August, 2013

Wildlife

Wildlife
We're about more than just birds (though obviously we like them a lot).

Mull Eagle Watch

Follows the fortunes of Mull's white-tailed eagles and the Isle's other fascinating wildlife
  • All in the family

    It had been a long wait to see Kellan again back in April (see blog 'Out of the Blue') and I wondered how long I'd have to wait before he appeared again. As things turned out, not very!

    We left him safely at roost on that early spring evening at Killiechronan. He was back in the heart of his parent's territory and clearly felt safe and secure. His father (previously wing tagged White X in 1995) and his mother, the feisty Yellow black spot from 2000 were content too to have him nearby. He was one of the family after all. As a young adolescent, he is now at the age when he might well be chased off by territorial pairs, especially at that time of year when nests are being built and eggs laid. But, for one night only, he was allowed to rest and feel at home. Did they recognise him as one of their own? Doubtful I think - but we can wonder.

    He'd gone by the next morning. White-tailed eagles of Kellan's age rarely stay long in one place. The wander lust moves them on and despite his earlier injuries, he is still a restless spirit always alert to new food opportunities and adventures or maybe companions over the next horizon. It was only a week or so after this heart-warming encounter that I decided it was time to check in on Skye and Frisa. You're not meant to have favourites in this job but...

    Last year Skye and Frisa fledged a single chick after two years of failure for unexplained reasons. I was heading towards their previous nest sites to look for signs of occupation and to decide how Mull Eagle Watch might best protect them this year so that they had the best possible chance of success. As I rounded a bend, a familiar eagle silhouette perched in a huge sitka stopped me in my tracks. The dust settled and as it cleared I could see the young eagle was still there, unperturbed by the activity on the track below.

    Squinting through the telescope on the window mount, I thought I could see that familiar wing droop. Well, not exactly a droop but just not held in the perfect position. The plumage looked right too for a three year old: very mottled brown, lots of patchy whiteness in the feathers, a pale yellow beak and a tail with some hints of things to come. We sat looking at each other for about half an hour, wondering who was going to shift first. He kept altering that wing position, obviously still not entirely comfortable and I knew it was Kellan again! With that he dropped out of the tree and began beating those mighty, miraculous wings. He soon gained height and then just kept going up! Now his quirky flight was even more evident but it was heartening to see him flying even more proficiently than I'd ever seen him. He drifted towards Salen and then back north. By now he was literally just a dark speck in the wide blue sky and had I not seen him to begin with, I'd never have picked him up. At that height, I thought, he could easily leave Mull and soar and glide his way to Morvern and beyond. Perhaps he already had and decided to come home to visit family?

    I started to trace back his ancestry in my mind and to work out who he was related to on Mull. It didn't take long to realise that his father 'White X' was the single chick offspring in 1995 from the most famous white-tailed eagle of all time, Blondie, the female who raised the first wild chick since the reintroduction began, way back in 1985. And whose territory was he in now? Skye and Frisa's - Frisa is also one of Blondie's chicks from 1992. I'm not entirely sure what relation that make them - is Frisa his great-aunt or something? No matter. I have a hard enough job keeping track on 'Who do you think you are?' so there wasn't much chance of me working this one out. Instead I just leant on the Landrover to steady the binoculars and watched the speck of Kellan drift away to the north towards Glengorm and finally, once more, he was gone.

    Further on I found Skye and Frisa just where I wanted them. Safe and secure and getting on with their own nesting attempt. It had been a very good day. Summer has now been and, it feels like, almost gone! Mull has had some beautiful long sunny days, along with the occasional string of unsettled Atlantic lows creeping in to spoil things. There was bad weather at the vulnerable hatch time this year and we lost some eagle chicks at that stage. Twins became singles with the strongest - often the first to hatch, being the sole survivor. As I write, Skye and Frisa's single chick has fledged and is to be seen regularly over Glen Aros, often on the fencelined ridge opposite Crannich. This is always a favourite perching area for Skye and Frisa and their chicks always follow them there. This year's chick, a female 'Breeze' is a real beauty. But aren't they all? Summer Breeze, makes me feel good.

    It was time to check on one of Skye and Frisa's offspring - their first ever in fact, Green X from 1998. She has been paired up and nesting elsewhere on Mull since 2002. It's a remote and long journey but it's always worth the arduous drive and walk. Finally in position and the long wait commenced. I'm watching through a telescope across a wide sea loch and in the past I have picked up fledged chicks as they break the skyline or explore along the shoreline. This time though there were no chicks to see. I knew they'd had a chick just a few weeks previously and it would have been bad luck but not unheard of to have lost it even at this late stage. Green X was perched in one of her usual dead trees on the cliff top. No sign of her mate or the chick. It's a long way to go to get a no-show but as the sun dipped behind some low clouds it felt like it was going to be one of those days.

    Out in the loch some gannets were diving and then in amongst them all, a bottle-nosed dolphin leapt clean out of the water, followed by another, and another! If anything can cheer you up on a chilly, grey late afternoon it's a pod of dolphins. One final scan of the ridge before heading for home revealed a golden eagle on patrol. I followed it as it suddenly changed direction, closed its wings and steamed menacingly towards an immature white-tailed eagle. It had come sailing innocently over the ridge but was now dropping fast to lose height to avoid the golden eagle which was closing on it. At the last minute, the golden eagle veered off and the young white-tail continued its descent in a more leisurely, controlled manner. At first I thought, at last, the fledged chick! But as it got closer, I shook my head in disbelief as the unmistakable form of Kellan loomed into view! With his legs dangling down he hang-glided this way and that and seemed in complete control. In a few moments it was touchdown, on the beach. He hopped and jumped and stumbled a little as he landed and then did his familiar walking routine along the shore. This bird is really getting about!

    I was just about to pack up, relieved to have seen Kellan again but frustrated at not seeing the chick when in it came, parachuting in and landing almost on top of him. There was a flurry of giant brown wings and yellow legs but Kellan quickly decided his distant cousin was way too close for comfort. He took off from sea level really easily and worked hard to gain height. Soon he was over the ridge again but this time the chick joined him and the two young eagles soared and chased and briefly talon grappled. Green X flew in and perched on a ridge cairn to watch, ensuring her chick was coming to no harm. It was clear for all to see that this was just a friendly family encounter. For me to see Kellan interacting so easily in this way was the real highlight of the day.

    I began to imagine him in another year or two, pairing up with his own mate and engaging in similar flight routines. Who would have thought it? There were times when we doubted he'd survive the night, let alone survive to breeding age. But there's a long way to go yet and many hurdles to overcome. Mustn't get ahead of ourselves. For now I was just so grateful that after a long wait, he had actually helped me locate the fledged chick. It was a real family affair. Blondie would have been proud.

    With the light fading fast, the two youngsters separated. The chick joined her mum Green X and they both flew along the coast to roost. Kellan, alone once more, glided away into the gathering dusk. When will I see you again?

    Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer

    The Mull Eagle Hide 5 star experience continues. Call VisitScotland on 01680 812 556 to get the latest news on walks and sightings.

  • Great sightings between the showers

    Our wildlife walks at Mull Eagle Watch are continuing despite the indifferent weather we have had in the last couple of weeks.  On wet days we are lucky to see much wildlife at all, but on the fine days we are getting great views of the white-tailed eagles, golden eagles and a host of other wild creatures.

    On Tuesday this week our morning visitors were treated to a flying display by our juvenile.  It flew low over the conifer woodland before soaring up onto the moorland, being pursued by a buzzard.  Suddenly, as it neared the skyline, a group of four hooded crows appeared, swooping down in turns to try and scare the eagle away.  As the juvenile got higher and higher, the crows lost interest and headed off.

    Meanwhile down on the shore below our viewpoint, we spotted an otter rooting through the seaweed.  It then headed a few metres into the sea, hunting through the shallow water. regularly returning to the surface to eat the small fish it was catching.

    In the afternoon, both adult white-tailed eagles and the juvenile were spotted in the same area of moorland giving us an aerial display, twisting and turning in the thermals and breezes along the scarp.  The outline of the birds showed their unmistakable broad wings, while their white tails and pale head plumage glistened in the sun.  They continued to show as we headed back to the hide, and common crossbills could be heard calling in the tall spruce trees, feeding on the seeds in the new crop of cones.

    The Mull Eagle Watch 2 hour trips now comprise a gentle walk of around 2 miles with an opportunity to learn about the fascinating history and ecology of the magnificent  white-tailed eagles and other Mull wildlife.  There are usually 2 trips starting at 10am and 2pm each weekday.  Ring 01680 812556 to book places.

  • Eagle & Wildlife Walks

    Now that the white-tailed eagle chick has flown the nest at Mull Eagle Watch, Glen Seilisdeir, we are having to work harder to spot the birds, but both adults and juvenile are returning to the nest tree to roost and feed.  We have also had some great views of the family flying over the Glen, with the bonus of regular sightings of a juvenile golden eagle practicing its hunting technique on the moorland above the treeline.

    The twice daily (weekdays) trips at 10am and 1pm last for 2 hours, and although we stop off at the viewing area to check out whether the white-tailed eagles are around the nest area, we usually walk further along the forest track to gain better views of their other favourite roosting and flying places.  The second main viewing area is in a stunning location with extensive views over the surrounding woodland, fields and grassland, out to Loch Scridain, the main hunting area for the adult birds, Iona and Fingal.  Sea fish, greylag goslings, shag and harbour seal placenta have been high on the list of food items the adults have been bringing in in the last month.

    The walks enable visitors to have close views of some of the other wildlife that occurs in Tiroran Forest, and on sunny days the rides and clearings within the wood are alive with butterflies, including dark-green fritillary, scotch argus and common blue, and dragonflies such as the gold-ringed.  Regular sightings of common crossbills, siskins, coal tits and buzzards are also made, along with occasional views of great spotted woodpecker and sparrowhawk.  Grey herons, oystercatchers, redshank, dunlin and curlew can be seen from our vantage point over the bay, sometimes joined at the water’s edge by one of the adult white-tailed eagles.  The Glen is also filled with hawking hirundines at the moment, and red deer can often be seen around the margins of the forest.

    Mull Eagle Watch trips will be continuing throughout August so do come along and visit us for a great 2 hour wildlife walk.  Walks start at 10am and 1pm each weekday.  To book ring 01680 882 556.