We haven't seen much of the sun lately but in one break in the deluge I watched Frisa and Skye relaxing and unwinding after their busy summer. I gently pulled the landrover in, switched off the engine and rolled quietly to a halt. Frisa was to my left high in the sitkas; Skye was on my right in a larch. I panned from one to the other just enjoying them as they preened their soft plumage in the brief warm, sunny spell. Both looked regal and composed and somehow proud of their achievements this year. Somewhere nearby Heather was perched safely out of sight, probably drying off too. She was leaving her parents in peace, for now at least. As the sun's warmth penetrated their soggy feathers for the first time in days, first Frisa and then Skye half opened their broad, mighty wings and allowed them to droop a little. They just looked so chilled out. They deserved this moment. Then they went one step further, something I've never seen before. I thought I noticed Frisa's eyes were closed. I zoomed the scope in but they were open again. Then slowly but surely like someone after a heavy meal, her eyes closed completely and her noble head tilted slightly to one side. I looked across to Skye and he was doing the same! It was siesta time; I felt quite honoured that they felt so relaxed with me just 100m away that they could completely switch off. As I watched Skye, he did what people do when you watch someone drifting off on the train. Every now and then, as he snoozed, his head fell forward and he'd then jolt himself upright again, eyes wide open for a few seconds as if he'd been awake all along, only to slowly doze off again in the late afternoon sun. I looked back to Frisa and sure enough she was doing the same. They both just seemed overwhelmed by the stresses and strains of the last few months; maybe the heady cocktail of sunshine, warmth and the scent of spruce was just more than they could resist. It was certainly working on me! This afternoon nap business was catching.
As the sun slipped lower behind the trees, that slight chill which tells you it's no longer high summer, rippled through the larches and both birds gave themselves a good shake and a ruffle of their feathers. I don't know if they roosted there that night; I had to head off but I left with a sense of peace and calm. For birds which sometimes have to face such severe conditions in the wild, which can show such strength and at times such gentleness, I'd witnessed another new side to them: chilled, relaxed 'empty-nesters'. They both half-watched me drive off down the track and they were alone again - together in their domain.
Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer
Many readers may have seen news reports this week of the tragic canoe accident on Loch Maree involving a father and his son. The man involved was Mike Madders with his seven year old son Daniel. Mike worked here on Mull in the 1980s when the first sea eagles settled on the island before he moved to Islay and latterly Poolewe. Mike wrote the 'Birds of Mull' with Philip Snow and 'Where to Watch Birds in Scotland' with Julia Welstead. In addition to his expert knowledge and studies on birds of prey in the UK and abroad, he was also a successful businessman. He founded and was a Managing Director for the environmental consultancy and charity Natural Research Ltd which is working with us on the satellite tracking project. A full tribute to him appears on their website (link on the tracking page) and in the numerous news reports about the accident.
I first met Mike in 1984. We were new recruits to the RSPB and were about to be despatched on a secret mission to a mystery island. Sea eagles, recently released on the Isle of Rum, had started to be seen regularly on Mull. There were the first tentative signs of nesting and the year before, the first eggs had been layed. In March, we were briefed by Roy Dennis at his Highland home and then we both headed west with our new boss Roger Broad and boarded the ferry bound for Mull. Our base was Hazelbank Cottage in Lochdon near where one pair was being seen. We were both instantly captivated by Mull and could sense that we were both lucky to be part of conservation history in the making. On our first evening we headed to Ardnadrochit where Sheila served us our first (of many) home cooked meals. Sheila had been one of the first Muileachs to report the new and unusual big eagles flying over the house and as we ate dinner looking out of the window and out across the loch we knew one could fly by at any moment. The magic of Mull and of my time working with Mike on this historic project had begun. Within a day or two we had made our first major discovery of an active sea eagle nest a long way from Loch Don. I recall Roger saying when we 'phoned in that night for some guidance: "Well, you two seem to be doing pretty well on your own!" I guess for two rookie sea eagle field workers we weren't doing too badly for our first 48 hours on Mull. Forging new and long lasting relationships with the local farmers which continue to this day, we watched the nest round the clock come rain or shine. The male of the sea eagle pair was only four years old so still immature; the female who in later years would become known as 'Blondie' was mature but their breeding attempt was unsuccessful and they incubated way beyond the normal 38 days. Mike and I were back in 1985 to continue where we left off. This time our base was Eastcroft in Lochdon but our sea eagle pair had moved again to a new nest in a remote part of central Mull. Our eagle watch began again in mid March and we were joined by our colleague Keith Morton to conduct our continuous nest observations in what was noted at the time as one of the wettest summers on record. We would do 24 hour stints, relieving each other in the early evening. I recall Mike emerging foot by foot (he was over 6ft) from our tiny, leaking RSPB-issue tent. We would exchange notes on what we'd seen, he'd pack up his cooking kit, Earl Grey tea and favourite bag of muesli and stride off back down the track for a much needed bath at Eastcroft (hoping Keith had remembered to switch the hot water on). I would then crawl into the damp interior of the tent on the shore of the loch and settle down for the long night ahead. I think Mike had made friends with a wood mouse as there was always one keeping me company in the tent. One night it ate through my pack and consumed some of my sandwiches.
Fast forward to a rare dry, sunny April morning. I called Mike on the CB radio and the now legendary message crackled back at me: "I think we're both daddies". And that's exactly how we all felt. Blondie and her mate had hatched and were feeding the first sea eagle chick to be raised in Scotland for 70 years. And the rest really is history but we can reflect and remember and say 'we were there'. The famous chick fledged and so began a dynasty which continues to this day with our very own Frisa who was raised by Blondie and her mate in 1992. From those exciting, pioneering days with one chick on the wing, we end this season with a record 36 chicks fledging in Scotland including an amazing 10 chicks on Mull alone. A fitting legacy for Mike. He helped get them to this point.
I can see him now striding like a stag through the drizzle across the Mull hills, wellies and torn waxproof jacket on with faithful pointer Merlyn at his heel, off to check another eagle eyrie or one of his favourite hen harriers.
Our condolences to all of Mike and Daniel's family, friends and colleagues at this time.
NB. Comments received on this blog are much appreciated but won't be published.
As I type this blog, the rain is falling hard and fast - our house sits on a slight incline, and the rain is running down the front path forming a small river, then turning into a mini waterfall at the front door step! It has rained everyday since last Tuesday - not just drizzle but heavy, persistent rain while a lot of the UK has been basking in sunshine and hot temperatures. To test the power of positive thought, please can our readers send some dry weather our way. Just relieved we dont have any chicks on nests.
As you can imagine, our birds have been hunkered down for most of the week. Heather came out and gave a spectacular flying display in between one of the showers - she has gained so much confidence in her flying - not so many wobbles as she glides and turns. Skye and Frisa are still staying close to her, keeping an eye on their youngster. Half Pint and his sister have being practising short flights too, with Mum and Dad not very far away.
Our young buzzards have been keeping us entertained at the hide this week - we have two families who have fledged and we are getting some great views of them practising hunting, diving and how to land in a tree.
As I returned from a short visit to Oban yesterday afternoon, I had some great views of diving gannets - they are really amazing to watch. As we were pulling into Craignure and I was pointing them out to my daughter, she said "never mind the gannets - what's that?" Two dark fins were protruding from the water "That my dear is a basking shark" I replied. We are very lucky to witness such wildlife on our shopping trips!
Gannet - Photo Debby Thorne
We will keep you updated on news but in the meantime, I am off to build an ark!
White Tailed Sea Eagle Information Officer, Isle of Mull
As we reported a while ago, Mull suddenly seemed a slightly emptier place recently when Mara and Breagha, our two satellite tagged youngsters from 2008, both left the island for the first time. In the last year, one has gone on a fly about and then returned and then the other has gone and returned and they continued to spend alot of time together here. So now, for both birds to have been gone for so long is, well, a bit unsettling. It shouldn't be of course. We should be celebrating the fact that we still have two fit and healthy juveniles, now over a year old exploring their new world. But with all the sickening news this summer, of the poisoning of a golden eagle in nearby Glen Orchy and then the sad loss of Alma on another sporting estate in the Angus Glens near to where poor White G met his fate, it just kind of makes you feel uneasy to say the least.
But let's concentrate on the good news. Breagha in particular has had a grand tour of the famous Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland, at one point flying near to our brilliant nature reserve at Forsinard. She then made her way back down the west coast a short way and seems settled in the dramatic Kylesku area for the time being. She's made the occasional day trip to Loch Maree but has headed 'home' to Kylesku to roost. Of course she has hopefully many more years of wandering and exploring yet before she finally settles down on a breeding territory. I'm sure she'll be back to pay us a visit before too long. Meanwhile 'little' brother Mara is just across the water from here on Morvern and Ardnamurchan. By all accounts he seems to have made friends with some guys at the local fish farm (I wonder why?).
So what of the Mull 'Class of 09'? Well our 10 chicks are now all fledged and flying well but are still near their nesting area and being fed by their parents. We're lucky that we have a host of people across the island, both residents and visitors, who keep an eye on things for us and send in regular reports. Soon we hope to be introducing the two new Mull satellite tagged chicks to you all. We have another male and a female from different nests on the island and both are doing well. Once we have everything up and running for the website and the data coming in regularly, we'll be launching them to the world! Standby for that exciting moment. Meanwhile, we will continue to keep a close eye on the data for Breagha and Mara on their big adventures and hope, above all, that they keep themselves safe and out of harms way. Bon voyage!
We always get a warm glow as we finally board that ferry and begin the voyage home to Mull. It had been a long, stressful drive north on crowded motorways after a hectic fortnight of visiting family and friends in London and Wales. At one point trying to walk down Oxford Street with a great tidal wave of humanity coming in the opposite direction to us, we felt like we were about to be picked up and carried back the way we'd come. Progress was slow and thoughts of striding the empty hills of Mull kept flashing through my mind. London was fun for a day but it was like an alien habitat for us now. At least in Wales, we did find a nice mountain to climb - the Sugarloaf - with splendid views across the Brecon Beacons. Regular texts from Debby kept me in constant touch with how our sea eagle offspring were faring. At Loch Frisa, Heather was clearly doing just fine and I longed to see her up and about and flying strongly with Frisa and Skye. If only Bracken could be there too...
But of most concern to us all was how Half pint and her big sister were doing. They were the last eaglets to be still in the nest when I went away. All the others were safely on their way but their nest and eggs had been delayed this year by the atrocious weather back in March and April. In fact they were some 10 days later than normal. The text message while I was down south which told me the nest was now empty was a relief in some ways but also worrying. Eventually both chicks were heard but some days later only one chick was being seen. Visions of my discovery of Bracken and of a chick last year dead under their nest trees flooded back. Needless to say, Half pint's nest was first on my list to check after unpacking the car and essential things like picking up the guinea pigs and chickens from Debby!
On the first visit, sure enough, there was only one chick sitting in a tree nearby. Both parent birds keeping watch. Where was the second chick? They should all be together. Finally yesterday, the heavy rain showers paused sufficiently long enough to enable me to get back out there to check once more. Once again, an adult on duty but this time no chicks and all was strangely quiet. No gulls alarm calling. Even the frantic oystercatcher didn't let out her usual explosion of alarm calls as I slipped and skidded my way across the seaweed covered rocks at low tide. The adult sea eagle just watched me go by, no sign of any alarm calls from her. I took my time along the shore line, stopping every few metres to scan the trees in the hope of finding the chicks perched there. Still nothing, still silence. Then I started to find feathers and down stuck to the tops of bog myrtle and sedge. The more I moved along the strandline, the more feathers there were. I started to be concerned as to what I was about to find. Until I discovered what could only be described as a grand eagle dining table! A large flat topped rock covered in prey remains of seaduck, shag, fulmar, gull...what a feast there had been. Clearly this is where the adults had been delivering prey to their newly fledged chicks. I think we all saw each other at almost the same time. There sitting on a rock some 50 metres away was one of the chicks looking big, sleek, smooth and strong. A little further on sat Half pint, now the same size but not quite with the same beefy, robust stature of her big sisiter. For a few seconds she kept peering down at large clumps of bladderwrack and grappling with them as if playfully attacking some future prey. What complete and utter joy to see them both, alive and well, after the long worrying months of incubation and hatching all those months ago. Both flew well and strongly a short distance along the coast and perched professionally as if they'd been doing it for ever. The adult - looking a bit moth-eaten now as her post-breeding moult sets in - came across, located them and circled once to be sure they were safe and then returned to her tree. They were well on their way. Half pint was now a full pint! Soon they would all be off across the Sound of Mull and our work would be done for now. On my way back, I glanced up at the battered and tilting nest which had worried us all so many times this season. It won't survive the winter that's for sure. I wonder where the adults will settle next year and where will Half pint be by then? We wish them all well in their next trials of life.