January, 2010


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
  • Like mother like daughter

    Only this week I was watching the fabulous Frisa with the winter's sun beaming down on her and thinking how much like her mother she looked. Of course to some, all white-tailed eagles will look the same. Maybe they do? But for a while there I was transported back 25 years to those lonely but wonderful days on the edge of the loch watching Frisa's mum Blondie raise the first wild bred chick in the UK for 70 years. How proud she would be of what Frisa and her faithful mate Skye have achieved since they first paired up in 1997 and all the chicks they've raised to fledging over the last 12 years.

    Then tonight I was at home doing a bit of sorting in the household files and clearing out ancient bank statements, out of date documents and general rubbish. Stuffed into one of the pockets in the file was a note I'd written for someone for something ten years ago when the news first came through that the famous Blondie was missing, presumed dead. Just for old time's sake, I'll stuff it back into the file but before I do I'll write it out again for you here...

    5 June 2000

    Blondie RIP 1978-2000: "...an ornithological icon..."

    In May 2000, the female sea eagle known as Blondie to her many admirers disappeared from her nest site on the Isle of Mull where she had just hatched this year's clutch of eggs. This behaviour was so out of character that it must be assumed she has died from causes unknown, probably natural. Despite a search by island staff, no trace of her has ever been found and over such remote and difficult terrain, it is unlikely we will ever know what happened. She was at least 21 years old and as she matured, her head plumage became a light, sandy blonde, hence her name. In 1985, Blondie became famous, with her mate, for being the first sea eagles to hatch and fledge wild bred young in Scotland for some 70 years. She was part of the original sea eagle reintroduction programme which started in 1975; she was hatched in Norway, transported to Scotland by the RAF and released by the Nature Conservancy Council (now Scottish Natural Heritage) from the project base on the Isle of Rum. Soon after she flew south to establish a territory on Mull in the early 1980s and is first thought to have laid eggs in 1984 but these failed to hatch. A year later, however, there was triumphant news as the first chicks were hatched in May and one young sea eagle eventually fledged successfully some three months later. The pair have since raised 15 chicks and have played a major role in re-establishing sea eagles as a secure species back where they belong in Scotland.

    As one of the fortunate wardens watching that historic nest in 1985, I have followed Blondie's life ever since. As the news breaks of her loss, I am sitting behind my desk at RSPB's Scottish Headquarters in Edinburgh. I  write this as I remember the passing of an old friend:

    "I can still see her now sitting at the edge of the wood overlooking the loch: her beautiful blonde head and that incredible beak looking even paler in the early morning sunshine. She was there every morning, rain or shine, taking a short break from the nest at dawn to preen and feed; often she'd just perch, gazing about her, ruffling her feathers, an occasional delicate scratch of her head with those huge talons. It would be nice to know if she ever wondered about us, perched in a tent on the hillside watching her every move? I don't suppose she did. When she moved back to the nest to feed her chicks, she was so careful, so tender. I think for me, it was love at first sight.

    Since then, I have seen her on every holiday trip to the island. I usually knew where to find her; her favourite roosts, skyline lookouts, sometimes alone but invariably with her mate who has not always been so faithful (he spent a few seasons commuting between Blondie and another female on her nest in another glen) but he finally made the right choice and settled down. I can recall the anxiety we felt  as her first chick plunged into the loch and vanished; she circled the spot calling as we frantically scanned the surface for signs of life. The next morning, there was the chick fully recovered from the ordeal perched alongside her and the male. The perfect family portrait.

    But now she has gone from our skies. The island will be an emptier place for me without her presence. Despite a valiant solo effort (with a helping hand from the RSPB) to keep this year's chicks alive, the male eventually abandoned the nest when he realised she was never coming back. Who knows what, if anything, an eagle 'feels' when the mate he's spent the last 20 or so years with, suddenly isn't there anymore? He was eventually discovered some weeks later roosting alone back at the original 1985 nesting site which they had not used or visited for several years. Perhaps he thought he'd find her there?

    We hope he finds a new mate soon. Meanwhile, at least two of her offspring we know have found mates of their own and are nesting successfully. One of her daughters is a similarly striking bird and this year is raising two chicks. The dynasty will continue. The last time I saw Blondie back in April, she was sitting in an old larch tree, her head catching the Easter sunshine and looking better than ever. She tilted her head to one side, peered skywards and called loudly as a raven flew 'cronking' overhead. The next time I visit , and forever more I suspect, I'll still scan those favourite trees and skyline boulders and hope to see an eagle there. Her wild spirit will live on."

    Right -  time to get back to the file spring clean.

    Dave Sexton RSPB Mull Officer




  • Urban Birding Comes to Mull!

    Last week, we welcomed David Lindo, also known as "The Urban Birder" and photographer Russell Spencer to our Island.  Some of you may have seen David on Spring Watch, The One Show or read some of his articles in the RSPB's Birds magazine, BBC Wildlife Magazine or BirdWatching.  David lives in London and his patch is Wormwood Scrubs which some of you may be familiar with as the prison!  For David, its his piece of birding paradise - an area of scrubland with young trees and shrubs and a welcome oasis for a huge variety of birds.  It is probably just about a year ago when I invited David to Mull to see the wildlife and of course, our eagles as well as fit in a talk to the Mull Bird Club.  Finally, after months of planning,  on Tuesday morning, Dave and I waited at Craignure pier for the ferry to dock.   Our hearts were in our mouths as we watched the ferry attempting to dock in strong cross winds and a very high tide.  Thoughts of the ferry turning back to Oban and the whole trip falling apart were pushed to the back of my mind!  At last the ferry made it and David and Russell strode down the gangway and stepped on to Mull for the first time.  We went for quick cup of coffee to discuss our plans for the week and as we walked out into the car park, what should fly past?  As if on cue, one of our young sea eagles.  Wow, they had been on the island about half an hour and already they had witnessed one of our magnificent eagles.  That really set the tone for their trip.  The Island was still covered in some snow and lots of ice and some roads were still impassable.  However, we managed to show them a huge part of the island and for David a big tick was his first Scottish golden eagles.  We were treated to a fantastic display from a male and young female in Glen More playing tag against the backdrop of a snowy mountain.  Who could ask for more?  Otters, red deer and a whole host of different birds were on great form and David and Russell could see them in their natural habitat looking just stunning.   

    David Lindo & David Sexton Eagle spotting - photo Debby Thorne 


     The two David's spotting eagles! - photo Debby Thorne











    David also gave a talk to the Mull Bird Club about his patch and the amazing variety of birds he has seen.  Sometimes it's easy for us to forget that wildlife is all around us - you don't have to visit the countryside to see it - it can be right in the centre of a city - the secret is to just look and listen - you just might get a surprise.  Here is the link to David's website http://www.theurbanbirder.com/home/  Look out for his article in the Spring edition of Birds magazine.  Also take a look at some of Russell's stunning photography http://www.flickr.com/photos/remove-before-flight 


    Some of you may have caught Snow Watch which was shown on BBC2 in the week.  It included a clip from Gordon Buchanan during his visit to the island - in case you missed it you can catch it on the

    BBC IPlayer http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00qcjzh/Snow_Watch/


    Don't forget to make a note to watch Bill Bailey's Birdwatching Bonanza - the episode filmed on Mull is scheduled to air on 28th January at 9pm on Sky1/HD.


    Debby Thorne

    White Tailed Eagle Information Officer, Mull



  • There's no business like snow business

    Last Thursday the call went out for stories and ideas for a new specially commissioned programme for BBC Two: 'Snow Watch'. The Springwatch/Autumnwatch team wanted to know how the current freezing temperatures were affecting the UK's wildlife. The following day our good friend, cameraman and presenter Gordon Buchanan was on his way north from Glasgow across Rannoch Moor en route for the Lochaline ferry to Fishnish on Mull. We don't hang about when the call goes out.  A few days before, I'd watched Frisa and Skye, our two resident adult white-tailed eagles at Loch Frisa along with their 2009 chick Heather and two other immature sea eagles, all feeding at some gralloch on the hill. In addition there were three or four buzzards, 40+ ravens and countless hooded crows all sharing the seasonal feast.

    In the absence of any natural predators, the huge red deer population of Scotland is managed by man. Throughout the autumn and into the new year, many stalkers and estates cull first the stags and now the hinds. It helps to keep the population in check, allows native vegetation to grow, provides valuable employment and income in rural areas and, if you like venison, provides a healthy and tasty casserole on a cold winter's night. Even if you don't eat meat, it's worth knowing that the traditional practice of 'gralloching' a beast after it's been shot provides a vital food source for many upland species - especially birds of prey. As seen in the multi-award winning RSPB film 'Eagle Odyssey' many species get to learn very quickly that the sound of a single shot echoing round the hills means a free and very welcome meal. In particular, eagles learn this trick. Stalkers talk of an eagle or two soaring overhead within seconds of the shot ringing out. Others tell of leaving the beast on the hill while they go off to fetch the pony or quadbike to haul the deer off the hill, only to return to find the eagles well fed - sometimes so well fed they can scarcely take off.  For some stalkers these close encounters with eagles are special moments and even the presence of a raven cronking overhead can signal good luck for the day's stalk.

    And so it was that we found ourselves keeping watch over some gralloch on the hill all weekend from dawn until dusk. In the sub-zero temperatures, hands quickly became numb and feet could barely function. It was a primeval scene with buzzards, ravens and crows all taking their turns on cue. These predators turned scavengers do a good job of clearing the hills and coasts of carcasses - deer, sheep, goats, seals -  where the harsh winter weather takes its deadly toll. And how did the eagles fare in this waiting game? You'll need to tune into 'Snow Watch' to find out! All I can say is that Mull looks stunning in this winter wonderland and Gordon did not go away empty-handed. But I do now know why they say 'never work with animals or children' (not that I saw much of my kids this weekend). 

    Some great news on our satellite tagged young sea eagles...the Loch Frisa chicks of 2008 first: female Breagha is on South Rona and her brother Mara has been on Coll, Mull and around Loch Sunart, his favourite place at the moment. This year's chicks from other sites on Mull have been very mobile recently: female Venus has headed south to Jura and the male Oran has gone from Kintyre to Northern Ireland and now back across to Islay where the thousands of wintering geese must be an attraction for him. Just to the north of Islay, a 2006 sub adult was watched recently tackling a greylag goose on the RSPB's Oronsay reserve. Winter is a challenging time for all wildlife. Whether the eagles are hunting for themselves or are fortunate to come across a tasty handout from a friendly stalker, this protracted icy blast will be hard on young eagles in their first winter. Time will tell who makes it through to spring - and who does not.


    Here are some stunning photos of Oran on the Mull of Kintyre recently and we thank photographer, James MacDonald for letting us use them here. Compare them with the shot by Nick Purdy of Oran in his nest on the tracking page. He's certainly grown into a fine young sea eagle...


    Oran - Photograph Jimmy MacDonald










    Photograph - James MacDonald










    Oran - Photograph James MacDonald


    Photograph James MacDonald


    Snow Watch with Gordon Buchanan, Kate Humble, Chris Packham and Simon King was on BBC Two on Wednesday 13 January 2010 at 8pm. Watch it now on BBC iPlayer (BBC Two).

     Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer