The famous pair of wild Scottish sea eagles at Loch Frisa are being as indecisive as usual. Frisa, the female is in her 17th year. Her loyal mate for the last 12 years, Skye, will be 15 years old in April. You'd think by now they'd know what they wanted. But no. As I write they are adding sticks to at least two different eyries and it's anyone's guess which one they'll finally settle on. They have previous form. Almost every year they seem to prefer to build a new nest and have done since 1997. Some pairs are like this and rarely return to an established eyrie. Others are more sedentary and we usually know where they will be from one year to the next. Frisa and Skye are great ambassadors for their species. From their first starring roles on the first Springwatch in 2005, they have 'captured the hearts of the nation' (to borrow a newspaper headline) and we await their news from their new nest every year. But Springwatch this year will be very different. I don't know yet whether Frisa or Skye will feature or what news there might be of Mara and Breagha (or the original Springwatch twins, Itchy & Scratchy). But one familiar face will be missing from the established winning team. Bill Oddie announced today that he will be 'taking a breather' from Springwatch 2009. Bill came to see Frisa and Skye when filming for his series 'How to Watch Wildlife' and he was genuinely excited to see his first wild Scottish sea eagles. His only other UK sightings had been of rare, occasional vagrant young sea eagles on the east coast of England in the 1950s. Now he was watching a fully mature pair of sea eagles, born and bred in Scotland. On the other side of the the loch he watched that years recently fledged youngsters chasing each other across the bracken clad hillside. We left him in peace to watch, reflect and enjoy.
Later we talked about what the sea eagle meant to the local community and what economic benefits they brought to Mull. This year the Mull & Iona Community Trust has just selected the local groups and good causes which will benefit from the Mull Eagle Fund - the proceeds from visitors to the Loch Frisa eagle hide which last year amounted to over £10,000. Looking back at the groups which have benefitted from this fund over the years, you might well ask what on earth have they got to do with sea eagles or nature conservation? Young Mull Musicians, the Gaelic Mod Club, Tobermory Girl Guides, Mull Athletics Club, stage lighting for Dervaig Village Hall, disabled access stair lift for the Aros Hall, eco gardens and equipment for Iona, Salen and Loch Don Primary Schools, Salen Church renovations, Dunaros Residential Home, kit for school sports days and so on... The point is that they may not be directly related to sea eagles but they are all part of the rich and varied fabric of island life and they all benefit because the eagles are back.
But Bill Oddie put his finger on it as we watched the eagles across the loch. At public viewing hides like Loch Frisa, the birds need people to visit. But more than that, he said, people increasingly need birds like sea eagles in their lives; to inspire, to escape, to treasure. Enjoy your breather Bill. And Kate, Simon and Gordon - go for it! Hopefully by then, Frisa and Skye will have two new chicks to show to the world - in whichever nest they choose!
Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer.
This is a big year in Scotland. The 'Year of Homecoming' has just been launched to coincide with the 250th birthday of Robert Burns. The hope of the Scottish Government and of everyone involved in tourism is that as many people as possible will think about 'coming home' to Scotland in 2009. Whether your ancestors once travelled from the Motherland to the New World and you want to see where they once lived or you just want to see Scotland because you never have or because it's your favourite place in the world, this is the year to come. And we hope Mull is on your travel itinerary...
Mull is the official 'Home of the Sea Eagle'. It's where it all began for the return of this once heavily persecuted species when the first reintroduced pair bred successfully here in 1985. A gift from the people of Norway to the people of Scotland - the sea eagle had indeed come home. Other once extinct species have also settled once more in Scotland. Some like the red kite have been helped back like the sea eagle having been originally shot, poisoned and trapped to oblivion. Ospreys made it back on their own but were then helped considerably by many people over many years to really get established as they are today.
But there was a remarkable homecoming scene on the shore at Killiechronan recently which was both heart warming and poignant at the same time. It was witnessed by a field trip of the Mull Bird Club and photographed by Bryan Rains of 'Wild about Mull'. The local pair of sea eagles were in a favourite place on the shoreline at the eastern end of Loch na Keal. They were facing up the loch and straight into the strong westerly wind. At times they were almost blown off their feet but they braced themsleves, stayed close and with their heads down they were determined to sit out the approaching storm. Nothing, not even a ferocious gale, would beat an eagle. Or maybe they were watching something further up the loch, unseen by the hardy observers in the squalls and saltspray which was rapidly coating their binoculars and telescopes? For out of the mist drifted two young eagles. They flew confidently considering the worsening weather and almost looked like they'd been there before. When they finally landed, right next to the adult pair, all became clear. The adults showed no aggression to either bird which was unusual given their very close proximity. Even though sea eagles can be sociable, they do normally have their limits. The darkest and youngest bird, a fledged chick from 2008, was most likely to have been their chick from last year given the lack of any animosity from the adults although the visibility was just not quite good enough to read the colour ring on her leg to be sure. But the identity of the other young eagle was not in doubt. She had yellow wing tags with the letter 'C'. She was their chick from 2006. She too had come home. For a young eagle to revisit her family home like this nearly three years after fledging and for the parents to accept her so readily made me wonder, not for the first time, about what really goes on in the mind of an eagle. We are told so often that a top predator like a sea eagle is so 'hard-wired' for pure instinct that there is little, if any scope for feeling or emotion. When you think about it, the noble head of an eagle is nearly all eyes and beak with not much room for anything else - like a long memory or a caring attachment to offspring long since fledged and independent. And yet looking at the photos of this small, reunited family, I couldn't help but let my own mind wander. Did the parents recognise a brief, familiar call from one or both chicks, unheard by their keen observers in the strong winds? The youngsters will have certainly been very familiar with this stretch of beach. It's where the parents take their chicks soon after fledging; a safe place for the young birds to explore and investigate as they learn the essentials of being a sea eagle. At a time of rough weather, when times are hard in mid winter, what better place to be than at home? Familiar, secure, comforting.
But the peaceful family scene, despite the strengthening storm, was not complete. Something was missing. All four eagles were looking around; up the loch, across to the wood, along the beach as if expecting another arrival. And then it dawned on me what that something was. Their chick from 2007 was missing. That chick was 'White G'. He was poisoned on a sporting estate in Angus, Tayside last May. Sadly, he would never be coming home. What a picture that would have made; maybe three generations of chicks with their parents! Shocking, still, that we have been robbed of even that remotest of possibilities.
The field trip group, now numb with cold and with eyes watering from the wind, moved on to another birding spot leaving the four eagles to sit out the gale in the only way they knew how - with a sheer, rugged determination to survive. Soon the eagles would lift up from the shore and go their separate ways once more. The parents back to their nearby nest wood in the tall, secure trees and the two youngsters off to wherever the storm force winds would carry them. A simple, brief yet touching moment in their lives captured in our minds forever. The next morning I went back to the loch to see if this scene might happen again; maybe I could read the colour ring on last year's chick just to be absolutely sure - but no such luck. The wind and rain had gone. But so had the eagles.
It's been quite a day on the other side of the pond. Quite a day for all of us. Watching the coverage on TV, on cold, clear days like this in Northern Virginia, I'm transported back to my favourite university class in the US: 'Ornithology 1' - especially the field trips! I couldn't wait for those fantastic winter excursions in to the marshes and woods around the James River identifying cardinals, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, catbirds and Bohemian waxwings. And very occasionally down by the river we would catch a glimpse of that close cousin to our white-tailed sea eagles, the bald eagle. There is a distinct family resemblance to Frisa and Skye. Our birds may be a little bigger and lack the pure white head, but their pale head, yellow beak and white tail, their habits and behaviour show just how closely related they actually are - right down to chasing ospreys until they drop the fish they've caught as we watched them do at Loch Don last year. Infact last night, on the eve of this historic day, Frisa and Skye were perched together in a favourite lochside tree with the low angle of the winter sun illuminating them perfectly as if in a spotlight on a stage. And not for the first time I thought how much alike they are to their North American brothers and sisters. As Skye landed next to Frisa, they simultaneously threw their heads back skywards and called loudly to the heavens - just like the bald eagles along the James and Potomac Rivers and like African fish eagles along the Mara River - so many echoes, so many memories.
Whilst studying at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, I had the good fortune to be taught by Professor Mitchell Byrd. Dr Byrd is responsible for successfully reintroducing peregrine falcons to the State and for pioneering work on bald eagles which are now thriving again to the point where they've recently been removed from the endangered species list. I worked with him on the peregrine project on Cobb Island off the eastern shore of Virginia and conducted aerial surveys from a small plane on breeding bald eagles. I can well recall feeling more than a little queasy as our pilot tilted the plane's wings for us to gaze down at a bald eagle's nest to count the young as the adult bird gazed up and watched us fly on to the next nest further up river. Not quite how we do it here but it was a very effective method of getting round alot of eagle territories. Maybe I should try submitting a bid in the next budget round? OK, no chance. It's leg work and Landrover power on Mull for the time being. When I couldn't get my fix of white-tailed eagles on Mull, the bald eagles were the next best thing and very majestic and awe-inspriring they are too. Sometimes when I see the young and adult sea eagles along the river banks here on Mull waiting for spent salmon or sea trout to pass by, I can imagine bald eagles along a river in Alaska - all we're missing are the brown bears!
Last summer as we travelled north on the train from the nation's Capital - the scene of such celebration today - we gazed out over the mighty Chesapeake Bay. As we moved along, an excited cry went up as we saw an osprey, some shore birds, cormorants and then a bald eagle flapping across the surface of the bay. As the train moved on, there was just time to watch it lift up from the water and soar high and free before we lost sight of it behind the trees. Fantastic to realise that the bald eagles were now a fairly common sight in the US, a huge conservation success story. Hopefully one day, our white-tails will follow their lead and we'll glimpse them from train journeys along Scotland's and England's east coast. Let's also hope that the new administration in Washington, along with everything else it will have to tackle, puts wildlife and protection of the environment higher up the political agenda than the last lot did. Good luck Mr Obama, your National Bird and the whole World wishes you well.
Dave Sexton RSPB Mull Officer
This is not the blog I intended to write but now it's late and I will write more in the morning. I'd planned to brief you on the activities of the females chasing the male sea eagle, of the most recent report of Mara and of the golden eagle and the deer but I've just read the Met Office Inshore waters forecast for Ardnamurchan Point and the title of this blog says it all. I'd been hoping that the dire warnings on the BBC TV weather forecasts might have been over egging it a bit but it appears not - we're in for a serious battering tomorrow night. Tonight it's calm out there, even some stars showing through. The calm before the storm. Tomorrow looks fine first thing but going downhill rapidly in the afternoon. I will keep busy continuing this blog tomorrow with the updates as promised as well as preparing for the night from hell. What on earth do our eagles do in this kind of extreme weather? Are they on the forest floor or clinging on for their lives to a branch? Stand by...it's going to get bumpy.
Saturday January 17 2009 1400
It's beginning. Nothing out of the ordinary yet but a hint of what might lie ahead. This morning was sunny and flat calm for a while giving us a chance to get the wood in, the fire set and a quick dash to the shop. But now the clouds in varying shades of grey are rolling in and there are sudden gusts which send the chickens scampering across the garden to the bushes for shelter. At the moment it's a day not unlike the one when I set off in search of Mara after his last satellite fix. It was a blustery day along Loch na Keal with the waves lapping on the shore and bits of marine debris blowing about the road. The mountain top he'd been recorded on was empty. Not even a buzzard was up. But several miles further up the track, I picked up a young male sea eagle hanging in the wind like a giant kestrel on broad outstretched wings above the ridge. I know eagles don't really hover as such but he was doing a good impersonation, clearly putting just enough effort in to maintain his stationary position. I couldn't make out an aerial so can't be sure it was Mara but then he suddenly started to glide quite rapidly along the ridge and the cause of this change in behaviour soon became evident. Flying hard straight towards him with a determined, aggressive air were three larger, presumably female sea eagles, all immatures. The young male was keeping just ahead of them but they were gaining ground all the while. He stopped gliding and started flapping hard to stay in front but very quickly the greater strength and speed of the females overwhelmed him. One by one they pummelled into him sending him spinning through the air. Everytime they attacked, he would turn in mid air and try to present his talons in defense but to little effect. He was just outnumbered and out manoeuvred and he was in trouble. Why would they be so aggressive in this way? As immatures they had no territory to defend but they clearly wanted him out of their patch. The relentless pursuit, one of the longest I've ever witnessed, went on for some 25 minutes. They would disappear and then reappear from behind the ridge, all still flapping like mad, following every twist and turn, shooting vertically up into the air, then diving down and away again out of sight like some military jet exercise. On the last dive, they didn't emerge again. I scanned the hill tops for the next hour hoping to pick them up but they must have continued their chase in another hidden glen or all given up their exertions and returned to their normal behaviour. Or perhaps they were all resting for they must have been exhausted after such a prolonged bout of hard flight. Or...well I'd rather not consider any other possible outcomes at the moment.
Meanwhile on the southern face of the hill, while scanning for the sea eagles I picked up a young golden eagle, still with lots of white on the tail and wings so presumably one of last year's fledglings. As I watched it folded its wings back in close to the body and fell earthwards like a bullet. I could barely keep up with it through the telescope but then it levelled out and dived straight in to a large herd of red deer hinds and calves which had been calmly grazing on the hillside. They scattered in all directions, the eagle shot up again, banked sharply and came in again for another attack, this time making contact with the rear end of a well grown calf. It galloped on across the rough ground, the eagle veered off and went again, this time at a full grown hind and holding on briefly to the back of the panicking beast. It let go and soared up high above the herd which had all come to a halt to watch the eagle and to see what it did next. It looked like it had had its fun for the day. I guess if one of them had stumbled and broken a leg, it would have eventually had a meal but for now it was giving up and drifted off to seek out easier prey. But it did once again show the might of the eagles and what they may be capable of at times. The deer returned to grazing as dusk approached. They'd survived another day in this harsh west coast winter environment. As they prepared for a long night on the hill, I rolled the window up against the strengthening wind and drizzle and headed homewards.
And talking of strengthening wind, it really is now starting here. Heavy rain and sudden gusts howling round the garden. I'd better get out there and do one last check that everything is tied down and try to coax the hens into cover. It's going to be a long night.
Sunday January 18, 2009
1230pm: Maybe we were in the 'eye of the storm' but we seem to have escaped unscathed. In fact it seemed alot worse last weekend! Anyway we should be grateful and better to be prepared and safe than sorry. So now we just have a normal Sunday in winter on Mull - the atrocious weather isn't done with us yet: angry squalls of hail and rain persist and it still feels like it's not really light yet. But this is as good as it's going to get. Time to browse holiday brochures for holidays we can't afford to take this year and to survey the garden from the warmth of the conservatory to imagine what will appear where in the coming spring - deer and hens permitting.
Tomorrow it's back on the trail of the eagles, to discover which nests survived the maelstrom and to hopefully get some new satellite fixes for Mara & Breagha. I should just mention that the very latest fix we have for Mara was - bizarrely - directly above our house a few days ago! I thought it was some kind of early April Fool prank by our Data Unit team in Edinburgh but no, he really did fly over the garden. Let's hope he and Breagha found a safe and sheltered place to spend last night and that as this grim weather persists, that they discover a meaty carcase somewhere on the hill to keep them going. They deserve a hearty Sunday lunch after what they've endured last night. Until next time...
Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer
Well it may seem like a long time for some of you since the last blog on Mull eagles but believe me, it isn't - at least it shouldn't be and for me, for one, it wasn't. I wrote one on Saturday night. I mean with no X-Factor or Strictly now, we have to fill our Saturday evenings somehow. I clicked on 'Publish' only for the screen to go blank. Gone. Lost forever in that great blog in the sky. Oh how we laughed...
Twenty four hours later, Sunday evening, with composure somewhat regained and a large glass of vino alongside, off I went again. Plenty of time before Dancing on Ice - The Skate Off (hey, it's Mull in January, give us a break!). Finished! This time I'll play it safe. I'll press 'Save but don't publish' just so I can review it and check for typos. Click. Gone. Blank screen. Lost again in that black hole of blogging.
I carefully placed the new laptop on the floor, downed my Mull Pottery goblet of wine, went quietly into the garden and with the weekend's gale still raging, I screamed very loudly and for several minutes at the scudding clouds and occasional stars. Frisa and Skye might well have heard me at Loch Frisa. So I'm sorry but I couldn't face another attempt...until now... and I'm saving it every few seconds.
After I'd finished yelling I suddenly felt very guilty about the poor chickens who had indeed come home to roost and at that point must have been terrified in their luxury hen house at the screaming banshee outside and probably wished they'd stayed where they were. I said 'sorry chickens' and retreated back into the warm. For it was the chickens which had formed the core of the weekend blog update but despite now writing it twice I can't quite remember what I wrote. I recall the chickens had been spotted in the school vegetable patch by my youngest daughter Olivia (7).
At break time she burst into the staff room to announce to the startled teachers having a quick coffee themselves that her chickens were in the school yard. Now the three chickens had been my slightly unusual but highly seasonal Christmas present to the family (Geddit? Three French hens, two turtle doves...etc). Except they're not French. For anyone still following this brief diversion from the eagles, the chickens are apparently British Orpington x Indian Game crosses. I adapted the kids play house with a bit of DIY and provided roosting perches and nesting box (not that there are any eggs yet - too young and wrong time of year I'm reliably informed) but it's still a highly sought after bijou residence.
So by the time I was ready to go and round them up after their bid for freedom, there they were, all three of them, sitting on the fence, ready to launch themselves back into the garden. And as I was standing there reflecting on this turn of events, first Henrietta (original huh?), then Pepper and finally Chestnut flew at full speed across the grass and into the shrubbery.
As a birdy type I don't know why I was so surprised to see that these birds could actually fly! I always thought chickens were only capable of a short flutter but these three showed flight skill worthy of any pheasant or grouse. We had to keep them inside all day during Saturday's violent storms as we feared they might get picked up and blown across the Sound of Mull. Amazing and strangely satisfying that our three hens had come home all on their own.
Talking of pheasants, the three chickens are forming an unhealthy friendship with Rainbow our resident pheasant - much to the disgust of his normal three hen pheasants which follow him around. The hens are also staking their claim on this territory by seeing off the greedy herring gulls which descend en masse to eat the kitchen scraps. They put up quite a defense and the gulls have more than met their match.
And so there we are, you are now up to date with the Mull chicken blog. Fear not, normal eagle service will be resumed shortly. There's not even time to tell you about the amazing encounters I had when I went to try and find Mara near the point of his satellite fix on 8 January; of the relentless 30 minute pursuit of a young male sea eagle (was it Mara?) by three aggressive young female sea eagles - I hope he escaped; of the young golden eagle which plunged into a herd of red deer hinds and calves scattering them in all directions - quite remarkable scenes; of the tantalising report of a young sea eagle at Loch Awe with red tags and the letter 'I' - was it our famous Springwatch chick Itchy from 2005? I'm following it up.
So much to tell you about but that will all have to wait a while. I'd better see if this thing publishes successfully tonight. I hope it does - but don't count your chickens.