Just days after their first successful hatching in 2003 and hearing those chick feeding calls from the eyrie, the forest that morning seemed unusually quiet. On approaching my concealed observation point hidden in the trees, I could sense something was possibly wrong. A raven flew low over the tree top nest, but there was no reaction from Iona. Normally she would have called out in alarm or Fingal would have given chase. But nothing. Just silence.
The telescope eyepiece misted up from the sudden exposure to the chilly morning air. So frustrating! Was that still the top of Iona's head just visible on the nest? Yes, I was sure it was. All must be well. But as the condensation on the lens slowly reduced, the awful reality dawned. It wasn't Iona's head at all. It was just the sun catching a few feathers fluttering in the breeze. As the minutes, then hours, ticked by and there was no movement, it was sickeningly clear that something terrible had befallen their first nesting attempt. The nest was deserted. Fingal and Iona had gone. The chick (or chicks) must have died.
Iona on nest duty - photo copyright Debby Thorne
Eventually when I knew it was safe to do so, I emerged from my hiding place into the warming May sunshine. I stretched after being cramped for so long in the damp forest hollow and turned away from the nest to look up at the hills. Two distant humps on the horizon caught my eye and I focussed the 'scope on them. There were Fingal and Iona sitting close together on a grassy knoll, some consolation at least to still have each other. At times it looked like they didn't have a care in the world; they would preen, wing stretch, watch other raptor activity overhead with interest and Fingal even coughed up a huge pellet at one point.
Fingal enjoying a thermal - photo copyright Bryan Rains
But Iona kept glancing back towards her empty nest and eventually her strong maternal instincts overcame her. She launched off from her hummock and headed back to the nest for one last time; one last look. I hid again in the trees as she landed on the branch above the nest, peering down in that quizzical way of eagles. Then, with a great bound and flap of her wings, she jumped down and stalked around the nest rim. Despite the loss of her chicks, she still clenched her massive yellow talons as she did so. Stupidly, I even wondered for a split second if I'd got it all wrong and that all was well after all. But no.
After a minute or two and with a final glance down at what might have been, Iona jumped back up onto the branch and then flapped heavily away over the tree tops. She started to circle on the warm thermals where she was joined by Fingal and the two of them soared ever higher, calling occasionally, until they drifted away and over the summit of Ben More. There was no obvious cause of failure. Maybe just inexperience? They were still young birds. There was always next year.
In 2004 we were joined by cameraman Gordon Buchanan making his first full length 'Natural World' film for the BBC. We spent weeks planning his locations and subjects on Mull for the landmark documentary which would eventually become the highly acclaimed 'Eagle Island' (or 'Eagles of Mull' on TV in the US). It would become his springboard onto even bigger projects in the future including Spring & Autumnwatch and the numerous 'Lost Land...' series. But for now, all his focus was on Mull's amazing wildlife and his 'Eagle Island' film where the white-tailed eagles would be the stars of the show.
Fortunately for us, Fingal and Iona were back at their familiar eyrie for a second attempt. Over the winter they had added huge amounts of sticks and piles of grass lining to their nest and all the signs were good. By mid April they were well into their incubation. For all of us working to protect these birds, the 38 days of a white-tailed eagle's incubation can seem like it lasts for ever. Maybe it seems the same to them! For Gordon and I, those 5+ weeks couldn't pass quickly enough. Whilst Gordon filmed otters and seals along Loch Scridain and Loch na Keal, I maintained a vigil with Fingal and Iona, hoping more than anything that this would be their year for success...
Join us next time on the Mull Eagles Blog to find out how Fingal and Iona did in their second nesting attempt. Or come and see them for yourself at the All New Mull Eagle Hide in Glen Seilisdeir. Book a trip on 01680 812 556. Monday to Friday 10am and 1pm. Just £6 adults and £3 children. It'll be the trip of a lifetime. http://www.rspb.org.uk/datewithnature/146979-mull-eagle-watch and www.holidaymull.co.uk
Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer
Whilst the numerous unfaithful osprey pairings around the UK go about their daily soap opera shenanigans, our rock steady pair of white-tailed eagles, Fingal and Iona, stick to what's important in life: their eggs - their future. These amazing birds have known each others funny ways for a decade or more and have seen each other through thick and thin for many years. And they really know what matters: each other. They've had their ups and downs since Iona laid her first eggs in 2003. It was also my first few weeks in a new job as RSPB Mull Officer and they were my first new pair of nesting white-tailed eagles. I watched them closely that year, like a couple of newly-weds, keen, eager, trying to do the right thing but not always getting it right.
They glared in apparent bemusement as their first eggs actually hatched before their eagle-eyes - and mine from my hideaway in the forest. I saw them one early May dew-soaked morning both standing nervously on the edge of the nest peering down in to the nest cup. Unseen by me, the egg shell was cracking and a wet, slithery eaglet was emerging into the scary outside world. The bright spring sunshine must have made them all blink and the soft down around Iona's brood patch soon dried and warmed the new hatchling. A few days later, as Iona attempted to feed the chick I could even hear the quietest of squeaky food begging calls. Like any new mum, she was a little hesitant, uncertain and yet determined by instinct to do the right thing. Characteristically for white-tailed eagles with tiny chicks, she drooled copious saliva from that huge yellow bill, mixing it with the fresh rabbit prey supplied by Fingal - his first such delivery. And one of his most important. It made the bite-sized offerings more palatable and digestible - from Iona's giant beak to the wobbling gape of her offspring. Down it went. Piece by piece, day by day.
They had chosen their first nest site well. A big old Sitka spruce in Glen Seilisdeir in the south of Mull. Glen Seilisdeir means 'Glen of the Irises' in the Gaelic and by early May, the yellow flag irisis were well advanced with even a hint of the first flowers emerging. Below Fingal and Iona's nest, lapwings displayed in the fields, greylag geese had angry and noisy disputes on the saltmarsh of Kilfinichan Bay and a late-staying summer plummaged great-northern diver called mournfully from far out in Loch Scridain.
Fingal, our male white-tailed eagle - photo courtesy Bryan Rains - Wild About Mull Wildlife Tours http://www.wildaboutmull.co.uk/
It seemed the perfect Hebridean spring for Fingal and Iona's first nesting attempt. So many first timers never even get to this exciting stage. This perfect pairing of a handsome Norwegian-released male from 1997 and his flighty Scottish-bred partner from the misty Isle of Skye in 1998 had produced something very special at the first attempt. As I crept through the dark forest to the concealed observation point at the end of their first week, my heart was full of expectation and optimism...
Coming soon to the Mull Eagles blog...Fingal and Iona face up to the stark reality of life as a breeding pair of white-tailed eagles and we follow their impressive if challenging fortunes over subsequent nesting seasons.
You may have heard that this year we will be hosting the first-ever Scottish Birdfair on the 19th and 20th of May at Hopetoun House near Edinburgh. This is the first event of its kind in Scotland and will bring together over 5,000 people who love nature and wildlife. A wide range of workshops on topics like seabird tracking, foraging, migratory species, birds of prey and the science of conservation will all be on offer. And, with all proceeds going to support our conservation work in Scotland, there’s even more reason to join in the fun. Find out more about the Scottish Birdfair on the website: http://www.scottishbirdfair.org.uk/
Come and visit them yourself at the All-New Mull Eagle Hide 2012. Book a visit on 01680 812 556. Monday to Friday 10am and 1pm
courtesy Black Eyed Peas
We are back! Today was the first day at our new location in Glen Seilisdeir on the western side of the Island. Set against the stunning backdrop of Ben More, with lochs, forestry, plantations, we are in fantastic eagle country.
Due to ongoing forest management, Skye and Frisa will be stepping (or flapping!) out of the limelight for a while - they are fine and we will bring you news on them this spring as and when there is anything to report.
Glen Seilisdier, which means Glen of the Irises is home to Blue 9 (male) and Green T (female), a pair of white tailed-eagles who have made this stunning location their home since 2002. It was with great excitement that I greeted our first visitors this morning. We settled into our new forest hideaway and watched as Green T carried out the important duties of incubation. Every now and then, she would gently lift herself up onto the edge of her nest, gently roll her precious eggs before settling back down again. And then we saw a white flash - and in came Blue 9 to give his mate a break so she could go off to feed. She took some persuading but eventually lifted off and flew just a short distance to the conifers directly in front of us. We hardly dare breathe as the 2 of them called to each other. Blue 9 settled down and his mate flew off to find some lunch. Back at the hide, we had great views of the siskins on the feeders, chaffinches looking for nesting spots, goldcrests flitting about the trees, and a buzzard displaying to its mate. A great start to the season. Just time for a quick bite then off to collect the afternoon group. It was funny to watch him re-arranging the contents of the nest, that his mate had painstakingly arranged earlier in the morning. Then out of nowhere, unable to stay away too long, Green T returned. She was happy to sit on the edge of the nest and let her mate do his fair share of incubation. Then we caught sight of something large flying close to the nest and as we were trying to work out what it was, a third adult white tailed eagle flew straight over the nest - where it came from and who it was, we have no idea but what a sight.
Here is a photo of the male Blue 9 taken today having relieved Green T of her duties - shortly after taken this picture a snow blizzard came through! Please note photo only possible from the Mull Eagle Watch viewing area; Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) licence required for schedule 1 species (photo Debby Thorne)
Back at the hide, high above the glen, 3 huge birds were circling together. Even without looking through binoculars, there was no doubting they were golden eagles. On two of them, the white markings were clearly visible indicating juveniles and an adult. Across the ridge by Ben More, 3 buzzards enjoyed the an uplift and swooped and dived effortlessly.
What a fantastic start to the season. Our first visitors of the season went away on cloud 9 - a great start to their Easter holidays and raving about our new location.
Trips run Monday to Friday at 10.00 and 1.00 and can be booked through our friends at Craignure Visitor Centre on 01680 812556
Day 1 of the all new Mull Eagle Hide
L-R Michael Russell MSP, Moray Finch (General Manager, Mull & Iona Community Trust and Mike Cantlay (Chairman, VisitScotland)
at the VisitScotland Visitor Information Centre, Craignure who take the bookings for trips. Mull Eagle Watch and the new Eagle Hide at Glen Seilisdeir opened for business today. Call VisitScotland
on 01680 812556 to book a trip Monday to Friday 10.00 and 13.00.
Photo courtesy Alan Jack
Dont forget you can get up to date information by following us on Twitter @skyeandfrisa and on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/?ref=tn_tnmn#!/groups/65385337670/
White-Tailed Eagle Information Officer
Isle of Mull