We were all thrilled when we were able to confirm that one of our original satellite tagged white-tailed eagle chicks Mara had settled to establish a territory of his own. It was even more exciting when we also confirmed that he had paired up with a female from the east coast project 'somewhere on the Scottish mainland'. You may have seen him on BBC Springwatch in June after cameraman Mark Yates managed to capture some lovely images of him and his mate. Presenter Iolo Williams explained to Michaela Strachan how they were making a nesting attempt and were incubating a clutch of eggs. Subsequently, we weren't surprised that the eggs failed to hatch as both birds were still only 4 years old but the signs were very hopeful for the future.
We stopped plotting Mara's whereabouts on the tracking map in order to protect his specific location and nesting attempt but he has really done his bit for white-tailed eagle science. Since the day we fitted his tag (along with his sister Breagha) we have been able to follow his every move and for the first time ever we have a complete picture of how young white-tailed eagles disperse: where they go, how long they stay in certain areas and use certain habitats and when they decide to start settling down. Gordon Buchanan who filmed the fitting of the tag for BBC Autumnwatch in 2008 and Roy Dennis of The Highland Foundation for Wildlife who fitted it were equally delighted by both Mara's and the sat tag's performance. The data has all been carefully plotted over the years by the RSPB Web Team and stored by our colleagues in the RSPB Data Unit. We've also had help on this ground-breaking project from Natural Research Ltd, Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry Commission Scotland, BBC Wildlife Fund and the Mull & Iona Community Trust - all of whom have either contributed towards the costs of the tags and tracking or have helped in other ways. Thank you all.
So, dear reader, imagine our worries and fears when in recent weeks we started getting data through that showed Mara's satellite signal was repeatedly coming from exactly the same location over several days. It wasn't just that Mara was roosting in the same tree or feeding in the same spot. This signal was also showing that there was no movement, no activity. This kind of news can often mean very bad news and in the past other satellite tagged eagles have been recovered dead as a result of illegal poisoning. RSPB Investigations staff and the police carried out a search and were able to go straight to the spot, such is the accuracy of the satellite signals. We all held our breaths but quietly we all feared the same result.
Then I got the call from the team. It wasn't a dead eagle! There was huge relief for everyone. It was just the satellite tag itself which had become detatched - just as they are designed to do. The police and Roy Dennis who has fitted many tags are completely content that after 4-5 years the stitching on the join of the straps which held the tag in place had weathered and worn in exactly the right way allowing the straps to come off and the tag will have fallen safely to the ground. Mara will have had a good shake, a quick preen and will have flown on, possibly wondering where his amazing piece of light-weight technology which has been with him almost all his life, had gone. But I doubt he'll miss it! The old satellite tag which can cost up to £3000 will be sent away to be repaired and checked over and may one day help us to reveal new secrets somewhere else. Whilst we haven't been able to see Mara recently we are confident he has come to no harm. As his mate is a 2008 east coast release and if her radio is still working we will be able to track her and hopefully find Mara not far away. Their territory is remote and vast so there may not be news for a while but we will keep you posted on any future developments or sightings. Mara has contributed hugely to the world of white-tailed eagle science. Skye and Frisa can be justly proud of what their son has achieved!
Meanwhile, we've also just heard that Shelly's satellite tag has also been recovered from a lonely moor in the Western Isles where she has been spending alot of time over recent months. This tag too looks like it simply became detatched and that she has not come to any harm. This tag has come off somewhat sooner than we would have expected but it has been known before and the tough cotton thread can weather at different rates. Shelly is the female chick of Fingal and Iona at the Glen Seilisdeir Mull Eagle Hide from 2010.
And then there was one! Young Midge from 2010 now flies the flag for all Mull satellite tagged white-tailed eagles. The project has shown us so much about immature eagle dispersal and has filled in many of the gaps in our knowledge that wing tags just couldn't tell us. We wish Midge well for the future and will keep the tracking map updated as and when so you can follow his fortunes. Long live the Midge!
Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer
"Drinking in the morning sun, blinking in the morning sun"
Frisa felt stirrings beneath her. The first time had been in the middle of the night. If the moon had been full and bright she may even have stood up there and then to see what was happening but in the darkness of a moonless April night, she sat low and tight until dawn.
Skye was unusually keen to arrive at the nest at daybreak to take over his incubation duties. Or maybe he too sensed that the moment was approaching? Whilst he was ultra-keen, Frisa was unusually reluctant to shift. Ten minutes passed when normally a changeover happens in seconds. Skye stalked around the nest rim, round one way and back the other but she was not for moving. He finally jumped to one side and sat on a branch and then to preen as if he didn't really want to take over anyway.
But then Frisa felt that movement again. There was no mistaking it this time. She rocked gently to reposition herself a little higher. And then she couldn't resist a peek. She raised her mighty form and stood, peering beneath her. There in the nest cup beside an empty, cracked egg shell was a wet, wriggly, downy chick. She cleared the egg shell away, ate a little and then just stared for several minutes. The chick half sat up, its head and neck wobbling left and right and looked back at the piercing bright eyes and yellow beak of Frisa. Both blinked repeatedly in the morning sun.
Skye sensed the moment had indeed come. Not wishing to be left out, he could wait no longer and jumped back onto the nest. For a few moments both adults seemed to just drink in the wonderous sight before them. Then, instinct took over. Skye ruffled his feathers, stretched one wing, then the other and then was away to hunt. He now had a job to do.
Tugging at a tiny piece of prey on the side of the nest, Frisa bent lower to feed her precious offspring. She appeared to drool with delight as her saliva mixed the meaty morsels into a nutritious soup for the chick to swallow.
It might be hours before Skye returned with fresh prey. Frisa fed herself a little too and then settled back down to brood the first chick - and, who knows, perhaps a second hatching chick - and to keep everything warm, snug and protected. Woodpigeons called softly from the forest, the chaffinches were now well into their full spring dawn chorus and a great-spotted woodpecker drummed loudly on a dead Sitka. It was looking like a beautiful day.
It had been a long time since Frisa had seen or felt anything like this; over two years in fact. Up until 2010 Frisa and Skye had fledged chicks almost every year, almost like clockwork. It had come so easily, so naturally to them. But then it would, wouldn't it? They're so 'hard-wired', as the scientists will tell us, to breed, devoid of all emotion. Just an endless cycle of courtship, nest building, mating, egg laying, hatching, feeding, fledging, moulting and then it all starts again.
But that all changed for them and us in 2010 and again in 2011 when they failed to nest successfully. It just wasn't like them. Everyone had a theory: "too old", "not Frisa or Skye anymore", "intruding eagles", "golden eagles put them off..." In the final analysis, disturbance - possibly, sadly, intentional and reckless - is the most likely cause for their failure to breed. So in 2012, both they and we needed a new approach to get them back on track.
With the Mull Eagle Hide already set to move to Glen Seilisdeir to follow Fingal and Iona and with less general public access to Loch Frisa in the midst of ongoing timber harvesting and haulage, the time was right for Skye and Frisa to help themselves. In early spring, they slipped quietly away from their long-time favourite and once secure nest near a busy track and into some remote, hidden glade lost to view in the many square miles of the Glen Aros catchment. And we would, with a heavy heart, let them go. This was to be their time to regroup and to refocus on what was important in their lives. With just occasional sightings and distant checks, the field signs were often hopeful: one of them flying purposefully homeward at dusk over Salen Bay; another preening on a favourite mound in the morning sun. Never together. We knew they were safe, occupied and we held our breaths.
The plan had always been to wait until any successfully fledged chick (or chicks) would be up and about before looking in earnest for them. Judging by previous dates over their long breeding history since 1998 the time to watch, wait and listen would be early August. And so it was that on a sunny, midge-filled summer's morning, the large, dark form of Sunda, loomed into view over the ridge. Sunda (meaning special and precious in Gaelic), was calling loudly for food. Her flight was still a little unsteady but she'd clearly been on the wing for a week or more. She had spotted Skye and Frisa perched on their favourite rocky outcrop long before we had as she steamed towards them, the food begging calls getting ever louder. She paused briefly in the forest, landing with some degree of agility before launching off again and towards her proud, if already somewhat long-suffering parents. This time she landed less gracefully and almost did an Olympic-style double back somersault over the purple blooming heather before she came to a halt, amazingly upright!
Sunda - Skye and Frisa's chick 2012 - sorry its not brilliant but taken from a distance (photo Debby Thorne)
She lumbered towards Skye who took off and landed again a short distance away; then she changed direction and marched towards Frisa who finally relinquished the remains of some prey from her talons. Sunda had got what she came for. She will do well I'm sure, if given a chance in this uncertain world. Watching from afar, the sight of the three of them together was a dream come true for all of us. There have been dark times in the past two years when we wondered if we'd ever see them like this again. We should have had more faith. With Frisa now aged 20 and Skye just 18, they have many more productive years ahead of them.
The first forestry trucks of the day were beginning to roll and were kicking up some dust. It was time to leave. Frisa, Skye and Sunda - the dynasty continues.
One day like this a year would see me right. It's looking like a beautiful day!
With grateful thanks to the Mull Eagle Watch partnership of Forestry Commission Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, Mull & Iona Community Trust, Strathclyde Police, volunteers and RSPB. And special thanks to Debby Thorne.
The Mull Eagle Hide in Glen Seilisdeir is still running trips. Please book on 01680 812 556
Skye and Frisa proudly announce the successful fledging of their healthy, bouncing, miracle chick. She weighs in at about 6kg, plumage and eyes are brown and she's already taken her first wobbly flaps. Mum, dad and chick all doing well.
Blog to follow but for now raise your glasses to Skye, Frisa and ????
Mull Eagle Hide: 01680 812 556