If you’re fortunate enough to work for the RSPB, you get the opportunity every seven years to take a well-earned sabbatical of up to four weeks. You can go and work on another conservation project at home or sometimes abroad, usually with Birdlife International. Or you can design your own sabbatical but it must meet strict criteria. It’s a very worthwhile employment benefit which helps to refocus and refresh valued staff. RSPB Scotland Mull Officer Dave Sexton has just returned from his third sabbatical with the Society…but this time it took a dose of winter ‘man-flu’ to get him started…
From sea to shining sea
It came to me on my sick bed. There I was on a particularly dreich winter’s day in January, propped up in bed with a mug of steaming hot Lemsip Max All in One, aching from head to foot and feeling very sorry for myself. My sabbatical had been due since last August and I’d done nothing about it. There just never seemed to be enough time to organise things, never a good time to be away from Mull, we couldn’t afford it anyway, blah blah blah.
My feverish, drug-filled mind then started to wander in an aimless kind of way – thinking of nice sunny places around the world with lots of birds - one good way to start the sabbatical planning process I’ve often found. Slowly, as the medication got to work, a germ of an idea started to take hold. With my current work revolving around the reintroduction of white-tailed eagles in Scotland, what about seeking out a selection of other endangered species recovery projects to evaluate their success – or otherwise? I could revisit some of the other bird of prey projects I’ve been involved with over the years – like bald eagles, ospreys, peregrines and California condors? Ah yes, California. That’s it! How did that old Beach Boys song go again? “The west coast has the sunshine and the girls all get so tanned…” I don’t know what they put in Lemsip these days but I was suddenly feeling much better.
And so, a sick day in bed was put to very good use. By the end of the day, my outline plan was gathering pace. We’d go into Washington, DC, be based in Annapolis, Maryland on the east coast to work with the US Fish & Wildlife Service on their osprey monitoring programme in the Chesapeake Bay; then head down to Virginia to my old university at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg where they’re working on bald eagle population dynamics and peregrine falcon reintroductions; and then start the long journey west, first to Arizona to catch up on how the California condor reintroduction project is faring since my first sabbatical there with the Peregrine Fund in 1997. Finally to the Pacific coast and California where it all began (and very nearly ended) for the condors in the 1980s when the final few wild birds were all taken into captivity to begin a bold captive breeding programme. And that’s pretty much how my sabbatical panned out seven months later…
I initially spent time in a not-very-exotic location. I was with the US Geological Survey and Fish & Wildlife Service who were taking blood samples from fledgling ospreys amidst the industrial landscape of Baltimore Harbour and the Patapsco River. They’re using the well-recovered osprey population (which nest on cement works, sewage treatment works, pylons, cranes – you name it), to monitor the health of the bay. It was inspiring to see the ospreys apparently thriving in that environment when we still tend to associate them here with remote Scottish lochs, glens and Scots pines!
Dave Sexton holding a fledgling osprey during banding on the James River, Virginia.
Then it was on to the train south and into the sweltering 100 degree + heat and humidity of southern Virginia. Here I re-visited the long-running bald eagle recovery project on the James and York Rivers which are now almost at ‘ESP’ (Eagle Saturation Point). An incredible recovery (spear-headed by the team at the Center for Conservation Biology who I spent some time with) from a low of just 30 pairs in the 1970s to a staggering 730 pairs today. Now that’s what I call a successful species recovery project! I wonder how their close cousins, the white-tailed eagles, will now fare over a similar time frame in the UK?
The descendants of the peregrine falcons which I’d helped to reintroduce to the eastern shore of Virginia in 1981 were also thriving. Many are still nesting on man-made structures like ‘hack’ towers, bridges and buildings whilst others are now colonising natural, ancestral cliff sites in the Blue Ridge Mountains. So far so good. It was all mostly good news! Quite heartening really when we hear so much about the bad news and problems many of our big predators are facing at home and around the world. Not that it’s all plain sailing.
The condors in Arizona and California are doing well too but progress sometimes seems painfully slow and the project continues to be hampered by toxic lead in the environment. The condors scavenge on hunted deer and coyote carcasses and ingest lead fragments from the bullets. The Peregrine Fund and State Game and Wildlife agencies are working with hunters and ranchers to persuade them to switch from lead to copper bullets. It’s getting there – up to 70% compliance in both AZ and CA . For the field crews in both states, it’s tough and gruelling work when you have to re-trap all the released and wild bred condors at intervals to flush the lead out of their systems.
It was quite a moment for me to see an active condor nest cave. When I last worked on that project, it was only a year after the first captive-bred condor releases and successful breeding seemed a very long way off. This year’s chick stayed well hidden inside the deep cave but it was enough to know it was in there - somewhere. One local nest cave which is in use again after tens of thousands of years without condors revealed the bones of a prehistoric condor – this Canyon Country is timeless. And then to watch an adult condor soaring over the North Rim of the Grand Canyon – well, it simply takes your breath away. For once, the word ‘awesome’ summed it all up.
But it was the visit to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Montana that provided the biggest surprise of the sabbatical. My target species there has been the focus of one of the most famous and controversial reintroduction projects in the history of wildlife conservation. OK, they’re not birds of prey, not even birds. I knew it would be interesting to visit this project on the ground but had no idea it would end up being even more relevant to my work back home than the raptor-related projects I’d visited so far.
Wolves bring out the best - and worst - in human nature. Grey (or timber) wolves were, like white-tailed eagles, persecuted relentlessly across their range. They became extinct in most states. At one point even the Government had a policy of eradicating them from Yellowstone itself! How times change. In 1995 and 1996, wolves from Canada were caught, tranquilised, transported, acclimatised and eventually released into Yellowstone. The top predator was back and the whole eco-system started to come back into balance: elk numbers dropped, aspen recovered, beavers returned to the rivers, more ponds were created, more wildfowl arrived, more invertebrates…the circle of life.
With US NPS & Wolf Project ranger, Rick McIntyre, radio tracking wolves in Yellowstone.
Despite huge opposition there was also huge support; the project went ahead and has gone from strength to strength. There are now 12 wolf packs in Yellowstone. So much of the US wolf saga mirrors the UK white-tailed eagle story both in historical terms and even some of the ongoing arguments today.
But just as we’ve found on Mull, one of the big bonuses of these projects has been the increase in wildlife tourism. Wolf and eagle watchers are, by and large, very similar folks. They spend locally, they return over and over and they usually behave! Both eagles and wolves bring in millions of £ and $ to their local economies.
I spent time in Yellowstone with US NPS rangers, workers on the Wolf Project and countless volunteers who give up weeks, if not months, of their year spotting, observing, radio tracking and helping visitors find wolves. I was struck by just how willing and patient they all were in dealing with the thousands of visitors – Yellowstone had an eye-watering 900,000 visitors in July alone. I’m very glad we were some of them. Here’s a taste of one fine morning in Yellowstone…
As usual, we began the day just before dawn. The scent of sage and pine filled the chilly air. We joined US NPS and Wolf Project workers Rick McIntyre and Doug McLaughlin as they located the famous Lamar Canyon wolf pack – probably the most watched and studied wolves in the world.
As the early morning mists rose from the Lamar River, the alpha female of the Lamar Canyon wolf pack launched her attack on a powerful cow elk. Other pack members soon raced alongside and bit at the elk’s legs as she galloped at full speed towards the river. Her head held high in blind panic, eyes wide and staring, nostrils flaring, the elk kicked out with her front hooves. She struck the lead wolf - an inexperienced black yearling – painfully in the jaw. One after the other, the elk and wolves crashed down the river bank and into the fast flowing river.
The wolves swam as they were quickly out of their depth while the elk found the deepest part of the river and stood her ground – just. With the foaming, ice-cold melt waters threatening to knock her over at any moment, the wolves knew they’d been beaten – this time. They sat panting for a while on the river bank, watching her watching them, playing the waiting game. For a while, they looked like they had all the time in the world. But they didn’t. They had five hungry pups back at the den on Round Prairie and they knew they had to hunt again and deliver food today. Eventually, after a tense stand-off, the pack started to disperse, led as ever by the alpha male and female. Their grey and black forms melted into the shadows of the aspen grove, there were one or two brief howls and then they were gone.
All this happened about 300m away from where we stood. My two young daughters who only minutes earlier had been huddled disconsolate and shivering in the pre-dawn chill, were now wide awake and staring spellbound at the dramatic, wild scene that had been played out before them. It’s a sight none of us will ever forget.
As the wolves vanished, so too did many of the exhilarated wolf watchers. We thanked Rick and Doug for all their help and we headed off for a celebratory breakfast of coffee, pancakes, syrup, eggs (over-easy) and bacon at Roosevelt Lodge. Then it was back on the road again (historic Route 66) and on to the next phase of this amazing adventure. Finally to California and the stunning but foggy Big Sur coast with its giant redwoods – ancestral home to the last of the wild condors.
And so the sabbatical concluded. Where did those four weeks go? There are lifetime memories to treasure, old acquaintances renewed and new contacts made, many lessons learned for a re-energised and fresh look at work back home. But most of all, just a celebration of all the successful reintroduction projects which colleagues from other wildlife agencies and the RSPB have been part of over many years. Righting some of the wrongs of the past.
PS. Did I mention the blue whale on our grand finale whale watch out of Monterey? Don’t get me started…
Hope you all manage to get through without much damage from this terrible storm.Do hope Kellan well protected if he is still surviving,probably going to be another tough time for him.
Dave what an insprirational way to spend your long over due sabbitcal. Hw wonderful to see the wolves in Yellowstone and how thrilling for your children. As Jillian says I also watch bad eagle cams that are available and good to know that nature is addessing many of the problems there have been with engaged species.
Hi Dave, very interesting. I follow the bald eagles in virginia and was interested about the university you went to as it is near the Wildlife centre of virginia where I follow their blogs and chats daily. Bald eagles are beautiful. Several of the eagles and eagletts have been released along the James river from the wildlife centre so you were lucky to have the opportunity to see the wildlife there. Would be interested to hear which state you liked the most. Jillian
Hi Dave,what a trip and just worry how enthralled you are with Yellowstone you may leave your project on Mull for USA.What a loss that would be and think you are exactly like the rangers you describe looking after visitors.Feel it will take longer for Sea Eagle numbers in UK to increase like the Bald Eagle has in your example as there must be lots of persecution that never gets seen in the UK I would think.BOP persecution seems a massive problem in UK.My big wish is for you to still be pushing up Sea Eagle numbers on Mull when your next sabbatical is due.
So great that you managed to take the family and also found the time to give us this blog.
Thanks for the link Debby.
This article made really great reading. What a reward for all the hard work you have put in over the years for wildlife of all descriptions, to be able to see the wonderful results, sometimes decades on from when you were involved. We had hoped to see you while on holiday in September, but in your absence Debby acted as your "proxy" and kindly signed your book for us.
Sounds like an inspiring few weeks! Great to see plenty of examples of success.
I'm often in the DC - Baltimore area visiting family - I love seeing the Ospreys, and often wonder if anything would prevent them breeding in some of the south coast harbours and estuaries - the habitat looks somewhat similar to the Chesapeake bay to my eyes, and they seem to find plenty of food there on migration, especially at this time of year.