December, 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
  • January 2nd and New Year's Day 2009 Update - "It may be winter outside...

    ...but in my heart it's spring" (Love Unlimited Orchestra 1973).

    January 2nd message...just to say that I've just read a blog from Mark Thomas of our Investigations Dept about our campaign called 'Good Men Stand Up'. It's inspiring and I urge you to read it. It's on our RSPB web site and is the most recent blog posted. Hopefully the winds of change will blow across our countryside in 2009 and some more good men will stand up.

    And thank you for your support...this is now officially an "award winning" web site! It was voted the 'Best Wildlife Website' in the 'ForArgyll.Com' Awards. Next stop, the Baftas...

    January 1st Update...welcome to 2009!

    Some satellite data for 30 December just in...Mara was near Mull's highest mountain, Ben More, maybe soaring over the summit? Meanwhile Breagha was down on the south side of Mull at Loch Spelve near Croggan. Wonderful to know they're still with us into the New Year.

    More in the next few days...

    Dave Sexton 

    So Frisa and Skye, as expected, are keeping us guessing! One day they're on their favourite old nest of a few years ago; the next they're building at an entirely new location. I wish I knew what it was about a particular tree which attracted sea eagles to start nest building. Sometimes you can hazard a guess. Some are big and obvious, the biggest tree for miles around with views in all directions. But then they'll go and settle on a feeble stunted larch hidden in a gully with no outlook whatsoever.

    But here they were flying back and forth with sticks to a new tree on the edge of the wood. I've seen them perched there a few times back in the summer shortly after Mara and Breagha had fledged. I think the twins often sat around on the floor of the forest and the parents perched above them to keep a careful eye on their early flights. Now here they were back in the same tree and building fast and furious. But why that tree rather than the thousands all around? We'll never know.

    As has been the case for days now, it was sunny and frosty; perfect nest building weather. Despite the wintry conditions, Frisa and Skye kept busy for an hour or more until their enthusiasm subsided and they settled down to preen. I let my mind wander and to think ahead to the spring. If they carry on building in the same spot, what will the view be like for all our visitors? Where would be the best location for the hide? And which tree will be the favourite perch for the off duty bird? So many things to ponder and to plan for next year. The trouble is we can't decide on anything until the last minute as the birds themselves might not make their final choice until days before they lay. And so for now we just enjoy watching this behaviour and making educated guesses about what lies ahead.

    As 2008 draws to a close, we can take a little time to recall some of the highlights and lowpoints of the past year. Let's get the low points out of the way first: searching unsuccessfully far and wide for the X's first nest site - which probably never existed in the first place; the scare Frisa and Skye gave us in their reaction to the nest camera (happily all sorted when everything returned to normal); the disturbance of the incubating female at Territory 2 by a photographer and the subsequent failure of that nest; the discovery of the dead chick at the base of the nest tree at Territory 33 when we all thought it had fledged successfully; the loss of our 2007 Mull sea eagle chick 'White G' to poisoning in Tayside.

    And the high points? Mara and Breagha fledging successfully and surviving through the autumn; over 4000 visitors enjoying their visit to see Frisa and Skye at the hide; the contributions and support for this blog; rescuing Bonnie the Jack Russell; the successful prosecution for reckless disturbance at Territory 2; finding the nest and chick at Territory 40;  the best year for a decade for golden eagles on Mull; the reaction to and impact of White G's poisoning which continues still with coverage in the Scotsman this week; welcoming some of the east coast releases to Mull; knowing Itchy and Scratchy are alive and well; filming for Autumnwatch and simply following the day to day lives of the amazing sea eagles of Mull.

    Whatever you are doing this New Year's Eve, I wish you a happy and peaceful night and a healthy and prosperous 2009. Thank you for reading this and for supporting our special birds.

    Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer

  • A Boxing Day treat

    Okay so we never managed the walk on Christmas Day but 24 hours later saw us heading for the heart of Mull for a picnic lunch of turkey sandwiches, mince pies and mulled wine. The skies were overcast but with the occasional ray of light breaking through. The air is completely still and has been for days now. The glen looked deserted. Not even a buzzard broke the skyline. Kids rapidly becoming disenchanted after the promise of a great Christmas adventure into the hidden glen. Not even any snow remaining on the high tops. We didn't quite get the classic line "Are we there yet?" but it got pretty close. "Can we have something to eat now?" (as if they've not had enough); "Where are we going exactly?" and so on...

    It was an eagle-free zone. After the sighting of six sea eagles here by the farmer a few days ago, I felt sure they'd be a few still loitering in the general vicinity. But as we bumped our way over the rough track and through almost dry river beds, I began to think it had been a wasted effort. "There's one!" A loud exclamation broke the air of gathering gloom and the mood instantly changed from one of tedium of yet another boring drive with daddy with nothing to see to one of excitement, adventure and hope. We all craned our necks through the landrover windows as the large young female sea eagle flapped heavily off round the hill and out of sight. Then above us were the two adults, the territorial pair from this area, steaming at full speed after the vagrant youngster. For whatever reason they did not like her in their patch. Then at the precise moment they vanished in the same direction as the immature, out shot another young sea eagle, this time with white tags, a young bird from 2007. It was heading fast and furious across the glen, hotly pursued by a golden eagle. By this time, we were all looking in all directions. The 'boredom' of the drive and lunch long since forgotten. And so it continued for the next half hour. As one eagle melted into the distance, another one appeared to take its place. At one point we all gazed to the heavens and counted and then re-counted. There was a towering column of raptors from the biggest to (almost) the smallest. At the pinnacle were three sea eagles (the two adults and one immature), below them was a single golden eagle, followed by a pair of buzzards, two hen harriers and a kestrel. Try as we might we couldn't quite get it all to rhyme with "...And a Partridge in a Pear Tree". Go on, you try it!  Of course, in amongst all this excitement was the usual army of hooded crows and a scattering of ravens for good measure.

    Then, as quickly as it had assembled, the tower started to disperse to the four corners of the glen. The sea eagles in one direction, the goldie in another. The harriers went in two different directions - clearly of no fixed abode - leaving only the resident buzzard pair and kestrel. They carried on hunting where they'd left off before they'd been rudely interrupted by the mass trespass into their domain. Finally it was time for our delayed lunch beside a ruined croft and some old byres. By now it was late afternoon and the light was starting to go. It was time to head for home and a warm fire - but we were in for one last, very special treat. Out from the old byre floated two barn owls, one following the other's route out across the hillside. We followed their pale forms and light, bouncing flight until they blended into the gathering dusk and were gone. A family trip with daddy to see eagles (oh no not again - yawn) had started with grumbles about wanting to watch High School Musical (1,2 or 3?), that the Nintendo DS wasn't working properly and ever louder pleas to stop for lunch. It had ended after a magical encounter with a 'sky full of eagles' and the sight of beautiful, if ghostly barn owls floating above the bracken with the children's eyes wide open in amazement. This secret, hidden glen had worked its Christmas magic once again.

    Here's hoping you're all enjoying your festive season.

    Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer

  • The holly and the ivy

    It used to be Blondie's wood. Regular readers of this blog may recall an earlier posting titled 'The blonde bombshell'. You can read it again in the archive blog section for September. It's the place where it all began for Scottish sea eagles. The place where the first wild bred chick began his life. At this time of year with the leaves all long since blown into the deep waters of the loch, the wood seems a stark and lifeless place. Centuries of wild Hebridean storms have taken their toll on the once proud oak trees. If they are not on their sides or wrenched from their spreading roots they've certainly had their best years. Few young seedlings are making it through. The sheep and deer enjoy those shoots the best of all and who can blame them, especially in mid winter? By the time they come to start sprouting leaves in April they have been nibbled to the edge of life. And yet we seem to have been forecasting the demise of Blondie's wood for a long time now but each spring it does burst back into life. For a few weeks as the fresh green leaves appear it embodies the very essence of new life, of new hope. Before long the canopy is alive with singing wood and willow warblers, redstarts and tree pipits. But before we get too carried away let's return to today...late December...a very different scene.

    From across the loch, the only greenery in view is a scattering of holly trees. Their red berries have all been gobbled up by hungry fieldfares and redwings as they passed through this glen a month or more ago. But the shiny, spiky holly leaves - a sign of life amidst all the winter browns and greys - help me to pinpoint the eagle's nest from last year. From my watch point it looks untouched and I doubt they'll be back there again next year. The other feature of this veteran oak is the tangle of ivy which grows up the entire trunk and only ending where it begins to engulf the eyrie. I've noticed other 'eagle trees' have also had ivy growing up them. I've no idea why or if it even figures in the choice of tree for eagles to build in but there seems to be something about it which attracts them. The pair of white-tailed sea eagles which now occupy this home range are of unkown origin. When Blondie disappeared in 2000, she was replaced the next year by an untagged and unringed female. In 2003 when Blondie's mate also vanished just as his new female's eggs had hatched, we knew there was little chance of the chicks surviving. By the following year she too had repaired with an untagged and unringed adult. So we now have an entirely new pair of birds occupying this historic territory. They have been successful in most years since, usually fledging one chick and usually from a nest in an oak tree with ivy creeping up the bark. They obviously like it. Today there was no sign of them both but I could just make out some fleks of down on the branches of their main roost tree - another ivy clad oak - so I know they're not far away. Perhaps they were up river with the band of immatures which frequent this area. The local farmer had seen six there on the river bank recently, probably feeding on a carcase in the burn or some fish remains. I'll need to go and check that area in the next few days to see who is there. Maybe there'll be some wing-tagged youngsters who I can identify. It might be a good trip and a bracing walk for Christmas day - if I can persuade the family to venture out after lunch!

    I see we're the 'Top Story' on the RSPB's Home Page over the festive period! I'll be keeping you all up to date on island life and days with the eagles for the next couple of weeks. This time of year can be very busy for the big birds and we often get a good clue about where they might nest so there's no let up in the quest for locating the likely sites for 2009. We have news of probably Mara or Breagha up on the Isle of Rum with other data now updated on the map showing Breagha on Morvern. I'll be following that up. So lots going on and I hope you'll keep checking in. Thank you to everyone who has read and been part of the Mull sea eagle blog so far this year. If you've just joined in, do say hello in the comments section. It is always good to hear from you. Thank you also to all the Mull Eagle Watch volunteers, partner organisations, locals and visitors who all do so much to support the eagles and to the farmers and land managers who help us so much throughout the year. We couldn't do it without you all. Wherever you're reading this, I wish you a peaceful and happy Christmas. Why not stay tuned for all the latest news?

    The holly and the ivy, When they are both full grown, Of all the trees that are in the wood, The holly bears the crown 

    Oh, the rising of the sun, And the running of the deer, The swaying of the mighty oaks, Eagles soaring far and near...

    Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer