November, 2008

Wildlife

Wildlife
We're about more than just birds (though obviously we like them a lot).

Mull Eagle Watch

Follows the fortunes of Mull's white-tailed eagles and the Isle's other fascinating wildlife
  • Waiting in the wings

    I've seen that look before and it worries me. At Loch Frisa today as the hail, sleet and snow storms raced through, I found a stranger lurking in the woods. I've seen her before. She's doing the rounds. Last time I saw her at Loch na Keal eyeing up the territory there. Then she moved north and then back south to Loch Frisa. She was there a month ago but I didn't particularly think anything of it. But today she was back again. Watching, waiting, biding her time.

    She is 'Red E'. Red wing tags - letter E. A female sea eagle from the Isle of Skye. She was hatched in 2005 - the same year as Frisa and Skye's famous Springwatch twins, Itchy and Scratchy. So she is now three and a half years old. Next April she will be four. She is getting restless. Maybe a little broody. As a sea eagle 'teenager', her hormones are running riot and she is beginning to be on the lookout for a territory and a mate. Her head and beak were pale, her body lighter brown than a just few months ago and her tail is almost white. That would all be good news - if she wasn't loitering with intent around Loch Frisa.

    The last time I saw this happen was a few years ago at a site in central Mull. The pair that nested there had been together for five years. They were mature birds and had raised several chicks. Over the winter I'd started seeing a sub-adult female called 'Yellow blackspot'. She was hatched in 2000 from a site in Wester Ross. Sometimes she was hanging around on the skerries in Loch na Keal. At other times she was at the head of the loch in the heart of the territory. Several times I watched her seeing off other younger sea eagles. She looked like she was staking a claim - but as yet it wasn't hers. But that day was coming. 

    One fine spring day in April saw her seize the moment. The resident pair had started incubation and all was well. Suddenly, Yellow blackspot appeared out of the sun and perched arrogantly in the tree next to the nest.

    The incubating female went beserk. She called loudly to her mate who was quickly on the scene to support her. She got up off her eggs and gave chase, seeing off the intruder. The male joined in. All three birds disappeared in a frantic chase through the trees and hills. The female soon returned to carry on incubating but with no sign of the other two. Then Yellow blackspot turned up again and flew directly at the sitting female. They clashed and fought and again the resident female gave chase. With all this activity there was a real chance the eggs might break.

    This time they were gone for a long time. It was the last time we ever saw the resident female. Next back at the nest was the male but he was clearly agitated. Something had changed forever in his world. He didn't incubate - maybe the eggs had been damaged? Despite his calls, his mate never returned - but guess who did? Yellow blackspot. The prize was hers.

    All those months of waiting and plotting had finally paid off. They were cautious at first. They had occasional scuffles but slowly, day by day, he grew to accept her presence. With no sign of his mate, the outcome was inevitable. Yellowblack spot is now the resident female in this territory paired harmoniously with the original male and they've raised several chicks (including sadly, the ill-fated chick White G who was poisoned on a sporting estate in Angus this year).

    But what of the original female? I don't believe an established female on a territory like this, already sitting on eggs, would give up her range without one hell of a fight and I fear that fight took place out of sight up a side glen and a fatal injury was sustained. Yellow blackspot was a young, fit bird and may just have had the edge. All we know is she returned and the original female didn't. It can be a harsh life in the world of the eagle. Survival of the fittest. No room for error.

    And so when I saw Red E sitting calmly in the conifers at the north end of Loch Frisa, within sight of the nest sites of Frisa and Skye, I remembered that look from Yellow blackspot. Frisa and Skye were perched together on a hill on the opposite side of the glen and couldn't see her. If they had I'm sure she'd have been seen off. But I have a sneaking suspicion that one day soon she'd have been back. It won't be the last we see of Red E.

    Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer

    Sat tag update: The latest data shows that the voltage on the batteries for both Mara and Breagha's satellite tags is too low for an accurate GPS fix. It needs a good spell of bright weather to charge them up.

  • Sat tag update

    Just a little more detail on the latest data from Mara and Breagha. On the 16th November, Breagha was on the south side of Loch Buie in the south of Mull at 1005. Her brother Mara was just north of Salen on Mull's east coast two days later on the 18th at 0648 so he had probably roosted nearby - and not a million miles from his old nest site at Loch Frisa.

    The sat tags are now on their winter timings which means, I'm afraid, that the data will be even more sporadic. The aim of this is to conserve the battery life of the packs during the long darker winter months. But conversely it should mean that when we do get readings it will be better quality and more precise. For the scientific study which is underway using this data to plot juvenile sea eagle dispersal from their nest area it will be frequent enough to get a general picture of their movements. For me and many of you, it won't be anything like enough as I just want to know where they are all the time! This won't be possible so we'll just have to wait patiently for every download - just like the Loch Garten osprey data which is now much less frequent than during Deshar and Nethy's long migration flights. The up-side is that the batteries should last even longer - maybe 3-4 years if we're lucky. That's assuming Mara and Breagha survive their first difficult winter alone and then don't encounter anyone or anything that would harm them. Work to ensure White G's death was not in vain continues apace. Meanwhile, in between data downloads, I'll keep you posted on any other sea eagle news which arises on Mull and elsewhere.

    Tomorrow, I'm on the move again - this time for a meeting in Edinburgh with the Sea Eagle Project Team which oversees and assists with all the reintroduction projects in the UK and Ireland. This year there is a lot to report on - much of it good and exciting: 28 wild sea eagle chicks fledged on the west coast of Scotland, 15 Norway-bred birds were released on the east coast, a further 20 were released in Ireland and now we hear of some exciting plans from Natural England, RSPB and Anglian Water to further boost the UK project on the east coast of England. Twenty five years ago, someone born on Mull will have grown up with these birds as a normal, natural part of their everyday lives. Now they may have children of their own. The sea eagles will seem like they've always been here. It's quite a thought that 25 years from now, if sea eagles are to become a 'routine' part of everyday life in England, our descendants will still marvel at them as we do now and as our ancestors did many Centuries ago. And they'll hopefully wonder what all the fuss and scaremongering headlines were all about in 2008! Time will tell. If you support this project or have questions about it, see the lead story on the RSPB Home Page to see what you can do to help.

    More news if I can get to a computer during my travels...

    Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer

  • ...ford every stream!

    I didn't just retrace my steps in the mud. I pretty much jogged as fast as my exhausted legs and aching body could manage. Admittedly that probably wasn't very fast but it felt like a Herculean effort to me at nearly 6 o'clock in the evening.

    I arrived back at where I'd started; checked the phone message and grid reference again, set up the 'scope and aimed it at the point my informant had told me he'd seen an adult sea eagle perching for the last few hours. It had flown off once or twice that afternoon but had returned to the same general area. This had to be a promising sign.

    I focused the eyepiece and there it was. Still there. Preening and settled. Half an hour later it flew out to sea and I lost sight of it behind a small island. It didn't return. I knew now that with the late July evening light still quite good it was worth a short trip up into the forestry. I found a steep, winding timber extraction track and followed it higher and higher up the hillside.

    I finally reached the area where the bird had been perching. Nothing. Silence. I was now very hungry. The sweat from earlier had cooled and I felt a chill creeping up my spine. I probably had done all I could. The Territory 40 birds had beaten us again. I'd missed the last ferry back home to Mull. I needed to eat, find a B&B and warm up. There was no way I was sleeping in the landrover that night.

    As I stood up from my seat on a damp tree stump, I heard a flock of common gulls flying over. I watched them go past. Suddenly they veered off to the back of the forest and started to give their familiar alarm calls. Familiar beacuse I hear them on Mull whenever a sea eagle is anywhere nearby. They are a great early warning system. At that moment, the 'hassled' call of a sea eagle rang out around the trees. The gulls must be mobbing a bird perched somewhere out of sight. It all went quiet again.

    Summoning the last vestiges of energy from my tired limbs, I crept up the side of a burn in the general direction of the calls. All of a sudden I had that sixth sense that I was on the right track, indeed maybe on the final leg of my quest.

    Nothing could stop me now - exhaustion, hunger - I was like a bloodhound on the scent! The adrenalin was pumping.

    As I neared the top of the wood, a shape to my right made me look across the burn and there was my dream find of the year - if not my career! A whopping great sea eagle's nest in an old spreading Scots pine; it was covered in flecks of down, bits of old prey - there must be young but the nest looked empty!

    And with that, my eyes alighted upon the young eagle, watching my every step long before I'd seen it. It had already 'branched' and was sitting to one side of the nest on a limb of the pine. I stopped breathing. I waited a second to drink in the scene but instantly worried the young eagle might jump. I slithered back down the peat bank and out of sight.

    But as I stopped I actually wondered if I'd just imagined the whole event. I was so pumped up to find this nest and had imagined this moment a thousand times in my head. Maybe I'd slipped into a dream-like state and it was all make-believe? I had to take a second look. So I inched back and saw it all again.

    The young eagle was still watching me, wondering what on earth this mad man was up to. This time I watched for a full minute before retreating, this time convinced but still pinching myself. At no time had the adult perched nearby flown out or called. No-one knew I'd been there except me and the chick. It was just the best feeling.

    I called a few people and sent a few texts when I got out of the forest and back at the landrover. I didn't want to gloat - but I couldn't help it  - just a wee bit! My first call was to home when my daughter answered. She was ready for bed. "Daddy, did you find the eagles?" I could barely get my answer out and I felt like shouting but I half whispered: "I found them!"

    That evening, now gone 9pm, I found the last room in a wonderful inn and after a long shower, settled down for a celebratory bar supper of local fish and chips and a long, cold pint (or two). It was truly a night to remember. The chick was too big and advanced to ring or anything. But all that mattered was that we'd found him. I'd been in the right place at the right time. All the other leg work by others before me had cancelled out some areas and narrowed the search but I was still going to enjoy this moment.

    That night I slept long and deep. Now that's what I call job satisfaction.

    Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer

    Tonight the messages of support for our campaign to stop the poisoning of our wildlife like Mull sea eagle youngster White G continue to come in and we're truly grateful. Just before writing this blog tonight, BBC Countryfile presenter John Craven emailed with his personal condemnation of this crime. Others like Simon King, Chris Packham and Mike Dilger have joined the chorus. Read their views in tomorrow's Scotsman newspaper. Maybe the tide is turning against those few irresponsible sporting estates which kill our protected species without a second thought for their actions. As John Craven said: "Watching the sea eagles in flight on Mull was one of my greatest experiences during many years of reporting on UK wildlife. There can be no excuse for this senseless killing".

    Please help keep the pressure on.

    I'm on the move away from Mull for the next few nights but will let you know of any new satellite data if we get it.