My visit coincides with the most exciting time of the year: hatching season. One chick has cracked its shell already and as I enter the visitor centre an excitable crowd is gathered around a live video feed hoping to catch sight of the next one entering the world. The footage from the nest is captivating, an avian Big Brother but with far better characters. The ospreys themselves are a commanding presence and I get an insight into why it is they so possess the human imagination. Each is an iconic thing to see, like wildness distilled. Large and powerful, its deep brown and white plumage resolves into a trademark swipe across the face, as though it’s wearing a Lone Ranger mask. Then there’s the piercing lemon eyes, the black curved beak and those razor sharp, needle-point talons that make the feat of plucking a trout out of the water at high speed look like the most natural thing in the world.
Today the nest cam is also a window into quite the domestic scene with female and male sharing the limelight. Watching the mother, named “KL”, feed her chick small shreds from a decapitated trout is a strangely tender scene. Her mate, unceremoniously titled “Unringed” because of his lack of a monitoring band, conducts poor attempts at tidying, injecting an unwitting touch of humour.
He’s doing a bad job of moving the sticks around – poking mother and chick – but his dangerous attempt at DIY doesn’t last long; KL quickly snaps him back into line. Cue much giggling from the gathered throng of twitchers.
In fact, the atmosphere around the monitor crackles like Christmas Eve. Visitor and volunteer alike are aware that they are witnessing a special time. This is conservation in action. And later when Nathan confides that he’s witnessed grown men cry at the sight of the bird it’s easy to believe him. From persecuted to protected, it’s truly heartening to see a project like this working so successfully, seizing the hearts and imaginations of a crowd that ranges from 7 to 70.
After a while, I strike out into Whinlatter to see the forest proper. Of the eight available, Nathan has recommended the “Seat How Summit Trail”, one that he advises is three hours at a leisurely pace, although he assures me I can do it in less. A quick cut through the excited children in the Go Ape area and I’m suddenly, blissfully alone in the woods. The trail runs up through glistening moss-lined wooded avenues that call to mind the elven forests of Lord Of The Rings. After half an hour, I push my way through to the top of an incline and stop to admire the windswept view over Whinlatter Pass, an old Roman road. Catching my breath, drinking in the cool air, the silence is broken suddenly by noises from further up the trail and I realise I must have wandered onto one of the mountain’s many bike tracks. Biking is the other big draw here and from my somewhat unauthorised preview of one of the courses, it looks like a sublime location. Darting out the way, I cut back through the trees and join the footpath, tracing my way up the edge of the forest towards Ullister Hill along a path perfumed by glistening spruce tips and sound-tracked by the high-pitched chatter of common crossbills - another big tick for birders. The top of the next hill is like the Caledonian Forest - covered with scrub layer of heather, ling and ripening bilberries. I take a seat and am afforded magnificent views east towards Cockermouth and the old industrial heartland of the Derwent Estuary. A pause for a restorative slice of sticky ginger cake, bought at the visitor centre café, and I’m back on my feet, content in the knowledge it’s mostly downhill from here.
Passing through a wider clearing, a remnant of the forest’s timber-felling past, there is an unmistakable sound – cuck-oo, cuck-oo, cuck-oo. Consistently ranked among the best-loved British birds, the cuckoo has been in sad decline since the 1980s with over 65% species loss. Worse still, no one knows exactly why, although it doesn’t take a climate scientist to make an educated guess. I can’t remember the last time I heard one, which makes today’s encounter even more poignant. For a full ten minutes I’m rooted to the spot, binoculars out, trying to catch a glimpse. I can’t see him yet his calls taunt me from the coniferous cover. I walk a hundred metres or so and there he is again, this time right on top of me. I clearly see the dark bars across his breast just before he takes flight and vanishes over the horizon. Silence returns to the clearing and I start to make my own way down, before a sign offers a quick detour to the Seat How summit.