Kellan had been away from Mull for three long months. It was time to bring him home.
The RSPB doesn't generally do wildlife rescue and animal welfare. It's just not what we're set up for - or why the Society first came into being. We protect birds and other wildlife through policy work, research, land acquisition, species protection and investigations. We don't have the expertise or experience to rescue and look after wildlife long term but it doesn't mean we don't care. So we work closely with organisations like the Scottish SPCA which was established to do exactly this type of work. They are experts in their field and are dedicated to helping wildlife return to the wild whenever possible. In most areas of the UK, the Scottish SPCA or RSPCA should be the first port of call when any injured wildlife is discovered. In a few areas, like on the Scottish isles where we're all more thinly spread, we all work closely together to do the best for any wildlife in distress. But the animal welfare organisations are still the experts.
With Kellan, their work was now done and it was back to us to monitor him after his release. He'd had superb care from vet Romain Pizzi and Rescue Centre Managers Colin Seddon, Colin Liddle and their team. The sooner Kellan could be released now the better his chances in the wild. They had done all they could. Before Christmas we tried twice to fix a release date but were thwarted by the extreme wintry conditions. Finally, we settled on 22 December. It was time. My RSPB colleagues in Edinburgh, Claire Smith of the East Scotland Sea Eagle Project and Duncan Orr-Ewing visited Kellan and fitted him with a light-weight radio tail mount which would allow us to track his progress once he was back on Mull and then he was on his way.
The day of his release dawned bright and frosty. Snow lay all around - a classic Christmas scene, deep, crisp and even. But it was calm and settled and that's what we needed to give Kellan his best hope. Cold, wet and windy would not have been good but he should easily cope with this. I checked the tide tables. Perfect. The tide was to be low just as the two Colins and Senior Inspector John McAvoy would arrive on the ferry. We had settled on bringing him back to as close to his nest area as we could. He would have imprinted on the area after his hatch and fledge period so he would immediately feel at home. We all planned to rendezvous at the release site. The estate had given its blessing to welcome his return. On the way there I passed the farmer who had rescued him all those months ago and I told him of the plan. He was busy feeding cattle and sheep and may not be able to make it.
At last the SSPCA vans with Kellan on board came into view and we set off for our final destination. Once there, the small group assembled and looked on eagerly for our first view of Kellan since he was taken away to the rescue centre in September. Colin Liddle gently lifted him from his carrying box and what a superb sight Kellan was. Fighting fit, alert and ready to go.
SSPCA Wildlife Rescue Centre Assistant Manager, Colin Liddle holds Kellan moments before his release
Photo copyright - Colin Seddon SSPCA
At that point the farmer and his family arrived to witness the big event. If only Kellan could know how much he owed him. If he hadn't made that call, Kellan would have slowly starved, hidden away in the bracken. He owed him his life. Colin placed the anxious young eagle on the snow, released his firm grip and stood back. We all watched from afar, feeling nervous and uncertain about what would happen next. Kellan lurched away in a bound, his wings half open. What must have been going through his mind? Fear, excitement, the adrenalin was pumping. He stopped in the glistening snow and looked first out across the shingle beach and then back in anger at his captors. He owed them too - big time.
Kellan's first few seconds of freedom - now what?
Photo copyright - Colin Seddon, SSPCA
He jumped again, wings fully stretched now and set his sights on the far horizon...
Kellan views the outside world for the first time in 3 months
photo copyright - John McAvoy, SSPCA
Then, with all the energy he could muster, he was away, flapping hard, gliding, more flaps - his wings worked. He was really flying!
Kellan senses freedom .... wings open ...... undercarriage up, he was away
photo copyright John McAvoy - SSPCA
He landed a few seconds later - a good 500 metres away - with a bit of a thud and a flurry of wings. But he had done it. He'd flown, he'd landed - he was back. The sense of relief for the whole team was immense. For the time being we had done all we could. Alot of what would happen next was up to him. He was fully fit, a good weight and had a better chance than many young eagles finding their way in the world.
We watched him for the next few hours until the mid-winter sun dipped below the Ben More ridge and it immediately felt cold. It was time for our SSPCA friends to head back to the ferry for their journey home to the east coast. We watched for as long as we could. He flew a few more times and we felt more and more confident that we had done the right thing in giving him this second chance in life.
As dusk fell on Kellan's first day back in the wild, he found a safe perch before heading for the trees to roost
photo copyright - Michael Jackson
But before we left him for the night one more remarkable thing happened. We found Kellan's parents perched a long way off in a favourite oak tree. They'd watched and waited. We were worried about how they might react. There was just no way of telling. We were in unchartered waters. Suddenly the female, YBS, took off and steamed towards Kellan, low over the shore. This was the moment of truth. Make or break. She headed straight for him in what looked like an aggressive act. Remarkably at the last second she pulled up, almost hovered over him and then landed by his side. She called, he called. Some of us watching took a deep breath and tried to look professional and composed after what we'd just witnessed. Some hugged and looked back at the two eagles - YBS and Kellan - together again. It was one of those special moments in life which you'll never forget.
The Homecoming...remarkably Kellan's mother YBS flew into greet him on the beach after 3 months away.
It was a scene none of us could have predicted and we couldn't have asked for more.
photo copyright - Debby Thorne
All of this happened nearly seven weeks ago. Since then, Kellan has slowly made his way from the shore line up high onto the hill, finding increasingly safer roosts each night and day by day making progress. Longer flights and landing more confidently in bigger trees. He has defended food against other young sea eagles who've paid him a visit and has evaded the intrusion of a manic young golden eagle. He has learned fast and is adapting well to life back in the wild.
Is he completely home and dry? I don't think so. He still has to gain full confidence on the wing and he avoids the rough and tumble of interactions with other young eagles. Whilst his damaged wing appears to work just fine, it was a serious injury and he may still feel some difficulty with it. And he still has to find his own food and ultimately make a kill if he is to survive long term. Only time will tell. We can still offer him an occasional helping hand until he is ready to venture further afield but for now he is doing amazingly well. I'm very proud of him. We all are. He's a fighter.
Today I was with my daughter Olivia when we suddenly came across him at close range high on the hill. We came over a ridge and there he was perched just 100 metres away. He looked fantastic: sleek, fit and healthy - his plumage in great shape. A few moments later, alert and nervous at our presence, he took to the wing and flew confidently away along the hill slope and landed well in the top of a larch. Olivia's words summed it up: "Dad, he looks like a proper eagle". And he did.
One day soon, I hope, he really will fly away.
"I make it alone; When love is gone; Still you made your mark; Here in my heart"
Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer
There were moments over the next few weeks when you really had to wonder about the maternal and paternal bonds of eagle parents and their offspring. Birds of prey like white-tailed eagles are 'hard-wired'. It's all instinctive. When there's a chick around to feed, calling, food begging, they'll hunt, feed and protect it. If it vanishes overnight, the stimulus is removed and they move on. No food begging: no need to hunt so much. End of cycle. But something was different for the female, (wing tagged yellow black-spot or YBS) and her mate and they knew it. The last time they'd seen Kellan, he was on the hillside, in amongst the green bracken. They can't have known anything was wrong then although he hadn't flown, he hadn't followed them when they came in with food, for several days now. He had found a long dead sheep carcase in amongst the bracken and had stayed close to it. It offered some nourishment but not much. They had provided for him too...fish, hare, auks - but the food they dropped for him remained untouched. He was simply too weak and incapacitated to reach it.
And then, suddenly, he was gone. One day as YBS flew in with fresh prey she couldn't find him. She flew back and forth along the hillside, head down, searching for her chick which she'd nurtured in the nest for over three months. Before that, with her mate, she'd incubated the egg for nearly seven weeks through wind, rain, sunshine and hail and had heard his first cheeping from within the egg just prior to hatching. Now, quite unexpectedly, he was gone. She flew on and perched with the prey and sat for ten minutes on a rocky knoll before searching again. Back to the perch, for twenty minutes this time, and then another fly past. Then to a new mound where, uncertain how to react, she ate the prey herself.
Over the next few weeks visitors at the campsite, unaware of what had become of the chick, reported the parent birds acting 'strangely'. Sometimes they still seemed to be searching for their lost chick. At other times they would be perched side by side in the conifers, restless, unsettled, calling.
On the other side of the country, Kellan was about to undergo his first major operation. He had been fed well by his surrogate Scottish SPCA parents on rabbit and trout. If it hadn't been such an alien environment for him, he might even have got quite used to this first-class care and attention. His aviary was safe, sheltered and secure; he had room to move and to even struggle to a perch to roost for the night. Small things like that gave him a sense of security and that quiet and calm was already helping his fractured wing to heal. But he still needed a liitle help from his friends.
This photo shows the bits of bone and infected debris remove from inside Kellan's
broken humerus on his right wing - photo Romain Pizzi/SSPCA
He was taking his anti-biotics with his food which was already beginning to target the aggressive bone infection. But it was also time for invasive and potentially dangerous surgery. There are few veterinary surgeons in the world who could tackle such a proceedure but fortunately for Kellan he was in the care of Dr Romain Pizzi The day after his operation, Romain called me again: "Well he made it through and I'm quite pleased with him. The fracture is healing as well as can be expected; I cleaned out all the infected material and he is eating again. I'm cautiously optimistic..."
This photo shows the view from the Vet's endoscope - the view from the inside of an eagle's wing!
photo Romain Pizzi/SSPCA
And so Kellan's slow recovery had really begun. He would still need many more weeks of post-operative care. Back here, life on Mull had to return to normal. There were other eagle chicks to check on. Kellan was an important young eagle but he wasn't the only one out there. We had to focus and move on.
Kellan recovering slowly from his ordeal in the aviary -
Photo by Colin Seddon/SSPCA
Over two months after her chick had seemed to vanish into thin air, YBS and her mate had probably moved on too. They could be seen down on their favourite shingle spit jutting out into the sea loch or perched in the oaks overlooking the goose fields. As far as they were concerned, they had entered their post-breeding phase. They were in moult. With no chick to provide for, they could ease back a little and with every ruffling of the feathers, clouds of down would drift away on the late summer breeze. But once or twice, YBS would take a detour from her normal flight line when she was heading back to the conifers to roost. She would veer off to the north and make a wide arc over the now browning bracken hillside where she'd last seen Kellan calling for food. He still wasn't there. She banked, drifted back south, her legs down and flew into roost for the night next to the male.
Meanwhile back in Fife, it was time for some decisions. Kellan's wing, infection and leg were healing well. Either he came back to Mull to try his luck with life in the wild or he spent the next thirty or so years in captivity. Had his injuries healed sufficiently well to risk the rigours of life in the hills? How could we ever know for sure until we tried? It was an agonising but tantalising decision. If he came home and died within a few days we would never forgive ourselves. But when the vet declared his time of recovery at the wildlife hospitial at an end, we knew we had to make that decision. He had been through so much, endured unimaginable trauma for a wild creature. Now his future was entirely in our hands.
Kellan gaining in strength under the care of the Scottish SPCAPhoto by Colin Seddon/SSPCA
Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer
The final part of this eagle odyssey will appear later his week.
I was used to handling eaglets from the nest when they were being ringed at 4-5 weeks old and even at the satellite or wing tagging stage when they're usually 8-9 weeks old. But what lay before me was a totally different ball game. This was a fully grown eagle who had tasted freedom and was not about to surrender it lightly. Maybe it was just too risky to attempt it alone. If one talon pierced something critical I could be in big trouble so far from help. Maybe I should just leave him in peace for one more night on the hill and return at dawn with someone who was used to handling wild eagles. Then I looked at him one more time. He had started to shiver - perhaps from shock, perhaps from the cold and wet. With the next downpour racing towards us across the sea loch I now seriously doubted if he'd even survive one more night.
Right or wrong, I'd made my decision and returned quickly to the Landrover for something to carry him in and something to occupy his talons with. I slid and slithered my way down and then back up the hill where the single-file sheep tracks were now running like burns in spate. First, I carefully placed my jacket over his head and then let him grab some hessian sacking to keep those dagger-like talons fully occupied. Then slowly and very gently, I eased him head first into the same large holdall bag that we use to lower chicks from the nest for tagging safely on the ground. I think he realised at that point that the game was up and I felt the fight going out of him. Now I was even more concerned: a lively eagle still had spirit, a chance of survival. A defeated eagle was in trouble. There was no time to lose.
I felt a huge surge of relief as I finally closed the zip on the bag, leaving a small gap for air and confident that none of his feathers had been damaged in the process. The sight of me staggering down the muddy hillside in the rain and dusk, as fast as I could safely go, clutching a holdall with an eagle in it, must have made for a bizarre sight. Once back at the road, some hurried phone calls and emergency plans were put in place. The next few hours were a complete blur but before we knew it, our young eagle was being checked, assessed and then whisked away into the expert care of the Scottish SPCA.
Later that night I collapsed on the sofa with a beer and relived the traumatic events of the day: the first phone call, the fruitless search, the atrocious weather, the eventual discovery, the doubts and the final rescue. And I marvelled at and was grateful for the expertise, knowledge and support from local raptor experts like Matt Wilson and the dedication of SSPCA Inspectors like John McAvoy who raced to the terminal to meet the VIP cargo off the ferry. Also at the rendezvous point was a driver from the SSPCA wildlife hospital at Middlebank who had driven across Scotland from Fife in the east to Oban in the west. Within just a few hours of me zipping up the bag on the hillside, our now weak young eagle was in the calm and warmth of the wildlife hospital and, even more amazingly, had already been seen by one of their brilliant and talented vets. After a long day, Dr Romain Pizzi was on his way home from treating exotic animals at Edinburgh Zoo when he was alerted to the arrival of the eagle and diverted to Middlebank. I would receive his assessment the next day.
An injured and poorly Kellan was now in the best possible hands - at the Scottish SPCA - photo John McAvoy/SSPCA
For now, the eagle was hanging in there - just - and was transferred to a quiet, sheltered and screened aviary to recover from his journey and stress. He even ate a little - something fresh and nutricious. It was probably his first proper food for days. I suspected his parents had been dropping food for him nearby on the hill but his injured state would have made it harder and harder for him to reach it. As I hit the hay that night, I wondered what news would await me in the morning. None of us could be completely confident that he would survive the night.
Puffers in Salen Bay - Photo Debby Thorne
The next morning, catching up on long forgotten admin, the 'phone rang. It was the SSPCA vet with his initial assessment. It wasn't good news. The young eagle's humerus was fractured in his right wing, one leg had a hairline fracture and he had a "massive bone infection" possibly resulting from the wound on his broken wing. I thought Romain's next words would be to suggest that it would be kinder if the young eagle was put to sleep. He had been through too much already and an eagle with a broken wing probably had little chance of recovery. But I was wrong: "He's severely underweight and seriously injured but he's also a fine, strong bird and I think it's worth a try. No guarantees. It'll be a long journey but I think he deserves a second chance. We'll see what we can do and I'll be in touch". And with that he was gone. I put the phone down and looked out of the office window at the gulls floating about above Salen Bay. Against all the odds, our eagle had made it through the night and was about to start his treatment of anti-biotics for the infection and later intricate surgery to fix his broken bones.
An Xray of Kellan's fractured humerus Photo courtesy of Dr Romain Pizzi/SSPCA
For young Kellan, it would be a frightening and stressful time but at least he was eating. That had to be a good sign didn't it? It would be a very long road back and the vet's words were never far away from our thoughts: "No guarantees".
Part 4 will follow shortly