'Daddy, did the baby eagles see much of the world?'
It was the kind of question only a five year old could possibly ask and it stopped me in my tracks as I kissed Olivia goodnight and headed out of her bedroom.
I turned back to look at her. 'No, sweetheart. They were too little. I don't think they did see very much of the world... but I'm sure what they did see was very beautiful...' And with that, she turned over and snuggled down under the duvet.
Earlier that day, I had been up at the sea eagle hide at Loch Frisa. The Mull Eagle Watch volunteers who had been on duty continuously for the last five weeks or more were anxiously watching for signs from the adult sea eagle pair that there may have been a hatch. It was time. The 38 days of incubation had been studiously ticked off, day by day, and finally we were there.
This year, 15 year old female Frisa and 13 year old male Skye had chosen their new nest site well, but hadn't given much thought for their human observers. They were tucked safely away from disturbance, high up in the spruce forests around Loch Frisa.
Come rain or shine, local people, police and visitors had strained their eyes to the sky to catch a glimpse of an incoming or outgoing bird. Excited by the sighting; reassured that all was well and incubation was proceeding smoothly. The payback for all their time and commitment - seeing the birds come in with food to make that first feed to recently hatched chicks, might now be only hours away.
We watched and chatted; checked the hide was ready for the morning's group of visitors due at any time; set up the telescopes and scanned the distant wood.
As we watched, first Skye then a few seconds later, Frisa flew purposefully out from the direction of the nest and flapped slow and hard down the loch, over Ledmore and on and on into the distance. I knew immediately that some thing wasn't right. But we kept watching; hoping beyond hope that one of them would soar round in a big arc and return to the nest. But they just kept going.
Finally they slowed and began to circle; higher and higher against the backdrop of Beinn Talaidh. They went so high that at times they disappeared into the clouds. Occasionally they would soar close to each other and half turn to present talons.
Clearly something had gone seriously wrong at their nest. This was classic behaviour from them indicating that their breeding attempt had been disrupted. I had seen it before with other pairs. I had read about it in books. But how could it be happening now to this mature and experienced pair? It was time to find out.
With a heavy heart, we drove to the foot of the burn which would take us to the nest tree and began our ascent. By now it was drizzling and still no bird had returned. It could only mean one thing. Neither Skye or Frisa would allow eggs or newly hatched chicks to remain uncovered in these conditions. Even though our walkie-talkie contact back at the hide told us that now, finally, the birds had returned and were circling the wood, I already knew what we would probably find... but nothing quite prepared me for the reality.
I imagined in my mind, one or two broken eggs under the nest. Sure enough, from a higher vantage point we could see the nest was empty. Game over. Now to investigate the base of the nest tree. Slithering down the bank through the moss and broken branches of the thick forest, down to the exposed roots of the tree, there were the egg shells.
Then my eye caught sight of something else. Something white; a strange shape; was it bits of prey that had fallen off the nest too? And there was another one a few feet away. All at once, as the haunting, echoing calls of Skye and Frisa cried out from above us, the truth, the identity of the downy white lifeless items at my feet hit me with a mixture of disbelief and panic.
Please no, not both eaglets. They can't both have fallen out. They can't both be dead. But they were, though only just. I picked up the two cold chicks, desperately hoping there might be a faint sign of life there somewhere. Perhaps we could warm them up? Perhaps they might revive. Could we get them to an incubator? Helpless thoughts just flashed through my mind.
For a brief mad moment, I actually thought they did feel a bit warmer but it was just the heat from my hands. There was no denying it now.
It really was all over this year for Frisa and Skye and their two recently hatched chicks. The first time this magnificent pair of birds had failed since 1999. A truly remarkable achievement and something we all knew would happen, one day, but so hard to have it happen now.
We went back to the hide. The sad group of visitors who had arrived that morning, so full of optimism, hoping for the experience of a lifetime gathered round and we looked down at the two downy chicks.
Fascinating and upsetting all at once to see them so close. Tiny hooked beaks, tiny soft talons, stubby wee wings; incredible that they could, they should, have grown into fully grown eagles in just 12 weeks. But it was not to be. Not this year. As Skye and Frisa continued to circle over the wood, the group started to disperse. We had to take stock and plan ahead.
At one point both birds lost patience with a mobbing buzzard and gave vent to their frustration, turning on it, persuing it, when normally they would have barely bothered to register the irritant at their tail. This was not the day to mob this pair.
At home, we took one more look at the peaceful eaglets. I explained to the girls what had happened. They were sad but then resumed their game of tig in the garden. Nature's cruel but life goes on. Frisa and Skye will be back next year and it will all start again. I didn't think they would think of it again; but then came that question at bedtime.
Eagle Viewing 2007
Despite this setback, Frisa and Skye are still on territory and still being seen regularly. We are continuing with trips and there are many other exciting birds to be seen in the area, like golden eagles, hen harriers, red-throated divers, peregrines, kestrels and ravens.
Please visit and support this project which puts so much back into the island community. The sea eagle booking office hotline is operated by Sea Life Surveys in Tobermory. The number is 01688 302 038. There will be trips each day. Costs this year are £4 adults/£2 children/family (two adults and up to two children) £10. Island resident are free.
Last year £6,000 was raised for good causes on Mull and Iona. Full details will be in the new ‘Aren't Birds Brilliant!' sea eagle viewing leaflet.
Please note that there is no vehicular access along the Loch Frisa track unless on a booked visit. ‘Mull Eagle Watch' is a partnership between FCS, MICT, RSPB Scotland, SNH, Strathclyde police, volunteers, farmers, land managers, local businesses and the people of Mull & Iona. We are grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Nadair Trust, Scottish Executive, Crerar Hotels and Viking Optics for their continuing support.
Watch out for a special TV programme about Frisa and Skye on BBC2 in May called 'Mull - Eagle Paradise' with Gordon Buchanan.