February, 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
  • Reunited and it feels so good

    First of all my apologies for the delay in posting a new blog. It's been a very hectic week with interviews, admin and field work. The season seems to be kicking off earlier than ever! Most of the pairs of white-tailed eagles on Mull are busy refurbishing their nests or building new ones. One day I feel like I know what's happening with each pair, the next it's all up in the air again - literally. Needles to say Frisa and Skye are still leading me a merry dance and today I had the most unexpected encounter of all. Up on a ridge above Loch Frisa sat two adult sea eagles. Great, Frisa and Skye together. I'd better just check them out. I got the 'scope on them just a second or two before they took off. But in those brief seconds I did a double take and a sharp intake of breath: both birds were wing tagged! One, the female I think, had pink tags from 2003 and the letter 'K'. The other, a male, had blue tags from 2002 but there was no time to read the tag. At one point possibly a third unknown adult appeared and then an immature - and then a pair of golden eagles joined the fray so it was all quite difficult to make out what was going on! But I tried to follow the adult pair of white-tails who were very much together and as far as I can ascertain, may well be a newly established pair, currently of no fixed abode. Or do they have the Loch Frisa catchment in their sights? They were certainly in no hurry to continue their journey and even more worrying: where were Frisa and Skye to move them on? But I can worry some more about that this coming week and I'll keep you posted. For now I just quickly want to share with you a magical experience from this week...

    I was back where I'd watched our 2008 satellite tagged male sea eagle chick from Loch Frisa the week before. I didn't really expect to pick him up again and he certainly made me work for it. After several hours of fruitless searching, I picked up a soaring sea eagle over Glen Forsa. As it drifted closer, I could see it was an immature and by its size I guessed it was a male. And then, as it banked and glided towards me head on, I could just make out that tell-tale back pack and aerial. Mara was back! I'm not sure who is following who anymore. He flew straight in and landed on the shingle spit at the head of the loch below where I was sitting. He ruffled his feathers a few times, then walked to the edge of the water, bent down and drank. The sun glistened on the water droplets on the end of his massive hooked beak and as they dripped back into the still, flat calm loch, they formed their own rings of bright water all around him. As I was drinking all this in I became aware of a big dark shadow overhead. Mara too was now looking up and following a second bigger immature as it circled lower and lower and I held my breath as it too lowered the landing gear and dropped in to land on the sandy bar opposite Mara. I nudged the telescope onto the new arrival, pulled focus, blinked a few times and let out a quiet whoop of glee as I could see another satellite tag!  Big sis Breagha had come to visit. To see them both so close to each other and looking so well was such a relief. The tags and aerials were barely visible and were clearly no problem for them whatsoever. Although I'd managed to convince myself they would be okay and not inhibit the birds in any way, there's always a part of me that worries. But here they were looking fantastic and healthy and well fed. Breagha flew to Mara's plot and he obligingly gave way to his larger sibling. Once again I found myself wondering about what recognition there might have been towards each other. Of all the glens in all the world and they both fly in and settle in front of me. For an all too brief half an hour or so, the three of us sat looking at each other. The chicks - or should I say young eagles - occasionally preening and gazing around, while I finished my sandwiches. A tranquil scene of calmness after some of the dreadful winter storms they must have endured and for me a deep sense of satisfaction. Boy, those Marmite sarnies tasted good.

    But it couldn't last forever. First Breagha, content that her little brother was doing just fine without her, launched off, flapped hard to gain height over the water and soared ever upwards. Then Mara took off too, perhaps initially ill at ease that she had gone as he tried to follow her flight path. For a short while they soared together before the quickening breeze took them in different directions. Who knows if they'll ever meet up again? She flew purposefully west, out towards the sea loch. He flew north into another glen. They were alone again - naturally.

    Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer 

  • Love is in the air

    There was something in the air this Valentine's week. Something had changed. There was more a sense of an urgency to Frisa and Skye. It's as if they've suddenly realised the clock is ticking, the nights are shorter, the days are longer. It may only be four weeks to go before that first precious egg appears. It was time to start making some decisions.

    They were calling regularly to each other. Every few minutes the still air reverberted to their haunting cries. It seemed to set everything else off as well. A small family group of whooper swans on the loch, the parents and two cygnets started calling too! Not to be outdone, the local hoodies joined in. Not quite as melodic. And finally the buzzards got carried away and called loudly from high above the forest. Frisa flew purposefully to their old nest. She almost vanished from my view as she settled down as if she already had eggs! She kicked her talons out the back to form a scrape - a place that one day soon might be lined with dry moor grass in readiness for the clutch. Now Skye joined her for a few minutes. They jostled and nudged each other. They re-arranged sticks and then Skye launched off and floated down to the forest floor. A few minutes later, he was back with a huge larch stick. He struggled to land it properly and wrestled this way and that to get it into the right position. Then it was Frisa's turn and she followed his flight path to the rich stick grounds. Soon she was back too, hauling her branch onto the edge of the nest. A noisy fully-laden timber truck lumbered through the forest but the busy pair of eagles barely looked up from their toil. This is a working forest and the birds know that. So long as the truck sticks to its familar route and doesn't stop, they know it means no harm. In fact it's a familiar part of their daily life and the important business of forest harvesting can proceed.

    And then an hour or so after they arrived on the nest, Frisa, quickly followed by Skye took off and headed out over the loch. They kept going across the hillside and then caught a thermal and started to rise. They made big wide circles in the air, hardly a flap between them, higher and higher. They flew in parallel, mirroring each others wing beats. I wondered if I might be about to witness that rarely seen courtship ritual of a full, spiralling talon-grapple. But then I remembered that Frisa and Skye don't seem to go in for that much anymore - even on Valentine's Day! Perhaps they've been together for so long that they feel secure enough? I thought I could just hear Frisa call out to Skye 'you don't bring me flowers anymore' but then they turned once more and went into a determined glide down, down towards a rocky knoll on the distant horizon. They must have been a mile or more away but in the movements of their distinctive miniature silhouettes, I could see that they clearly hadn't lost the mood. I could hear nothing but the crows and buzzards around me but with their heads thrown back again, Frisa and Skye were renewing their vows as only they know how. 

    From my discreet distance, I felt slightly uncomfortable about watching them through the telescope at this tender, private moment. Skye edged towards Frisa and while a few months ago she had spurned his advances, this time she knew the time was right. I could just make out his flapping wings behind the rocks. A stunning, beautiful location overlooking their loch-side home with the snowy peak of Ben More as a back drop. Then they sat side by side, preening and looking around. It was time for me to leave them in peace. I looked back at their nest. Was it built up enough? Was this really their first choice of nest or did they have another site secretly on the go elsewhere in the forest. It won't be long, I hope, before they finally give up their secrets.  

    Dave Sexton Mull Officer RSPB Scotland  

     

  • Mara and friends

    After being away for a few days, I always need to get a quick fix of the big birds. So I headed into the Valley of the Eagles to see who was about. It's weird: there are some days when you think you know where to look, where to go. How wrong can you be? The conditions were perfect: clear blue frosty skies, even a hint of some warmth in that winter sunshine. But try as I might I just couldn't connect with anything. Not an eagle in sight. I scanned the ridges; I focused on the favourite perches, I strained my ears to hear even the most distant sea eagle call. All was silent. Nothing stirred. I ventured deep into the glen in the hope that they may be feasting quietly on a deer carcase carried down stream in the rain the day before. A buzzard jumped up from the river bed. A hooded crow sat quietly on the bank while a fabulous grey male hen harrier floated back and forth over the flooded rushy pastures. But no eagles. Beinn Talaidh was still thick with snow on the summit but where before I've watched eagles chasing hares or each other, the slopes were still and lifeless.

    By now the tea in my so-called travel mug was barely luke warm but I drank it anyway. Why can't they design one that actually works? At the next gate, I got out of the landrover and stepped straight into a huge, crusty cow pat, my foot almost disappearing into the oozing depths. I cursed that too. When I got back in, having submerged my boot in an icy burn to wash it, I discovered my boot leaked and the cold, wet ache from my sodden foot crept relentlessly up my leg. Oh yes and the front right tyre looked worryingly soft. Please don't let me have a puncture up here! My day watching eagles in the beautiful frosty sunshine was going downhill fast.

    And then a dark silouette broke the skyline. At last! I forgot my pathetic woes. A dark young sea eagle was circling up on the weak thermals. Once or twice, as it turned, I thought I could see something on its back. Then the sun caught it and I convinced myself there was the quickest, faintest glint. Then I convinced myself I was seeing things, just wishful thinking. But as it soared nearer, the small pack and then the aerial became clearer and clearer - it was one of our satellite tagged chicks! Suddenly it went into a long, steep dive and headed into the hillside and eventually crashed into a feeding frenzy of three other young sea eagles and numerous hoodies. So they'd been there all along. They all scattered as our bold bird took charge of the deer carcase. The size difference with one of the larger youngsters showed our bird to be a male - it was Mara. My first confirmed sighting of him since last autumn. I felt a tingle of pride and relief that he looked so fit and well. His temporary control of the feast didn't last long. The bigger female lunged back at him and knocked him sideways as she mantled over her frozen prize. He sat back and waited his turn. He could be patient. He had already learned not to take unnecessary risks. He looked fantastic and in great shape sitting alongside his friends on the hillside. As ever, by late afternoon my time was running out and the light was fading. It had been a long search but it had ended very well indeed. All four eagles were still there when I left. Mara still waiting for his chance to jump in to feed before nightfall. Something to sustain him during the long, cold frosty night. After the glorious sunny weather yesterday, I thought I'd go back this morning to see him again but at dawn the cloud had descended, the drizzle was falling steadily and I wouldn't even have been able to see across the loch. The word 'dreich' summed it up perfectly. Mara probably hadn't gone very far but maybe the satellite data will tell us soon? I just hope it's not another four months before I see him again!

    Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer