In March the satellite-tag fitted to the young sea eagle known as Blue X suddenly stopped transmitting in the Glen Quaich area of Highland Perthshire, an area dominated by land managed for driven grouse shooting. Her disappearance is described by RSPB Scotland as ‘highly suspicious’. It is important to understand what we mean by this, as we’re often accused of ‘trial by media’ without corroborating evidence in cases like this one.
Image; Blue X shortly after fledging. Image credit Dennis Gentles
There is a very small chance, less than 2%, that the tag had a mechanical failure – these tags are widely used in studies of birds of prey throughout the world, and they have a proven reliability. Had the bird naturally, or had the tag become detached and fallen to the ground, we would expect it to continue to transmit, at least for a few days, even if the solar panel through which the tag’s battery remains charged had become obscured.
We don’t know the exact location where the tag failed, basically because we can't say for certain how far after the last known location fix Blue X travelled. That is why we don’t publish the data showing the last location or lay the blame with any individual estate as we cannot know for sure. However, studying her patterns of behaviour in the days and hours leading up to the tag failure strongly suggests that she was fairly settled in Glen Quaich.
Sadly, there is a very high likelihood, that Blue X was deliberately killed somewhere close to the location of her last transmission and the tag destroyed to hide the evidence. That this happened in the same area that three satellite-tagged golden eagles have also disappeared and a raven and red kite were poisoned in recent years, adds to a picture of local intolerance towards protected birds of prey and undoubtedly makes this latest case highly suspicious, if not conclusive.
The loss of Blue X is particularly hard to bear. She was a unique individual; already weighing 6kg at eight weeks old when the tag was fitted she was likely one of the biggest eagles ever to grace the skies of Scotland. She had a unique upbringing, when her father, Turquoise 1, also fledged another chick, Blue X’s half sister Blue V, from a different nest 28 miles away in Angus.
Image; Blue X (centre) with her parents near the nest in Fife. Image credit Richard Tough.
At the Fife nest she was watched over by a dedicated team of volunteers who put in a commendable 815 hours during the 2017 breeding season. Staff from RSPB Scotland and Forest Enterprise Scotland have put in a great deal of effort to make this a success. Whilst Blue X was still an embryo in an egg, a photographer attempting to get closer shots of the mother, Turquoise 1, flushed her from the nest leaving the eggs exposed to the elements. The timely intervention of two of the nest watch volunteers allowed Turquoise 1 to return to incubating the eggs and undoubtedly saved the life of Blue X before she’d even hatched.
Image:; Satellite-tag data from Blue X during her visit to Mull
Blue X was one of four young sea eagles to flee to the west coast of Scotland at the end of February when the ‘beast from the east’ weather front drove high winds and heavy snow into the eastern highlands. She visited Mull before finally returning east to Perthshire in mid-March where she would live for only a few more days. Her half sister blue V has recently made the same trip out to Mull and is still on the west coast. We can only hope that if she returns she finds a safer route back to East Scotland.
Sea eagles are very resilient birds. They can withstand freezing temperatures, snow storms, day after day of heavy rain and gale force winds, making use of their large size and insulating feathers to survive the cold. Here in East Scotland our satellite-tagged young sea eagles have spent much of the winter in the harshest environment Scotland has to offer; the Cairngorms. So when the ‘beast from the east’ hit the east coast at the end of February, I naturally assumed they would just tough it out as usual.
East Scotland sea eagles usual winter home.
Most of the young sea eagles it seems had other ideas. Sensing perhaps that this particular weather front was more beastly than usual, 5 of them fled west. They reached Skye, Fort William and Mull before stopping to rest. Here, in the core of the much larger west coast population, they must have met many other sea eagles for the first time. Most of these young birds had never flown out over the sea before, but this didn’t put them off. Three ended up visiting Mull and one very confident young male crossed the 7 mile stretch of sea from Skye to the isle Eigg, then on to Muck before returning the the mainland at Ardnamurchan.
Satellite tracks from 4 of the young sea eagles as they made their way west.
With so many other sea eagles on the west coast to meet and investigate I was concerned they would simply stay there. For the birds it is a great adventure but it would be a set back to our hopes of a strong population in East Scotland. I needn’t have worried however, three weeks later they have all returned. They join the two that did decide to tough out the weather and I’m pleased to report they’re both thriving. The beast from the east met its match in two of our young sea eagles at least.
Once again Tentsmuir Forest and NNR will play host this year to over 500 children keen to learn about the reintroduction of white-tailed eagles to East Scotland.
Following the success of last year's outdoor learning sessions based at the reserve, pupils from primary schools throughout Perth & Kinross and Fife will have the opportunity to participate in hands-on activities that bring the breeding cycle of the sea eagle to life; from giant nest building, to experiencing the pressure of hunting for prey.
'Year of the white-tailed eagle'. Photo Credit: S.Rasmussen
Thanks to funding from RSPB Scotland and Forest Enterprise Scotland free transport to the reserve will enable schools to participate in a choice of two learning experiences; 'The Year of the White tailed Eagle' and new for this year, the 'Habitat of the White Tailed Eagle'.
'Beaky' and her newly built nest. Photo Credit: S.Rasmussen
Pupils will have the opportunity to explore the wider landscape of woodland, dunes and coast. They won't only learn why it is an attractive hunting ground for the white-tailed eagle, but discover what other species inhabit this special place.
The outdoor classroom. Photo Credit: S.Rasmussen
Tentsmuir is one of the most dynamic coastlines in Scotland, from the sands of Abertay and the Great Slack at Tentsmuir Point in the North, to the shifting dune systems of Kinshaldy and the wader rich Eden Estuary in the south.
The quantity of water exiting the River Tay into the Forth is more than any other river system in the UK, with 2000 bathloads of freshwater flowing into the North Sea every second. This constant shifting sediment creates the perfect conditions for a rich and biodiverse habitat.
Tay Estuary, The Great Slack, Abertay Sands and Tentsmuir Forest. Photo Credit: Ken Whitcombe/SNH/Kenbarry Photography
The coastline is renowned for an incredible number of species such as grey and harbour (common) seals, common scoter, pink-footed geese, bar-tailed godwit, long-tailed duck, sanderling and red-breasted merganser.
Sanderling. Photo Credit: R.Tough
The diversity of this wildlife has contributed to the area receiving several national and internationally recognised designations, including 'Site of Special Scientific Interest' and 'Special Protection Area'.
Grey Seals. Photo Credit: R.ToughThe mixture of dune slacks, heathland and acid grasslands play host to butterflies such as common blue and grayling and day-flying burnet moths and a stunning variety of plants, including northern marsh orchids, the grass-of-Parnassus, bird's foot trefoil and an array of mosses and lichen.
Common Blue. Photo Credit: R.Tough
The tranquil pools of Morton Lochs are home to an incredible variety of dragonflies, damselflies, amphibians, water rail and the local flashy kingfisher.
Common Darter. Photo Credit: S.Rasmussen
Kingfisher, Morton Lochs. Photo Credit: R.Tough
Whilst the native broadleaf and Scots Pines are frequented by green woodpecker, crossbill, siskin, roe deer, bats and of course the much loved red squirrel.
Red Squirrel. Photo Credit: Ben Andrew RSPB Images.com
Ospreys are becoming a more common sighting in the area and of course the coastline of Tentsmuir, the dune heath and the inter-tidal zone of the Eden Estuary have been a successful hunting ground for the sea eagle pair known as 'Z' and '1' for several years. The reserve and extended coastline provides the perfect balance of prey, from flat fish and rabbit, to sea birds such as eider and any dead carrion that may get washed up.
White-tailed eagle pair 'Z' & '1'. Photo Credit: R.ToughIt will be interesting to see what species, sightings, tracks and trails our intrepid school pupils discover on their journeys. We will report back later in the year with their findings and tales of exploration.Tentsmuir Forest and National Nature Reserve are managed by Scottish Natural Heritage and the Forestry Commission Scotland. You can find out more about the reserve and their work here;http://scotland.forestry.gov.uk/visit/tentsmuir