Nature always has a way of surprising you, however long you’ve been observing it. Take today for instance. A glance out of the office window at the flocks of chaffinches on the sunflower seeds; lovely in their own way but nothing out of the ordinary. Some were even coming into their bright spring breeding plumage now. Further across the lawn (or what passes for a lawn – it’s more a bed of moss) several blackbirds were squabbling as usual over some old apples and a couple of song thrushes moved in while they weren’t looking. On the nut feeders, 2-3 (or was it 23?) different blue tits were dashing back and forth, seeing off coal tits and standing their ground against the house sparrows. And of course, yes, there he was – cheeky robin waiting to come into the warm office.
So, all in all, a pretty typical garden scene at Dunvegan Towers. But as the sleet and snow flurries intensified, an extraordinary flash of colour caught my eye amidst the grey winter scene. There perched on the side of the bird bath was a single beautiful waxwing. A touch of the exotics had exploded into the winter drabness with crest raised, black throat, yellow tip to the tail, yellow and white flashes and those characteristic red ‘waxy’ tips to the wings. He sat there surveying the scene beneath him on the grass. He must have thought he’d died and gone to heaven. Chopped apples, squishy red plums and over-ripe bananas were there for the taking. It didn’t take him long to dive in. He hopped around on the ground in amongst the blackbirds and song thrushes feeding continuously on his favourite, the plums.
Waxwing in Dave's garden - Photo Debby Thorne
This winter there have been very few waxwing sightings in Scotland and indeed across the UK. In some winters they ‘erupt’ in large numbers from their homes in sub-Arctic northern Europe. They sometimes arrive after those invading Viking thrushes, the redwings and fieldfares, have stripped the hedgerows and gardens bare. At times like that people start to see waxwings turning up in supermarket car parks and industrial estates where Cotoneaster shrubs are heavy with scarlet berries. The waxwings can often become very tame and barely seem to notice the gathering crowds of people who sometimes flock to see them. They are worth making a trip for.
Waxwing in Dave's garden - Photo Debby Thorne
Our lonely waxwing must have become separated from his flock. He was still feeding in the garden at gone 6pm and the light was all but gone. A stunningly exquisite bird feeding just a few feet away. I thought it couldn’t get any better than this. And then it did. Across the rushy field behind the house floated the white form of a barn owl, silent and ghostly in the gathering dusk. Two special birds in view at the same time. The waxwing froze in fear and the barn owl drifted on. As the final light faded, the waxwing took his chance to flee. He flew to the top of the rowan tree, paused a moment and then took off to the north to seek out a safe, dense conifer to roost in for the night. Our brief glimpse into the nomadic world of these colourful Nordic visitors. As I said, nature always has a way of surprising you.
Our satellite tagged young white-tailed eagles have been on the move lately and it's welcome home to Breagha. Check out the latest updated map on the tracking page. Sadly still radio silence from Venus and I'm beginning to be less optimistic for her welfare.
RSPB Scotland Mull Officer
(sorry couldnt think of a song title for this blog)
Its true I tell you! I am sitting here on Sunday evening with after sun cream on my face! Mull has been experiencing some amazing weather over the last few weeks. Beautiful crisp, clear days, and last night the snow returned. It has been the half term holiday for English schools, and there has been a noticeable increase in the visitors to the Island. We had a couple of trips to the hide in the week and both groups had stunning views of our eagles. One of the trips saw Skye and Frisa sat in one of their favourite trees only to see another 3 more sea eagles flying on the far side of the Loch. Skye went over to investigate and at one point, all 4 were circling in a clear blue sky - certainly a jaw dropping moment. The small birds were pleased to see me and were impatient for me to fill their feeders - it wasn't long before they were covered in a flock of siskins as well as the usual great tits, blue tits, coal tits as well as the local robins and dunnock hoovering up the crumbs. It was lovely to see our Great Spotted Woodpecker back on his favourite peanut feeder - they peck so hard you do wonder how they dont end up with a headache!
Chilly Male Siskin!
There are still many visitors on Mull taking advantage of this wonderful winter we are experiencing and getting some great views of our wildlife. I ran a trip to the hide this morning and was pleasantly surprised to wake up and find a winter wonderland - everywhere snow covered and a clear blue sky. As I drove towards the Loch, I cursed at having left the camera at home - no time to go back and get it - the Loch was actually covered in snow - it has certainly been frozen but this is the first time I have seen snow on it. Having scraped the ice off the hide windows, put the heater on I turned to the task of looking for Skye and Frisa. Mmmh - all quiet and no sign - perhaps off feeding somewhere I thought. I drove up and collected the group and took them back to the Hide. I welcomed the visitors and then went on to say "Let me introduce our eagles to you - Skye and Frisa!" - and right on cue, they both flew into one of their regular roosting trees - they couldn't have timed it better. Both birds positively shone in the sunshine and the group were over the moon. Both birds were calling to each other even though they sat about 2 feet apart. The weather was so beautiful and there was such warmth in the sun that we stayed outside - hence my sunburnt face! So I can say with hand on heart, Spring is just round the corner - I have snowdrops and crocus flowering in the garden, it is still light at 5.30 in the evening and its just light when I get up now - all signs that spring is just not that far away. I really didnt think I would be applying after sun cream in February though!
We have just received some data from our sat tagged birds - Breagha and Mara are now on Morvern so not too far from home - Oran has now moved from Jura to Mull. No news on Venus at the moment.
Dont forget if you are coming to Mull, come and see Loch Frisa and our spectacular white tailed eagles - Mull Eagle Watch details here
Debby Thorne, White Tailed Eagle Information Officer, Mull
At last Frisa and Skye have been revealing a few secrets of their hidden world of courtship. At first light last week I discovered them cosied up on an old favourite nest. If this is their choice, there is much to be done to this trusty old eyrie to get it ready in time but they seemed to have a distinct lack of urgency about them. Or at least Skye did.
While Frisa was busy rearranging sticks, Skye was perched to one side of the nest happily preening and looking for all the world like he didn't really give a damn. As the sun moved out from behind the trees and illuminated them both in the spotlight, flecks of white down drifted away from him and got stuck on adjoining branches. He stretched out a leg and scratched his head. Then a wing stretch, first one and then the other. Then a long beak-gaping 'yawn'.
All this time Frisa was doing the house-keeping: moving one stick from the left side of the nest to the right and then back again. Pulling up a tuft of dead grass from within the nest and dumping it on the side. And a few minutes later, hauling it back into the nest again. She looked at Skye now sunning himself with half out-stretched wings, 'copping a few prime-time rays'. She called out, loud and long, which made him jump to attention. With that he stepped back onto the nest rim and started calling back. I knew what was going to happen next and sure enough he jumped on to her back and with their calls echoing through the forest, he proceeded to do what comes naturally at this time of year.
When the commotion calmed down, Skye went back to his perch and resumed his preening activities while Frisa once again went back to sorting out the nest. Eventually she gave up on waiting for any help and flew off into the trees returning a few minutes later with a long stick which she struggled to land. She is a very determined bird and finally made it back onto the nest and started yet more rearranging of the furniture. Skye never did take the hint. She called again a few minutes later and he clearly thought that maybe his luck was in for a second time that morning.
Just at that moment Ken Bruce on Radio Two played the Rose Royce 1979 classic 'Is it love you're after?' and the lyrics seemed to sum things up rather well. Frisa gave Skye a final withering look and flew off and away over the trees. Skye, paused for a moment, looked a little crest-fallen and then followed her flight path away over the ridge. A few minutes later they reappeared at a great height , soaring ever higher into the wide blue yonder. Their white tails glinting in the sun and their calls descending from the heavens. It sounded like Skye was getting an ear bashing. I wonder if he'll ever get the message?
Those eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that the satellite data for our 2009 female chick Venus hasn't changed since 21 January. That was the last date we received any information from her and it's fair to say we have all been very concerned for her welfare. There are a number of possible explanations for this ranging from something horrible having happened to her to a serious malfunction of the satellite tag which has occasionally happened in the past on other projects.
As you can imagine, we have been carrying out various detailed investigations into this worrying turn of events and although we can't yet be 100% certain, the evidence thus far seems to be pointing more towards a problem with the tag than an accident for Venus. We continue to carefully probe every possible cause and will keep you posted as best we can in the circumstances. Obviously any sightings of a young sea eagle with a satellite tag and aerial on are very welcome and I'd encourage you to let us know if you happen to see one. We can then work out if it's any other bird from the data sets and eliminate them from our enquiries. It might just be Venus continuing to explore far and wide so please keep everything crossed for her.
Dave Sexton RSPB Mull Officer