January, 2009

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
  • Keeping us guessing

    The famous pair of wild Scottish sea eagles at Loch Frisa are being as indecisive as usual. Frisa, the female is in her 17th year. Her loyal mate for the last 12 years, Skye, will be 15 years old in April. You'd think by now they'd know what they wanted. But no. As I write they are adding sticks to at least two different eyries and it's anyone's guess which one they'll finally settle on. They have previous form. Almost every year they seem to prefer to build a new nest and have done since 1997. Some pairs are like this and rarely return to an established eyrie. Others are more sedentary and we usually know where they will be from one year to the next. Frisa and Skye are great ambassadors for their species. From their first starring roles on the first Springwatch in 2005, they have 'captured the hearts of the nation' (to borrow a newspaper headline) and we await their news from their new nest every year. But Springwatch this year will be very different. I don't know yet whether Frisa or Skye will feature or what news there might be of Mara and Breagha (or the original Springwatch twins, Itchy & Scratchy). But one familiar face will be missing from the established winning team. Bill Oddie announced today that he will be 'taking a breather' from Springwatch 2009. Bill came to see Frisa and Skye when filming for his series 'How to Watch Wildlife' and he was genuinely excited to see his first wild Scottish sea eagles. His only other UK sightings had been of rare, occasional vagrant young sea eagles on the east coast of England in the 1950s. Now he was watching a fully mature pair of sea eagles, born and bred in Scotland. On the other side of the the loch he watched that years recently fledged youngsters chasing each other across the bracken clad hillside. We left him in peace to watch, reflect and enjoy.

    Later we talked about what the sea eagle meant to the local community and what economic benefits they brought to Mull. This year the Mull & Iona Community Trust has just selected the local groups and good causes which will benefit from the Mull Eagle Fund - the proceeds from visitors to the Loch Frisa eagle hide which last year amounted to over £10,000. Looking back at the groups which have benefitted from this fund over the years, you might well ask what on earth have they got to do with sea eagles or nature conservation? Young Mull Musicians, the Gaelic Mod Club, Tobermory Girl Guides, Mull Athletics Club, stage lighting for Dervaig Village Hall, disabled access stair lift for the Aros Hall, eco gardens and equipment for Iona, Salen and Loch Don Primary Schools, Salen Church renovations, Dunaros Residential Home, kit for school sports days and so on...  The point is that they may not be directly related to sea eagles but they are all part of the rich and varied fabric of island life and they all benefit because the eagles are back.

    But Bill Oddie put his finger on it as we watched the eagles across the loch. At public viewing hides like Loch Frisa, the birds need people to visit. But more than that, he said, people increasingly need birds like sea eagles in their lives; to inspire, to escape, to treasure. Enjoy your breather Bill. And Kate, Simon and Gordon - go for it! Hopefully by then, Frisa and Skye will have two new chicks to show to the world - in whichever nest they choose!

    Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer.    

  • The Homecoming

    This is a big year in Scotland. The 'Year of Homecoming' has just been launched to coincide with the 250th birthday of Robert Burns. The hope of the Scottish Government and of everyone involved in tourism is that as many people as possible will think about 'coming home' to Scotland in 2009. Whether your ancestors once travelled from the Motherland to the New World and you want to see where they once lived or you just want to see Scotland because you never have or because it's your favourite place in the world, this is the year to come. And we hope Mull is on your travel itinerary...

    Mull is the official 'Home of the Sea Eagle'. It's where it all began for the return of this once heavily persecuted species when the first reintroduced pair bred successfully here in 1985. A gift from the people of Norway to the people of Scotland - the sea eagle had indeed come home. Other once extinct species have also settled once more in Scotland. Some like the red kite have been helped back like the sea eagle having been originally shot, poisoned and trapped to oblivion. Ospreys made it back on their own but were then helped considerably by many people over many years to really get established as they are today.

    But there was a remarkable homecoming scene on the shore at Killiechronan recently which was both heart warming and poignant at the same time. It was witnessed by a field trip of the Mull Bird Club and photographed by Bryan Rains of 'Wild about Mull'. The local pair of sea eagles were in a favourite place on the shoreline at the eastern end of Loch na Keal. They were facing up the loch and straight into the strong westerly wind. At times they were almost blown off their feet but they braced themsleves, stayed close and with their heads down they were determined to sit out the approaching storm. Nothing, not even a ferocious gale, would beat an eagle. Or maybe they were watching something further up the loch, unseen by the hardy observers in the squalls and saltspray which was rapidly coating their binoculars and telescopes?  For out of the mist drifted two young eagles. They flew confidently considering the worsening weather and almost looked like they'd been there before. When they finally landed, right next to the adult pair, all became clear. The adults showed no aggression to either bird which was unusual given their very close proximity. Even though sea eagles can be sociable, they do normally have their limits. The darkest and youngest bird, a fledged chick from 2008, was most likely to have been their chick from last year given the lack of any animosity from the adults although the visibility was just not quite good enough to read the colour ring on her leg to be sure. But the identity of the other young eagle was not in doubt. She had yellow wing tags with the letter 'C'. She was their chick from 2006. She too had come home. For a young eagle to revisit her family home like this nearly three years after fledging and for the parents to accept her so readily made me wonder, not for the first time, about what really goes on in the mind of an eagle. We are told so often that a top predator like a sea eagle is so 'hard-wired' for pure instinct that there is little, if any scope for feeling or emotion. When you think about it, the noble head of an eagle is nearly all eyes and beak with not much room for anything else - like a long memory or a caring attachment to offspring long since fledged and independent. And yet looking at the photos of this small, reunited family, I couldn't help but let my own mind wander. Did the parents recognise a brief, familiar call from one or both chicks, unheard by their keen observers in the strong winds? The youngsters will have certainly been very familiar with this stretch of beach. It's where the parents take their chicks soon after fledging; a safe place for the young birds to explore and investigate as they learn the essentials of being a sea eagle. At a time of rough weather, when times are hard in mid winter, what better place to be than at home? Familiar, secure, comforting.

    But the peaceful family scene, despite the strengthening storm, was not complete. Something was missing. All four eagles were looking around; up the loch, across to the wood, along the beach as if expecting another arrival. And then it dawned on me what that something was. Their chick from 2007 was missing. That chick was 'White G'. He was poisoned on a sporting estate in Angus, Tayside last May. Sadly, he would never be coming home. What a picture that would have made; maybe three generations of chicks with their parents!  Shocking, still, that we have been robbed of even that remotest of possibilities.

    The field trip group, now numb with cold and with eyes watering from the wind, moved on to another birding spot leaving the four eagles to sit out the gale in the only way they knew how - with a sheer, rugged determination to survive. Soon the eagles would lift up from the shore and go their separate ways once more. The parents back to their nearby nest wood in the tall, secure trees and the two youngsters off to wherever the storm force winds would carry them. A simple, brief yet touching moment in their lives captured in our minds forever. The next morning I went back to the loch to see if this scene might happen again; maybe I could read the colour ring on last year's chick just to be absolutely sure - but no such luck. The wind and rain had gone. But so had the eagles.    

  • The land of the free

    It's been quite a day on the other side of the pond. Quite a day for all of us. Watching the coverage on TV, on cold, clear days like this in Northern Virginia, I'm transported back to my favourite university class in the US: 'Ornithology 1' - especially the field trips! I couldn't wait for those fantastic winter excursions in to the marshes and woods around the James River identifying cardinals, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, catbirds and Bohemian waxwings. And very occasionally down by the river we would catch a glimpse of that close cousin to our white-tailed sea eagles, the bald eagle. There is a distinct family resemblance to Frisa and Skye. Our birds may be a little bigger and lack the pure white head, but their pale head, yellow beak and white tail, their habits and behaviour show just how closely related they actually are - right down to chasing ospreys until they drop the fish they've caught as we watched them do at Loch Don last year. Infact last night, on the eve of this historic day, Frisa and Skye were perched together in a favourite lochside tree with the low angle of the winter sun illuminating them perfectly as if in a spotlight on a stage. And not for the first time I thought how much alike they are to their North American brothers and sisters. As Skye landed next to Frisa, they simultaneously threw their heads back skywards and called loudly to the heavens - just like the bald eagles along the James and Potomac Rivers and like African fish eagles along the Mara River - so many echoes, so many memories.

    Whilst studying at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, I had the good fortune to be taught by Professor Mitchell Byrd. Dr Byrd is responsible for successfully reintroducing peregrine falcons to the State and for pioneering work on bald eagles which are now thriving again to the point where they've recently been removed from the endangered species list. I worked with him on the peregrine project on Cobb Island off the eastern shore of Virginia and conducted aerial surveys from a small plane on breeding bald eagles. I can well recall feeling more than a little queasy as our pilot tilted the plane's wings for us to gaze down at a bald eagle's nest to count the young as the adult bird gazed up and watched us fly on to the next nest further up river. Not quite how we do it here but it was a very effective method of getting round alot of eagle territories. Maybe I should try submitting a bid in the next budget round? OK, no chance. It's leg work and Landrover power on Mull for the time being. When I couldn't get my fix of white-tailed eagles on Mull, the bald eagles were the next best thing and very majestic and awe-inspriring they are too. Sometimes when I see the young and adult sea eagles along the river banks here on Mull waiting for spent salmon or sea trout to pass by, I can imagine bald eagles along a river in Alaska - all we're missing are the brown bears!

    Last summer as we travelled north on the train from the nation's Capital - the scene of such celebration today - we gazed out over the mighty Chesapeake Bay. As we moved along, an excited cry went up as we saw an osprey, some shore birds, cormorants and then a bald eagle flapping across the surface of the bay. As the train moved on, there was just time to watch it lift up from the water and soar high and free before we lost sight of it behind the trees. Fantastic to realise that the bald eagles were now a fairly common sight in the US, a huge conservation success story. Hopefully one day, our white-tails will follow their lead and we'll glimpse them from train journeys along Scotland's and England's east coast. Let's also hope that the new administration in Washington, along with everything else it will have to tackle, puts wildlife and protection of the environment higher up the political agenda than the last lot did. Good luck Mr Obama, your National Bird and the whole World wishes you well.

    Dave Sexton RSPB Mull Officer