly above the pool, a drop of one shoulder sends them spiralling earthwards before plunging with talons outstretched to spear their underwater prey. But then, fully submerged from the neck down, they rotate the fish and somehow propel themselves and their catch back into the sky before heading off to a safe eating place. Definitely in the Unforgettable category of the Wild Wonders of Europe.
Precisely 45 osprey dives later, and in spite of the obvious potential, I still have no shots. Ospreys fish into the wind, which means that unless the wind is in a certain direction, the birds reveal nothing but their backsides! After 13 hours in the hide, I leave encouraged but with my CF cards empty.
Day 2: Mist. I love mist and dawn brought it in by the bucket load. By 0700 I have some pictures – by no means perfect but a start at least. The wind has changed and the first hour is productive. The action slows as the day wears on but then an unexpected bonus – a rarely seen (for me at least) raccoon dog. I get some pictures from the hide then chance my arm trying to stalk the badger-like creature – with a surprising level of success!
The ospreys are ‘work in progress’ but we’re up and running. And then a real surprise. As I sit with my colleagues in the fading light drinking tea, a brown hare lollops by, followed by what we initially think is a dog. No not a dog, a roe deer. It’s 75 metres away and the light is weak. It walks towards us and it’s somehow not quite a roe deer. It’s walking like…a lynx! A wild lynx walks right by us – only 25 metres distant. Remarkable. I text fellow WWE photographer Jari Peltomaki – a native Finn who spends a lot of time in wild places and he has never seen one. A spine tingling encounter that I shall carry with me forever.
Day 3: Far fewer dives today but at least the wind is in the right direction and I get some shots I’m pleased with. The raccoon dog turns up again and I get some more intimate portraits. Tonight looks like rain.
Day 4: Yes indeed rain and lots of it. The morning is positively dull with few dives and few images. The afternoon sees brighter conditions and a stiff breeze, which stirs the ospreys, but these fast-moving birds are not easy to capture.
Day 5: Despite around 60 hours in the hide, the time has passed quickly and all of a sudden it’s almost time to leave. At 0630 there are 6 ospreys circling above me and one by one they catch their breakfast and head off – again all flying away from the camera. I leave with a few ‘should haves’ and ‘could haves’ in my mind but overall, it’s mission accomplished. I see many ospreys back home in Scotland but being so close to so many for so long has reinforced their efficiency as fish hunters and their ranking as one of Europe’s most spectacular predators. They are a wild wetland wonder!
And that’s it. Over the last fourteen months I’ve met many new friends and visited many new places but above all, I’ve learnt that Europe is in fact full of Wild Wonders. Really. I’ve seen things with my own eyes that I never knew were here and through the artistry of my colleagues, I’ve seen incredible sights that just make me want to go and explore this continent more.
The osprey is a human story. It is the result of decisions made by people and a recognition that this bird is good to have around. If we can turn the fortunes of ospreys around, we can do the same with other species. But we all need to make some important choices in our daily lives. I showed some of my osprey pictures to my son. The first one came up on the screen and he muttered that word: ‘WOW’. Making Europeans go ‘WOW’ is what makes this project what it is.
Peter Cairns / Wild Wonders of Europe
Please note that blogs reflect our photographers' opinions and not necessarily those of the directors of Wild Wonders of Europe.