July, 2010

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
  • Be young, be foolish but be happy

    It was time to ground-truth the satellite tag data which has been coming in recently for one of the two 2010 white-tailed eagle chicks. The data was suggesting that the chick might have fledged but the last time I checked, the youngster was still firmly on the nest although it frequently jumped out onto a nearby branch and then back again. It wasn't quite ready just yet.

    This sunny Sunday afternoon, I bumped along the rough farm track towards the river and was suddenly aware of a commotion down by the loch. I pulled up in a cloud of dust and gravel causing the local sheep to look up in alarm. Down at the water's edge, I saw first one, then both adult sea eagles flying fast and furiously in all directions, as if chasing something. They were under seige from a large flock of hooded crows and I suspect the eagles were probably in pursuit of a young hoodie. As one eagle missed its target, its mate took over the chase. The speed and skill of the two massive birds made me realise, yet again, just how misjudged they often are when it comes to aerial dexterity. They have a reputation for being lazy; of sitting around all day waiting to steal prey from some other predator which has done all the hard work and then loses it to a marauding sea eagle. Lazy this was not.

    As quickly as it had started, it was all over. Both eagles landed, one with their chosen quarry clenched firmly in those hand-sized feet and talons and the hoodies reluctantly departed. For once, they were the losers. The flock containing one less member. What amazing cooperative hunting from the two adult eagles. When they have a hungry chick to provide for, there's no arguing about who gets the food.

    I positioned the Landrover with a good view to the loch, just as the adult with the prey took off and flew purposefully towards the nest area. I said a quiet 'Yeeesss!' to myself as the recently fledged, dark brown and unsteady chick came hurtling out of the wood and gave chase. The adult kept flying, as if making the offspring work for its supper. With the chick closing on its parent, the adult eagle dropped to the ground. The chick crash landed, smashing into the adult which went tumbling backwards in a flurry of brown and white feathers. The chick quickly recovered its composure and pounced on the prey, just as the adult bird leaped out of the way. This was no longer a cute, downy chick which the parent had to tenderly feed beak to beak. Oh no. This baby was now fully grown. The food belonged to him and he was perfectly capable of tearing it up himself. Move over mum. This eaglet has landed!

    As the chick mantled the prey with young, perfect wings outstretched in the bracken and bog myrtle, the parent took off and perched in a favourite tree to recover from the ungrateful treatment it had just received from the tetchy toddler. Then the chick's dismantling of the prey began with feathers flying in all directions. Watching this fabulous young eagle dispatching the prey so skillfully made me feel strangely proud. Another youngster was well on its way to independence day, several months from now. It was like being at your kid's graduation.

    After half an hour or so, with the food all gone, the chick flew with the surprising agility of a bird which had probably been on the move for a few days. The satellite data was correct after all. I should never have doubted our eye in the sky. However, the eaglet still has some work to do to perfect the landings. There was another crumpled heap as he plonked down by the loch edge and then tottered straight into the water. It was comical to watch as it peered down into the water for minutes on end. Perhaps he was seeing his scary reflection or maybe watching young trout flashing through the shallows? 

    He bent forward to drink several times, the droplets dripping off the tip of that massive beak. The last time he bent forward, he over-balanced and splashed a bit further in. You could almost see the thought processes going on in that hard-wired raptorial brain - so is this what a bath is like? With that, he settled right down in the water and started to splash around with some uncertainty. First one side, then the other. Then the whole head under. Suddenly it must have all felt a bit too deep and dangerous and he leaped out with a great shower of water and slumped onto a slippery boulder - which he promptly slipped off and back into the water again with a splosh.

    Enough was enough. Time to compose some regal eagle splendour. This time he summoned up all his strength and newly discovered skill and he flew, with an osprey-like shake of water from his feathers, to a stunted, dead oak and landed surprisingly gracefully. With the adult still perched nearby watching this whole ungainly performance, the young eagle began to relax and preen and all was right with the world. The image of that chick with the parent bird alongside in that exact same setting transported me back 25 years to that very special first chick. But that's another story.

    It was time to head for home. Another special young eagle was starting to make his way in the world. "Don't let the rain get you down, it's a waste of time. Have your fun, live every day in the bright sunshine".

    And we'll be with him every step of the way.

    Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer

    This year's two satellite tagged sea eagle chicks from Mull will make their debut on the world stage later this summer. Stay tuned for that.

    Meanwhile please come and visit the Mull Eagle Hide by calling to book on a trip on 01680 812 556 Mull Eagle Watch

  • Are the Stars out tonight?

    Well they certainly are at Loch Frisa.  What am I talking about?  Well, we have just been awarded 4 Stars "Excellent"  Wildlife Attraction category by VisitScotland!  

    VisitScotland Certificate

    As you can imagine, we are over the moon.  It is great to receive the recognition that the whole experience of paying a visit to the Eagle Hide is truly "Excellent".  Of course, we knew that but to be told officially, receive a certificate and have the plaque over the door is the icing on the cake.

    I was away on the Black Isle getting some osprey and dolphin therapy week before last when Mull experienced its first real rainfall since February - we were lucky in the Highlands and on the east coast to be have relatively dry, albeit very windy weather.  I came back hoping summer had returned but sadly the rain kept going, and going, and going!  I think our drought is now officially over.  We returned at the weekend and during a break in the rain, drove up to Frisa to check on our eagles - incredible how much you miss them when away.  As I arrived at the Hide, the sun had come out, and there, sitting on the larches, side by side, Skye and Frisa - basking in the warmth of the sunshine.  I couldn't have asked for a better welcome home!  Incredibly this week, despite the rain, we have had some amazing views of them - they are spending a fair bit of time in the larches, giving our visitors wonderful views directly from the hide.  Frisa is going through a moult at the moment and missing some of her wing feathers but it was great to see them both flying side by side in between the showers.   We have also had some great views of golden eagles too - a great bonus on visiting the hide to see both types of eagle.

    Our buzzard chick has finally fledged - he/she occasionally returns to the nest with a frog or vole and looks incredibly healthy and grown up!  We wish it well as it ventures out.  Of course we still have our siskins, and we were delighted to see our male and female redpoll joined by a youngster at the feeder.  The sand martins are incredibly busy - many have now fledged and I counted over 60 birds lined up on the fence down at the lochside.  Our red throated divers have been showing off in front of the hide too - sadly looks like no chicks for them this year but one of the red breasted merganser pair have a large brood of chicks that are really doing well.

    Before I went away, the staff and pupils from Lochdonhead Primary school based on Mull, spent the day at the hide.  They are a wonderful group of children who are enthusiastic, knowledgeable and so polite.  A real credit to the school and their parents!  Their knowledge of birds and wildlife was amazing - naming all the birds on the feeders, wild flowers and spotting a pair of golden eagles flying over head!  Many of you will be aware that half the proceeds from the trips and donations received at the Hide go into the Mull Eagle fund, and the other half go back in to running the project.  The Mull Eagle fund is available for local groups and organisations on Mull and Iona to apply for money for projects based on the Islands.  Lochdonhead applied for funds to buy a nest camera box which has now been installed for some time.  The children (and staff!) have been lucky enough to have a family of blue tits, followed by a family of house sparrows take up residence.  The children can learn so much from experiences such as visits to the hide and watching wildlife as it happens - I wish it had been like that in my day.

     Staff and Pupils from Lochdonhead Primary School

      Staff and Pupils from Lochdonhead Primary School in front of the hide - photo Debby Thorne

    and finally, a photo of Frisa taken this week as she sat preening - Skye was a couple of trees away - just couldnt manage to get them both in the same photo!

    Frisa - our female white tailed eagle - photo Debby Thorne

    Dont forget if you are visiting Mull, do come and see us at Loch Frisa - full details Mull Eagle Watch

    Debby Thorne

    White Tailed Eagle Information Officer, Mull

  • Friends

    "So no one told you life was gonna be this way?"

    I often wonder how some of the white-tailed eagle chicks that have fledged from Mull have fared over the years. The biggest question mark of all is what became of that first historic chick in 1985? We didn't wing tag, satellite or radio tag chicks in those early days. Especially not the first one for 70 years!  We just couldn't risk anything going wrong. But now I wish we had. When he launched off into the great unknown one July morning 25 years ago, all we could really do was watch him go and hope and wish him all the luck in the world.

    We know he made it through his first winter, which can often be the most testing time for a young sea eagle out on his own. He was seen regularly around Mull a long way from the nest area so he'd obviously learnt to feed and look after himself. But then the trail went cold and he will have set off onto other islands and the mainland as they all do. Hopefully he met up with the final year's batch of releases from Norway on the Isle of Rum to the north of here. That would have given him some company and then he will have glided on to who knows where? I like to think that he may even still be out there today breeding at some ancient sea eagle site. It is just possible age-wise as we have some birds here which are now about 30 years old. We'll just have to keep wondering and dreaming.

    But I'm pleased to say there are some old (or rather young) eagle friends out there that we do know something about. Wing tags helped us hugely with gathering information about the movements of the precious chicks once they'd fledged. They were not everyone's cup of tea and it's clearly nicer to see a sea eagle unfettered with plastic tags but they did the job we asked of them and didn't interfere with the eagles themselves. Although the East Scotland and Irish projects quite rightly still wing tag, we took the decision in the west that we'd gathered all the information we could using that technique and it was time to call it a day in 2007. As you know, since then we've been lucky enough to be able to afford to fit satellite tags to two Mull chicks each year thanks to our friends at Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry Commission Scotland. They've been fitted with expert help from Roy Dennis of the Highland Foundation for Wildlife and Justin Grant and the data analysed by Natural Research Ltd.

    So what of the notable reports of some other wing tagged sea eagle chums? I know that 1998 Green X (the first successful chick to fledge for Frisa and Skye) is now a mum herself and just yesterday I watched her on a massive sea cliff looking along to her brood of two chicks this year, bouncing up and down on the nest and getting ready to make their maiden flight. In these horrendous gales of late I was wishing they'd just lie flat until the winds eased. But they seemed to be loving it. Their grandparents at Loch Frisa this year, sadly without chicks to raise themselves, would have been very proud!

    In 2005, a scrawny young male chick wing tagged Red V and nicknamed 'Valiant' by local people who were watching him made an early flight soon after fledging all the way to the Antrim Plateau in Northern Ireland. The following week he was back home on Mull! This year, after an absence of records for many years, he has been found paired up on another island and rearing a single chick of his own. He looks very grown up from that bundle of chocolate brown feathers which greeted me when he was lowered from his nest for tagging.

    We yearn for reports of Frisa and Skye's famous chicks from 2005 'Itchy' and 'Scratchy' (Red I and S) who starred in the first ever live Springwatch broadcasts. I just know we're going to find one of them soon, maybe next year, paired up like 'Valiant' and raising a brood. The following year, in 2006 came 'Haggis' and 'Oatie' (Yellow H and O) and they've been seen regularly over the years around the west and east coasts (even as far the Outer Hebrides and Perthshire). Indeed Haggis was back here just a few weeks ago up near Tobermory.

    But the best news this year involves another of Frisa and Skye's grandsons. Remember 2006 Yellow P, one of the 'freefall twins' who I wrote about a few years ago when their nest fell off the cliff one night in a storm? Both he and his brother Yellow G miraculously survived the ordeal. We rebuilt them a makeshift nest which the adults adopted as their own and both chicks went onto fledge successfully. Result!

    Well just a few weeks ago, Yellow G was sighted sitting on top of a hill in Argyll looking fit and well but his brother Yellow P has gone one step further. At just 4 years old, he has paired up with another Mull chick a very long way from here and - wait for it - they're rearing not one but TWO chicks on their very first attempt!  It's still early days but it's looking promising for them all.  More news on that developing story when I can. But what a fantastic result and it gladdens the heart and lifts your spirits after the sadness of recent losses.

    Some good friends - people and eagle - are really making it happen. As it says in the 'Friends' TV theme:

    "I'll be there for you - when the rain starts to pour; I'll be there for you - like I've been there before; I'll be there for you - because you're there for me too".

    Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer

    Come and see Frisa and Skye on Mull this summer. Call 01680 812 556 to book a trip.