It wasn't quite what I'd planned for Monday morning. But at 0500 this morning, the alarm went off, waking just about everyone but me. A sharp jab in the ribs did the trick though. By 0530 I was in the landrover, it was pitch black outside, the rain was tipping down and I was wondering what on earth I was doing. The plan was to do two live interviews on GMTV at 0650 and 0810, primarily about the claims from a few crofters in Gairloch in the NW Highlands of "substantial" lamb losses to sea eagles. The crew had been out and about around Mull yesterday filming sea eagles (or were they buzzards?) and chatting to a few local farmers. They wanted the live segment this morning to sum it all up and to find a way forward (some hope!) in advance of a public meeting planned in Poolewe tonight.
Just as I turned off the main road and down to Duart Castle - the scenic backdrop the GMTV crew had planned, my windscreen wipers packed in. I wasn't exactly at my most relaxed as it was but for this to happen now in a torrential downpour was a nightmare. I waited a few minutes, the clock ticking ever closer; the rain eased and I carried on, the first hint of light grey appearing in the eastern sky. There ahead was the huge satellite truck (I wondered if they could pick up signals from Mara and Breagha - or even Nethy and Deshar?). Ahead of that was the vehicle with the presenter Claire, soundman and cameraman. I never cease to be amazed at the length TV crews will go to getting a story. I mean, the expense of getting everyone over here, for a live link - all for a sea eagle story? I arrived with plenty of time for a rehearsal - although the actual live link bore little resemblance to it!
At both 0650 and 0810 (usually the PM's slot I was told), I had about 90 seconds to get across that the claims that a 5kg sea eagle could lift a 35kg well-grown lamb was a biological, physical impossibility; that with hill farming in crisis and tourism generally down this year, we should be working together to turn this issue around (whatever the truth of it) not fighting about it and that here on Mull, we do our best to ensure that sea eagles are increasingly seen as an asset (by most) rather than a problem. You don't have to like sea eagles to realise that they are now a major tourism attraction bringing in about £2 million a year to the local Mull economy. The income from visitors to the hide (about £10,000 a year) is all spent locally with at least 50% going back to local good causes as small grants so that everyone (from the Girl Guides to the Young Musicians to the school sports day to Mull Young Athletes to Mull Senior Citizen Lunch Clubs to the Salen Church rennovation) benefits from sea eagle money. That way, love 'em or hate 'em (and some still do) at least they're paying their way.
Whether I succeeded or not in the 90 second sound bites is anyone's guess as I've still not seen it and despite being told it has an audience of 6 million at that time of the morning, I've not yet heard from anyone who watched it (apart from my loyal family of course who all said daddy was great!) Oh well, that will do for me.
Whatever the outcome of the public meeting tonight, let's all hope that a sensible way forward is forthcoming. Farmers here, as elsewhere, do a huge amount of good for the natural environment. Their cattle and sheep graze to produce important habitats and wetlands for waders and geese, their hay, crops and silage supports corncrakes and the outdoor winter feeding of livestock supports farmland finches and choughs. And many have golden and sea eagles on their land too which are enjoyed by thousands of visitors. The new Rural Development payments across Scotland should support such stewardship and RSPB is working hard to make that happen. As I said, it shouldn't be about the never ending circular arguments about eagle and lambs, how many lambs were sick, dead or healthy. That debate was going on here over 100 years ago. We all know the end result of that. Surely the debate has matured since then? Well at least one thing has changed for the better and that is that public opinion is now firmly and overwhelmingly in favour of having magnificent birds like golden and sea eagles in our landscape. It should be about mature solutions and positive management payments for those that look after them and manage land for them on our behalf.
Live TV has a way of draining you of nervous energy so it's time for bed. I'm away for the next two nights, with no access to a computer (hooray!) so no updates I'm afraid but fear not, normal service will be resumed. In the meantime, I join you in wishing poor Deshar fair weather and all the luck in the world for a safe landing, wherever that may be and hoping that Nethy at least is on the right track. Farewell.
Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer
Okay, I confess, I've not been to Loch Frisa today. It was family time, a bit of gardening, sorting the pond and getting the firewood in the woodshed. I guess we all prepare for seasons in different ways. But for the autumn and winter ahead, the birds in the garden were doing their fair share of stocking up. Bullfinches were on the rose hips, chaffinches were, well, everywhere and a buzzard was hunting voles out in the field.
But despite attempts to have a day off, we were still visited mid afternoon unexpectedly by a roving GMTV film crew who were interested in finding out more about sea eagles on Mull after the various and surprising claims of lamb losses emerging from further north in Scotland in recent weeks. We'll see how that turns out tomorrow.
For now though, our Loch Frisa twins are fine and hopefully tomorrow I may even catch a glimpse of them with my own eyes and not just via sat tag data on a computer screen!
For most of today, the weather on Mull has not been at all conducive to finding eagles. However, all the latest satellite data shows that both Mara and Breagha are fine and continue to spend most of their time on the south side of Loch Frisa. Mara continues to be the more active according to the data which had me a little worried about Breagha. However, whenever I've seen them both together, there is no difference in their apparent levels of fitness or flying prowess. I asked Roy Dennis of the 'Highland Foundation for Wildlife' who helped us fit the tags why the data seems to show Mara as the more adventurous.
He believes one possible reason is that, as the bigger bird, the satellite tag may be deeper in her plummage and therefore covered by Breagha's feathers more often. This means that the miniature solar panel is getting less charge so the data is less precise. We hope this will sort itself out in the weeks ahead. The more they fly, the more exposed the tag is to the sun and the better the detail of the data. The grey weather of late won't have helped either. By late evening though there was blue sky at last and a wonderful sunset in between the numerous rainbows over Salen bay.
It was a high tide tonight which had nudged most of the common seals off their favourite haul out but we did just glimpse two otters near the old boats on our way to Tobermory. I hope it's the mum and her cub as we had an otter killed on the road there just last week which we think may have been her well grown cub from last year. We'll keep watching and hoping that mum and this year's young cub are okay. Tomorrow looks to be a brighter day so we'll see what that brings. For now, all seems well with our sea eagle family, so rest easy.
At some point I must have wandered back from the phone box to Eastcroft. The team were exhausted but couldn't sleep. We began to prepare ourselves mentally for what had probably happened out on the loch today. And we began to prepare how we were going to explain it to the waiting conservation world. There was little sleep for anyone. We just longed for the dawn to come. Some morning light so we could survey the scene again, just to be sure.
At the junction we split up. One team to the south side of the loch and I headed for the north shore, just above the nest wood. It was a horrible walk in, across tussocky Molinia terrain, forestry ditches and bog. I got there within the hour and sat on the rocky outcrop. After getting my breath back I raised my binoculars and started to scan, far and wide, across the loch, down below to the water's edge (half dreading what I'd find), anywhere, everywhere. Nothing. I could see the others arriving on the far side, clambering out, setting up tripods and telescopes. We made contact on the walkie-talkies, channel 9: "Anything yet?" "No - nothing..." The radio clicked off.
It's bizarre what you remember about such occasions. Despite the deepening gloom we all felt inside, I remember it was the most stunningly beautiful mid-summer day . Curlews nesting on the moor were calling their liquid, cascading, bubbly flight song; the occasional high pitched peep of golden plovers drifted over on the breeze. A pair of ravens criss-crossed the glen, their amazing aerobatics normally so impressive - but not today. Two long hours later, we had all but given up hope. Every few minutes, we'd checked in on the radio. Desperately wishing for positive news, anything to give us a glimmer of hope. "Hi guys, anything from your side?" "We'll call you if we see anything - over and out". Messages were short. Nerves were frayed. Tempers on the edge. It was probably time to call it a day.
My eye caught a movement over the wood. It was Blondie, circling low over the tops of the trees. Then there was the male. The pair of them together - but alone. They slowly gained height. That's it, I thought. Game over. With that, Blondie closed her wings, legs down and stooped earthwards, closely followed by the male. I stayed with them as best I could but lost them both as they dipped below the ridge. Had they spotted something?
I daren't try the radio again. I knew what the response would be. It was another very long 30 minutes before the radio crackled again: "Dave? I've got him! I've got the chick!" I couldn't see him. I didn't need to. He was alive, sitting on the edge of the loch with both parents nearby. He must have struggled ashore, out of our gaze, as the light fell last night.
There would be many more adventures, many more highs and many more lows with these birds over the coming years. But at that moment, only one thing mattered. The chick - our precious chick -was alive! I just switched off the radio, listened to the curlews and lay back in the sun. Then I found myself quite overwhelmed with it all and unexpectedly in tears - probably from both exhaustion and relief. I quickly looked around, hoping no-one was watching. Of course nobody was. Far below me sat the historic sea eagle family, oblivious to all the heartache they'd caused. And not for the last time, they'd caused our emotions to go from rock bottom to sky high. This life with eagles was going to be a rollercoaster. With that I think I fell asleep in the heather, completely drained - but very, very happy.
It really had been the most extraordinary summer. We had been watching history unfold. Finally, after ten long years of waiting, the first pair of white-tailed eagles to nest in the wild in the UK had produced a chick. So much effort had been invested in this very important eaglet. It had been 70 years since white-tailed eagles had last nested here. This was the moment everyone had been working towards. Blondie and her mate had in fact hatched two chicks but one had died unexpectedly at four weeks old. That had been a huge blow for us. Now we were down to one. There was no room for error. We couldn't let anything go wrong. Please don't let anything go wrong.
We were still on 24 hour protection duties. The nest, the adults, the chick were never out of our sight. We camped nearby at night, listening out in the half darkness of the short June nights for any disturbance. Any crack of a branch or a call from Blondie to suggest something was wrong. Sometimes it was a deer or a sheep which had us straining our ears and eyes. Then the panic would pass. There were times when you wondered if you were losing your marbles. I made good friends with a very cheeky wood mouse who I shared my sandwich with. He repaid me by chewing a huge hole in my back pack to get at the remains of my rations which were meant to last me all night and half the next day. And I thought we were friends. I thought I meant something to him. Never again!
At night, we wouldn't realise that we were being eaten alive by clouds, swarms of midges - until morning came and the next person on duty would come to do their 36 hour shift and say 'what happened to your face?'. Back home in the mirror you could see one big, red puffy face where the midges had been working away, biting, all night long. You would pick off countless ticks from every part of your anatomy - always a joy. And then you would sleep, eat, dry out (a bit) and then head back to the observation tent for the next shift. We must have been mad. And so it had gone on for twelve long weeks - three long months - in the wettest, most miserable summer anyone could ever remember. But we were working to one goal, one aim. We wanted that first chick in living memory to take to the skies.
And so that dawn finally arrived. A quick check through the telescope and there he was. Flapping hard on the nest, jumping up and down. Can't be long now. Five minutes - literally five mintes later and another check. He was gone! We'd missed it. After being glued to that eyepiece for 90 wet, midge-infested, tick-ridden days since the hatch, we'd missed it. How could he do that to us! But he wouldn't have gone far, probably down onto the woodland floor. Yes there he was, sitting startled and wary on the ground wondering what to do next. But history had been made. The first chick of this historic reintroduction project which had started ten long years ago on the Isle of Rum had just 'flown' from his nest on the Isle of Mull. Surely it was time to celebrate? Hadn't we all deserved it? Well, not quite yet...
I hoped he would just sit and regain his confidence before trying anything else. Blondie and her mate were sitting nearby. What a moment it was for them too. Oh to know what was going on in their heads! But he wasn't done yet. He was a pioneer after all. As we watched, feeling very pleased with ourselves, he launched off again, straight out of the wood and away out over the loch. A bit wobbly but strong enough. Damn it! Out of sight. Too many trees in the way. He'll reappear in a minute. Two minutes passed but he didn't reappear. He must have reached the other side by now. Better go and check. We eased our way down the wet, grassy slope to a better vantage point and scanned the far shore. Keep scanning, he'll be there somewhere. Even Blondie and her mate were excited by this momentous flight. Both were out and calling loudly over the loch. Bit strange, I remember thinking.
Then came those awful, horrible, dread-inducing words which will live with me forever: "What's that in the loch? Do you get seals this far up?" Seals? What was he talking about. Seals? Where? "There - in the middle of the loch. Look, there!" The head of some creature kept appearing and disappearing in the waves. With a rising sense of complete and utter panic, the terrible truth dawned on me, not gradually but with one sickening gut-wrenching bolt of realisation. Our chick - the only chick - had ditched in the very centre of the huge loch. The chick we'd watched over day and night, fretted over through wind and rain was struggling and virtually submerged hundreds of metres out in the cold, grey waters. Running and stumbling down the steep rocky slope, we half fell down into the shallows at the loch edge. Through steamed up binoculars and out of breath, we searched for any sign of life. All that was visible and audible was Blondie and the male circling low over the water, calling out in desperation as they too searched and searched. Up and down, round in circles they went. But the loch was now still. The waves had eased. We were drained, shaking and in shock. This just cannot be happening. It just cannot be happening.
By now it was virtually dark. We had stood staring into the gathering dusk for what seemed like hours, unable to think or act. We had to go home. I had been due to 'phone into the RSPB office that evening to report on progress. Everyone was waiting, desperate to hear news of the fledging. I stood outside the village phone box unable to make that call. Although there were lights on in houses all around, with TV screens flickering, the occasional person's voice or a dog's bark, it was a very lonely and desolate place to be at that moment.
Tomorrow - the search resumes at dawn