August, 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
  • Sleeping on the job

    We haven't seen much of the sun lately but in one break in the deluge I watched Frisa and Skye relaxing and unwinding after their busy summer. I gently pulled the landrover in, switched off the engine and rolled quietly to a halt. Frisa was to my left high in the sitkas; Skye was on my right in a larch. I panned from one to the other just enjoying them as they preened their soft plumage in the brief warm, sunny spell. Both looked regal and composed and somehow proud of their achievements this year. Somewhere nearby Heather was perched safely out of sight, probably drying off too. She was leaving her parents in peace, for now at least. As the sun's warmth penetrated their soggy feathers for the first time in days, first Frisa and then Skye half opened their broad, mighty wings and allowed them to droop a little. They just looked so chilled out. They deserved this moment. Then they went one step further, something I've never seen before. I thought I noticed Frisa's eyes were closed. I zoomed the scope in but they were open again. Then slowly but surely like someone after a heavy meal, her eyes closed completely and her noble head tilted slightly to one side. I looked across to Skye and he was doing the same! It was siesta time; I felt quite honoured that they felt so relaxed with me just 100m away that they could completely switch off. As I watched Skye, he did what people do when you watch someone drifting off on the train. Every now and then, as he snoozed, his head fell forward  and he'd then jolt himself upright again, eyes wide open for a few seconds as if he'd been awake all along, only to slowly doze off again in the late afternoon sun. I looked back to Frisa and sure enough she was doing the same. They both just seemed overwhelmed by the stresses and strains of the last few months; maybe the heady cocktail of  sunshine, warmth and the scent of spruce was just more than they could resist. It was certainly working on me! This afternoon nap business was catching.

    As the sun slipped lower behind the trees, that slight chill which tells you it's no longer high summer, rippled through the larches and both birds gave themselves a good shake and a ruffle of their feathers. I don't know if they roosted there that night; I had to head off but I left with a sense of peace and calm. For birds which sometimes have to face such severe conditions in the wild, which can show such strength and at times such gentleness, I'd witnessed another new side to them: chilled, relaxed 'empty-nesters'. They both half-watched me drive off down the track and they were alone again - together in their domain.

    Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer

  • A man for all seasons

    Many readers may have seen news reports this week of the tragic canoe accident on Loch Maree involving a father and his son. The man involved was Mike Madders with his seven year old son Daniel. Mike worked here on Mull in the 1980s when the first sea eagles settled on the island before he moved to Islay and latterly Poolewe. Mike wrote the 'Birds of Mull' with Philip Snow and 'Where to Watch Birds in Scotland' with Julia Welstead. In addition to his expert knowledge and studies on birds of prey in the UK and abroad, he was also a successful businessman. He founded and was a Managing Director for the environmental consultancy and charity Natural Research Ltd which is working with us on the satellite tracking project.  A full tribute to him appears on their website (link on the tracking page) and in the numerous news reports about the accident.

    I first met Mike in 1984. We were new recruits to the RSPB and were about to be despatched on a secret mission to a mystery island. Sea eagles, recently released on the Isle of Rum, had started to be seen regularly on Mull. There were the first tentative signs of nesting and the year before, the first eggs had been layed. In March, we were briefed by Roy Dennis at his Highland home and then we both headed west with our new boss Roger Broad and boarded the ferry bound for Mull. Our base was Hazelbank Cottage in Lochdon near where one pair was being seen. We were both instantly captivated by Mull and could sense that we were both lucky to be part of conservation history in the making. On our first evening we headed to Ardnadrochit where Sheila served us our first (of many) home cooked meals. Sheila had been one of the first Muileachs to report the new and unusual big eagles flying over the house and as we ate dinner looking out of the window and out across the loch we knew one could fly by at any moment. The magic of Mull and of my time working with Mike on this historic project had begun. Within a day or two we had made our first major discovery of an active sea eagle nest a long way from Loch Don. I recall Roger saying when we 'phoned in that night for some guidance: "Well, you two seem to be doing pretty well on your own!" I guess for two rookie sea eagle field workers we weren't doing too badly for our first 48 hours on Mull. Forging new and long lasting relationships with the local farmers which continue to this day, we watched the nest round the clock come rain or shine. The male of the sea eagle pair was only four years old so still immature; the female who in later years would become known as 'Blondie' was mature but their breeding attempt was unsuccessful and they incubated way beyond the normal 38 days. Mike and I were back in 1985 to continue where we left off. This time our base was Eastcroft in Lochdon but our sea eagle pair had moved again to a new nest in a remote part of central Mull. Our eagle watch began again in mid March and we were joined by our colleague Keith Morton to conduct our continuous nest observations in what was noted at the time as one of the wettest summers on record. We would do 24 hour stints, relieving each other in the early evening. I recall Mike emerging foot by foot (he was over 6ft) from our tiny, leaking RSPB-issue tent. We would exchange notes on what we'd seen, he'd pack up his cooking kit, Earl Grey tea and favourite bag of muesli and stride off back down the track for a much needed bath at Eastcroft (hoping Keith had remembered to switch the hot water on). I would then crawl into the damp interior of the tent on the shore of the loch and settle down for the long night ahead. I think Mike had made friends with a wood mouse as there was always one keeping me company in the tent. One night it ate through my pack and consumed some of my sandwiches.

    Fast forward to a rare dry, sunny April morning. I called Mike on the CB radio and the now legendary message crackled back at me: "I think we're both daddies". And that's exactly how we all felt. Blondie and her mate had hatched and were feeding the first sea eagle chick to be raised in Scotland for 70 years.  And the rest really is history but we can reflect and remember and say 'we were there'. The famous chick fledged and so began a dynasty which continues to this day with our very own Frisa who was raised by Blondie and her mate in 1992. From those exciting, pioneering days with one chick on the wing, we end this season with a record 36 chicks fledging in Scotland including an amazing 10 chicks on Mull alone. A fitting legacy for Mike.  He helped get them to this point.

    I can see him now striding like a stag through the drizzle across the Mull hills, wellies and torn waxproof jacket on with faithful pointer Merlyn at his heel, off to check another eagle eyrie or one of his favourite hen harriers.

    Our condolences to all of Mike and Daniel's family, friends and colleagues at this time.

    Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer

    NB. Comments received on this blog are much appreciated but won't be published.

  • Well it might as well rain until September!

    As I type this blog, the rain is falling hard and fast - our house sits on a slight incline, and the rain is running down the front path forming a small river, then turning into a mini waterfall at the front door step!  It has rained everyday since last Tuesday - not just drizzle but heavy, persistent rain while a lot of the UK has been basking in sunshine and hot temperatures.  To test the power of positive thought, please can our readers send some dry weather our way.  Just relieved we dont have any chicks on nests. 

    As you can imagine, our birds have been hunkered down for most of the week.  Heather came out and gave a spectacular flying display in between one of the showers - she has gained so much confidence in her flying - not so many wobbles as she glides and turns.  Skye and Frisa are still staying close to her, keeping an eye on their youngster.  Half Pint and his sister have being practising short flights too, with Mum and Dad not very far away.

    Our young buzzards have been keeping us entertained at the hide this week - we have two families who have fledged and we are getting some great views of them practising hunting, diving and how to land in a tree.

     As I returned from a short visit to Oban yesterday afternoon, I had some great views of diving gannets - they are really amazing to watch.  As we were pulling into Craignure and I was pointing them out to my daughter, she said "never mind the gannets - what's that?"  Two dark fins were protruding from the water "That my dear is a basking shark" I replied.  We are very lucky to witness such wildlife on our shopping trips!

     

    Gannet - Photo Debby Thorne

     

     

     

    Gannet - Photo Debby Thorne

     

     

     

     

    We will keep you updated on news but in the meantime, I am off to build an ark!

     

    Debby Thorne

    White Tailed Sea Eagle Information Officer, Isle of Mull