There are places on this planet that draw you back time and time again. Even on Mull with lots of visitors from Easter to October there are still many stretches of secret coast where you can lose yourself and never see a soul. There's one such place I have the arduous task of having to visit several times a season to check on one of the remotest pairs of nesting white-tailed eagles in Scotland. And actually, it is quite arduous! Not that I'm expecting any sympathy but it is a long four hour flog to get even close to where I need to be. It can be bleak amd barren in early spring with no wheatears yet to keep me company along the boulder-strewn shoreline and no willow warblers in the coastal birches to urge me on my way.
But one day last summer it all came together. Within an hour of setting off I could see distant splashes out in the glistening sea loch. As I neared the coast and settled down for a good scan I could see five or six bottle-nosed dolphins - adults and young - leaping and cavorting as they steamed northwards. Such a sight always gladdens the heart and spurs you on. A recently fledged family of ravens was much in evidence, cronking loudly as they chased hard-pressed parents for food. I almost stumbled onto one fledgling which was sheltering on a rocky outcrop and had somehow failed to notice me approaching. As I got to within a few metres it suddenly realised its folly and took off with a loud clatter of stiffened black primaries. It wouldn't make that mistake again.
Further on, a small herd of red deer hinds with a group of following calves were grazing. The old look-out hind gave a bark and as one, the rest of the herd looked up and straight at me. I stopped; they froze. We watched each other for several minutes before the lead hind turned and trotted elegantly away across the moor followed by her fellow hinds and calves. They weren't unduly spooked; stalking season was still some months away and maybe they never got my scent. Just the vision of a lone figure tramping towards them across the bog. They all reached the skyline, looked again and one by one slipped over the top and out of sight. It was time for a breather; a coffee and a Tobermory bakery Chelsea bun for that extra bit of energy. I was still only half way there.
It doesn't do to close your eyes in the sun, propped up against a lichen covered boulder with skylarks and curlews calling overhead. As I listened to the bird calls, I thought I heard a golden plover. There were the ravens again. A wee wren let rip from a damp mossy cluster of rocks and the ever present gulls calling as they streamed up and down the coast lulled me all too quickly into a very brief mini-siesta. At least I think it was brief.
Time to move on. An hour later I was as close as I dared get to where I thought my new pair of white-tailed eagles may have a nest. I'd seen them on and off during survey trips the previous winter. Short, dark, frustrating days when I would catch a glimpse of an adult eagle disappearing in to a hidden grove of oaks and birch but then nothing for hours on end. But they were up to something. I just knew it.
At last my target stretch of coast was in view. Time to keep a low profile, to settle down, to watch and to wait. Three hours later, an adult white-tailed eagle drifted over my head and landed in a dead tree jutting out from the cliff top. By now the sun was behind me so I suspect it never clocked me crouched and cramped amongst the tick and midge infested bracken. It called loudly, the harsh notes echoing off the cliffs all around and then, it was answered. The bird I could see had a higher call - a male; the answer that came back was lower - the female was hidden somewhere in the trees. My heart skipped a beat; that little rush of excitement I still get even after 25 years of doing this when you know you may be close to a big discovery. The long flog and effort made that moment even sweeter.
Slowly I shifted position and focussed the 'scope on the male, now preening in the late afternoon sun. He had wing tags. They were fluttering in the breeze and impossible to read. Up, down, nearly and then the wind would blow them again. They were yellow...that meant 2006. Then the wind dropped and all was revealed: Yellow G. I could hardly believe my tired, watering eyes. Here was one of the two chicks Finlay, Roger and I had rescued from the rocks after their nest had been torn from the crag in a violent May storm. Amazingly. they both survived after we revived them from hypothermia, built them a new nest nearby and placed them in it with a whole wild salmon to feast on. Within hours their mother was back and feeding them at our makeshift eyrie and both went on to fledge successfully later that summer. If that all felt pretty good, sitting here now, six years later, looking at him as a fine young adult with gleaming white tail, banana-yellow beak and a piercing sunlit eye, well it was almost enough to make you shed a tear. But no, it was just the salty wind in my eyes.
Without warning, he launched off his perch leaving the dead white branch bouncing in the breeze and headed down low, just above the waves and out to sea. Within seconds he was on the tail of his intended victim: a gannet. But he wasn't trying to catch it, he was trying to scare it, which he did, very successfully. Rather than risk being caught, the gannet coughed up his latest catch of fresh mackerel which Yellow G immediately swooped down to retrieve from the choppy waters. So simple, so skilled, so delicate. With a talon or two full of fresh fish from a gannet's gullet, he headed homeward. This was the moment I'd been waiting for.
I knew where he was going and I could hear the food begging calls already. No messing, he went straight to his hidden eyrie shrouded in foliage and there was his fully feathered chick, propbably eight or nine weeks old. He dumped the fish and jumped out onto a side branch as the chick devoured the lot in a few minutes. The whole experience meant even more as I knew I was looking at Skye and Frisa's great-grand chick! Yellow G's mother had been their first surviving chick from 1998.
It was time to drop down to the shoreline and head for home. By now my dinner back home was already either stone cold or burnt to a crisp in the 'warming oven' of the Raeburn. I still had a soggy Marmite sandwich and a luke warm flask of tea to celebrate with so it wasn't all bad. Back at sea level, a pair of oystercatchers went beserk and I was glad to get out of their earshot. And then the weird echoing spouting noises began. Looking around I expected to see a water spout being forced up between the basalt dykes but no. There it was again, louder this time. Some feral goats along the shore even stopped eating the seaweed and looked up. Was it just waves crashing onto the shingle? No it was moving! The echoes got louder and then, there before me were the pod of dolphins heading back south, this time even closer inshore. No playing or jumping this time, just a steady procession along the coast, their spouts echoing off the walls of the ancient raised beach.
A final glance back and Yellow G was back on his dead tree. The boy had done well. I never did see his mate that day but she can't have been far away. A month later their chick was flying strongly and getting uplift along the towering cliffs above echo beach. The oystercatchers had fallen silent, the dolphins were long gone but the eagles flew on.
Dave Sexton RSPB Mull Officer
The 5* Mull Eagle Hide opens on Monday March 25th. Come and see us this year in the Year of Natural Scotland. Fingal and Iona are waiting for you! Call 01680 812 556 to book a trip, 10am and 1pm Mon-Fri.