March, 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
  • Don't look back in anger

    If she'd stayed in Scotland, there's no guarantee she would have been any safer. And yet I can't help feeling we betrayed her. A young golden eagle chick from Mull - like others before her - was donated last year to the bold and successful golden eagle reintroduction project in Ireland. She was from a brood of two and was whisked off to her new home along with other young Scottish goldies. Her sibling fledged successfully and I watched him soaring wih his parents over the Glen More hills last Autumn. The Mull female also 'fledged' successfully in Ireland and was tracked all winter by the team from the Golden Eagle Trust. Earlier this month her satellite signal showed the worrying pattern that she wasn't moving anymore. Maybe the tag had fallen off? Maybe it had malfunctioned in some way? As the trackers moved in on the signal on a remote hillside inside a National Park, their worst fears were realised. There lying under a blanket of fresh snow was our 10 month old golden eagle. Later tests by the Irish authorities showed she had been poisoned. So just like our young sea eagle 'White G' in Tayside last year and many birds of prey since, she had fed on one of the countless poisoned baits scattered carelessly and lazily around UK and Irish hills and fields. Set to kill anything and everything which takes a bite of a free meal. It will be their last. The knee jerk reaction for some may be to say 'no more eagles to be donated'. But this would be quite wrong. Imagine if the Norwegian authorities, who have been so generous in donating their white-tailed eagles to Scotland since 1975, shouted "Stop!" every time there had been a poisoning incident here? If they had we wouldn't be in the healthy and encouraging position we are today with some 45 pairs of sea eagles established on the west coast and more arriving every year in the east. Scotland is in no position to lecture anyone on the indiscriminate killing of our birds of prey. The person who poisoned the Mull golden eagle in Ireland will probably claim they were 'only after crows and foxes' as if it's okay to give them a horrific and painful death. The long, primary feathers of our young goldie were broken and torn, showing she had writhed and struggled for who knows how long in the dark Irish peat. The gentle, soft snow which had covered her contorted body blanked out the pain and presented a scene of calm and peace to the angry and frustrated fieldworkers from the project who found her. Whoever was responsible is lucky they didn't meet them on their way back down the hill with her frozen corpse in a black plastic sack. She was in very good condition showing she would have done well in her new home - given half a chance.

    And I guess that's the real message here. The golden eagles are generally doing very well back home in Ireland. Indeed Scottish estates and fieldworkers who help every year should feel proud that they are trying to make a difference to this sometimes stricken planet. Last year the Irish project celebrated with the first successful fledging of a golden eagle chick since the reintroduction began. As we know only too well with the sea eagles from Norway, it can be a long haul to get to that point. For us it took ten years since the first release to the first wild chick. For the Irish golden eagle project to succeed so quickly proves that it will work, that it is working. So long as we all hold firm and chart a steady course through sometimes troubled waters. So do I feel guilty about being part of the process that ended in the untimely death of a healthy young golden eagle from Mull? Yes, of course I do. If she'd still been exploring Mull's hills, barring natural hazards, she would still be alive today. But this spring, she would have started wandering as all young eagles do - just as Mara and Breagha will - across the length and breadth of Scotland. And as readers of this blog will know only too well, their safety in our hills is far from certain. Let's though keep an optimistic outlook: she was healthy and had thrived in her adopted home; she has helped show it can work and that we can right some wrongs as others of her kind are still proving in the mountains of Ireland. As we enter another spring of breeding attempts for that new, young pioneering population, she did not die in vain. We wish our Golden Eagle Trust friends and colleagues well in all their endeavours to make it work and to eradicate the threats which can still cause such painful setbacks. We stand ready to help again just as we have been supported by others helping to bring back lost majestic species to our skies. But as I watch her parents in their glen, as I did this week visiting their nest, I will say a silent 'sorry' on behalf of all of us.   

    If you haven't done so already, please consider signing the Bird of Prey Pledge. Just click on the link to the right of this blog. To read the extensive press coverage in Ireland about this case, just Google 'golden eagle poisoned in Donegal' and you'll see how serious the Irish authorities are taking this incident and what is being done to solve it.

    Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer

  • Life is a rollercoaster

    It's been a crazy and exciting week here on Mull Eagle Watch. Frisa and Skye have been up to their usual tricks and have made life even more frustrating than usual for us this year. There have been days when Frisa has been sitting on one nest and Skye has been building at another. Behaviour I've never seen before at this late stage in their breeding cycle. It's almost as if they've had a serious disagreement.

    I've long suspected that Frisa favoured a nest they've both been on and adding to many times over the winter. It's a nest where they raised three set of twins over three consecutive years from 2004. And yet, all along Skye has been dragging her back kicking and screaming to a brand new pad which he's clearly very proud of. He's been at it since before Christmas and yet to my eye it still looks half finished and Frisa is clearly unimpressed by his efforts. You'd think that by Mothering Sunday, he'd at least have made a trip to Oban's Homebase store to get a few bits and bobs to add the finishing touches to his efforts. But no. It still looks like one severe gust of wind will blow it all sky high.

    At one point, with Frisa settling into her old favourite, even making a cosy nest cup for future eggs, Skye was beavering away on his own some distance away. It was a stand-off. Or a sit-off. As I watched, Frisa reluctantly stood up and moved to the edge of the nest. She preened for a few more minutes in a nonchalent sort of way as if to make a point, made a huge squirt over the edge in his general direction and then launched off.

    She vanished from my view so I raced round to the other side of the wood just in time to see her white tail disappear into the wood where Skye had been hard at work. Perhaps her decision had been made. She'd given in. I just hope they've made the right choice. From now on there will be no rest for any of us. Mull Eagle Watch is in full swing. Extra Wildlife Crime Officers from Strathclyde Police and beyond are pitching in; the Air Cadets will be digging into the hillside for the long haul and islanders are on full alert. I'm grateful too for visitors here at the moment also doing their bit while on holiday and being extra eyes and ears on the island. Everyone coming together to help protect our precious eagles. Good luck to everyone this year.

    Dave meets Chris 

    Meanwhile, a warm welcome to Sue and Debby who will be helping to run the trips to the Eagle Hide this year. We've had quite a week, at one point watching eight young sea eagles together - more of that encounter another time. For now, preparations proceed apace for the opening of the hide on 6 April. Why not come and see us? For details visit our 'Date with Nature' pages on this website or call 01688 302 038. Our partners on this unique project are Forestry Commission Scotland, the Mull & Iona Community Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage and Strathclyde Police.

    And finally, another warm welcome to Chris Packham and Martin Hughes-Games who are joining the BBC Springwatch team this year following Bill Oddie's decision to take a break. Like Kate, Simon and Gordon before him, Chris has been here to Mull to see Frisa and Skye at the Eagle Hide. After a memorable encounter with them and an even closer encounter with a minke whale on a whale watch, he was - uncharacteristically - lost for words! Watch out for an update on Mara and Breagha during this year's series which starts, as usual, in the last week of May. More news on our sat tag twins here next time.

    For now, spare a thought for our eagles sitting out the coming cold, wet and gales which seem to racing into Scotland's west coast as I write. We're in for some sleepless nights.

    Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer

  • Moon river

    Even with the thick cloud this week, it's been noticable how light it is at night with the full moon occasionally breaking through. And for several evenings running at about 7 o'clock, just as the moon is rising, there have been excited shouts from the children of "Barn Owl!" We've raced to the conservatory at the back of the house to watch the beautiful pale form of a barn owl floating over the rushy pasture at the bottom of the garden. One evening we all snuck quietly outside and crept down to the fence as the owl quartered closer and closer to our tight little group watching spellbound from behind the hedge. It was so intent on hunting, it never looked our way. Twice it dropped into the rushes after a vole but came up empty-taloned. Eventually it drifted further down towards the bay and we lost sight of it as the light faded. Watching out for the '7 o'clock barn owl' has become something of an evening fixture in the schedules this week. As good as it is it sure beats 'The One Show' for live action.

    At about this time of the day, as a lone song thrush sings on well into dusk, I often wonder where Mara and Breagha are roosting for the night. Always hoping they've found a safe perch in a wind-proof tree in a forest or on a mossy crag in a sheltered corrie. This week our amazing satellite data has shown us something very touching about our famous twins, something we couldn't ever have known without the space-age technology. There have been several occasions when Mara and Breagha have met up again and spent time flying closely together. The GPS satellite readings have plotted them flying side by side over some of Mull's highest hills and through our deepest glens. I wonder who is following who? They've perched together on ice-cracked boulders near the summits, surveying the endless, wild country all around them in search of a fresh, running hare or a tough old carcass to feed on. At this toughest of times of year, they will not be too fussy what they eat to keep themselves alive.

    I wonder how many other sea eagle siblings are spending this much time together after so long out of the nest? The scientists may tell us that this is all just a coincidence of course. That sea eagles are so 'hard wired' that there is no room for such sentiment or compassion. And yet Mara and Breagha have grown up together in their tree-top eyrie. Week after week, month after month - for over three months in fact - they will have heard each other's food begging calls as first one, then the other will have spotted Frisa or Skye in the distance returning home with prey. Then for another three months after fledging before their first solo flights to the mainland last autumn, they were never far apart and will have inevitably formed a close bond. From a purely survival point of view, two sets of piercing eagle-eyes are better than one but maybe it's more than that. Maybe there's a sense of safety in sticking together and a feeling of comfort in knowing you're in familiar company.

    So as the weak Mull sun sets at the end of day and the far brighter early spring moon rises, where do Mara and Breagha head for? The data shows us that on at least one night they made for a traditional sea eagle roost which has attracted young eagles for over 30 years now - probably much longer. There's always been something about the area which has been a magnet for young birds out on their own. These youth clubs are important learning and socialising venues and our two will know they'd be safe there for the night. Just as they'd spent the day together, they roosted close to one another through the bright, moon-lit night. Maybe they glimpsed hunting barn owls too emerging from the ruined byre up the glen? The moon's reflections on the loch will have illuminated the splash and ripples of passing sea trout heading through the loch and into the mouth of the river. Perhaps the silvery V-shaped wake of an otter following the fish will have caught their eyes as they peered down from their roost high in the branches. The hours of night passed peacefully for Mara and Breagha. Each bird safe in the knowledge that the other was nearby, until the first hint of dawn appeared as a pale yellow glow in the eastern sky. The first song thrush sang again from the same wood, then a robin, then the chaffinch, all gradually tuning up for the forthcoming full-on dawn chorus. A small flock of woodpigeons clattered out of the wood and startled our two young eagles. They ruffled their feathers with a shake, stretched out a foot with clenched talons and then a wing. The moon had all but vanished now as their new day was just beginning. What would it hold for them? Where would it take them? Would this be the day their close bond weakened and they ventured off again on their own? I wonder where they'll both be by the time of the next full moon...

    Dave Sexton  RSPB Scotland Mull Officer