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
Wonderful, wonderful update Dave.. What a figher Kellan is and how wonderful that you are seeing. Hopefully he will make it now but with the help of so many devoted people he has been given the best chance.
Thanks for keeping us informed Dave nice to know that while all of us are concerned whether he will be 100% in the wild he is doing better than we could have hoped.Think he has lots of things going for him with you keeping a eye out for him and with him having a spiky mum like YBS,how nice to have good news from a near disaster.
Thanks for the update Dave, that is just the best news to know what a survivor Kellan is. Sounds like he is going to be the leader of the gang!
Best wishes to you all.
Fantastic Dave..good to hear he is doing so well!! Thank you.
wonderful, so good to know. Thanks Dave.
The Scottish SPCA obviously taught him a few things:) it's brilliant I would have thought he would be last to feed and wait till there was no confrontation! That must have been great to watch! Hope all the eagles are ok with this weather and it eases soon.
Kellan update Feb 5, 2011
We've been worried since the hurricane-force winds hit these islands this week but we should have known better.
I found Kellan this morning sitting high on his favourite hill and in the company of three other young sea eagles. On a deer carcass nearby an immature golden eagle was feeding. Suddenly Kellan took off and flew towards the feasting eagle. Usually it's the golden eagles who are in charge and the sea eagles wait their turn. But that was all about to change.
Kellan landed next to the carcass and both eagles squared up to each other; the feathers on their napes standing up, beaks open, wings half open. Amazingly, with one lunge, Kellan launched himself at the young goldie who immediately gave in and jumped away, head down in submission. Kellan mantled the prey and then began to feed watched by the other eagles.
Kellan may not win any synchronised flying competitions at the moment but he is a survivor and we're all rooting for him.
Our remaining 4 satellite tagged eagles are ok and roaming around various parts of the Highlands and Islands. We hope to update the maps shortly but the sat tags are on their winter timetable so the data is less frequent.
That was amazing, Dave! Thank you.
Hope all human inhabitants on Mull,wildlife and Sea Eagle nests have survived the bad winds and not too much damage to property.
Thanks Dave for that wonderful heart-warming story. I found it very moving, and incredible that YBS was there almost waiting for Kellan on his return (although as Mex says - why not?). If Kellan can pick up on our positive thoughts and good wishes he will do well! A great team effort, and special thanks of course to the farmer. Thanks Debby for the photos of Kellan's return. We hope to be on Mull in May, maybe we will catch a glimpse of him then!
Thanks all round. Brilliant. As I said before - if our 'pet' bird longs for his favourite human family members when they are away for months, are you all really so surprised that Kellan's parents would remember him? Why should raptors be different in this from other birds? Good news, anyway.
Haven't logged on to this blog for some considerable time- don't know what made me do so today but how very glad I am that I did! What a fantastic story! EVERYONE concerned with the rescue and care of Kellan should be very proud of themselves - you are wonderful people, Thankyou.
Thanks Dave you have reduced me to tears with this wonderful story of Kellan and his fight for survival and how wonderful that YBS remembered her offspring. Many many thanks to all who were connected with this rescue and may he fly long and free out in the blue sky where he belongs.
Phew!!! Who needs TV when you can sit and read a story as good as this? I am so thrilled that it appears to have a very happy ending, thanks to you, Dave, and all others concerned. It is so easy to picture the scene with the help of the wonderful photos, and almost feel you were present. I shall certainly remember the date of release as it was my Mother's birthday. This is such an uplifting tale when you compare it with all the awful troubles in the world, riots, flooding, cuts, jobless numbers, etc., etc. Good news never hits the headlines, pity that. I hope we will be lucky enough to see Kellan on our visit later in the year and to meet you or Debby, or both. A thousand thanks for all the RSPB does. Enjoyed doing the garden watch yesterday, have posted the results.
Oh my gawd Dave what a story, I had tears in my eyes reading and hope in my heart. We went to Ullapool today and say three Sea Eagles over Ben Hope. I hope it was Kellan and parents. Mt heart goes out to you and your team, amazing!