The last 6 months have been an eventful time for both the animal kingdom and the East Scotland Sea Eagle Schools' project, what with bitterly cold northerly winds for weeks on the end, the infamous 'Beast from the East' and more recently the hottest, driest June on record for some time.
'Spring trying it's best despite the harsh winter conditions' Photo Credit: S.RasmussenJust as the wildlife had to adjust to the ever changing environment and weather patterns, so too did the 561 children who visited Tentsmuir NNR to learn about the life cycle and behaviour of Europe's largest bird of prey; the white-tailed eagle.
'Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve; a popular hunting ground for sea eagles' Photo Credit: S.Rasmussen
Fortunately the weather only effected a couple of trips, which were rescheduled later in the year, and the intrepid explorers wrapped up (or slopped on the suncream) to explore what makes Tentsmuir NNR a special place for wildlife.
'Kinglassie Primary School exploring the dunes' Photo Credit: S.RasmussenPrimary pupils from Perth and Kinross, and Fife learned about the behavior and physiology of the local sea eagles by getting involved in a variety of activities, such as working as a team to build a life size nest, feeling what it was like to be a hunted rabbit in a game of predator and prey, and measuring themselves against a replica life size white-tailed eagle.
'Nestmates -McLean Primary School' Photo Credit: S.RasmussenPupils also spent time tuning in their superior eagle sense of sight to explore the woodland habitat in more detail. Children were challenged to find natural objects that represented pairs of words such as spiky and smooth, fragrant and smelly, or dead and alive.
'Nature's Opposites' Photo Credit: S.Rasmussen
They quickly discovered that the heathland was a great place to discover cinnabar moths, snails and flowering gorse.
'Cinnabar Moth' Photo Credit: S.RasmussenFurther challenges included creating a natural paint palette, making bark rubbings to represent the scaly talons of the sea eagle and using microscopes to zoom in their eye sight up to 10x like an eagle, to see wee critters on the forest floor.
'Nature's Palette' Photo Credit: S.Rasmussen
The exploration didn't end there. A feeding station installed by the Forestry Commission (responsible for the management of the forest) made a great focal point for exploring one of Tentsmuir's most famous inhabitants; the red squirrel. There were plenty of feeding signs and it was encouraging that pupils were already aware of the threats posed by non-native grey squirrels to our native red population.
'Red Squirrel Feeding Signs' Photo Credit: S.Rasmussen
There were discussions about squirrel pox, habitat competition, the positive relationship between an increasing pine marten and red squirrel population, and even the reasons behind trapping and dispatching greys.
'Topping up the feeders' Photo Credit S.Wright (Wormit Primary)
Groups then explored what it was like to live as a squirrel by taking part in a 'mirror walk', switching their view of the ground for one of the tree canopy as they walked through the forest.
'Getting ready for the red squirrel mirror walk' Photo Credit: S.Wright (Wormit Primary)The afternoons' explorations continued by getting into the mind of an incubating sea eagle. Pupils were challenged to sit quietly and tune in their senses of sight and sound to record all that could be heard or seen during a 15 minute solo sit spot. Pupils picked a place away from everybody else and allowed the noises of the class to settle, until all that could be heard were the sounds of skylark from the dunes, the cheeky chaffinches seeking out crumbs left from pack lunches and even the sound of the sea in the distance. Needless to say it was usually the favourite part of each visiting teacher's day.'Sit Spot' Photo Credit: S.Rasmussen
Finally pupils were given the chance to create their own National Nature Reserve. Each group was given a rope to pick an area that they found interesting, and then were challenged to create a variety of habitats that would be good homes for nature (and for people). We had everything from aerial walkways for squirrels and birds, a snail sanctuary and even a dragon's cave complete with a Viking saga to go with it!
'Mini Nature Reserve' Phot Credit: S.Rasmussen
It has been another fantastic season, packed full of learning, discoveries and curious questions. It has been great to hear about some of the schools taking their new role as sea eagle ambassadors further, by writing to the current minister for the environment Roseanna Cunningham, to ask for further protection of our magnificent white-tailed eagles.
'Abernethy Primary, one of 20 schools to visit Tentsmuir NNR' Photo Credit: L.Hepburn (Abernethy Primary School)
A huge thanks must go to the fantastic team of volunteers who have given their time and endless enthusiasm to the project and helped inspire the next generation of wildlife guardians. Further thanks must also go to Forest Enterprise Scotland who very kindly co-funded the project to allow schools to access free transport, and the Forestry Commission and Scottish Natural Heritage for once again hosting us in what must be one of the best nature reserves in the country.
'Tentsmuir NNR' Photo Credit: S.RasmussenPerhaps you will be inspired to explore Tentsmuir forest this summer too - who knows what wildlife surprises are in store? You can find out more here; https://scotland.forestry.gov.uk/visit/tentsmuir
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.