Down through the ages, there are certain white-tailed eagles who you remember more than others. A bit like people really. Some are real characters; some have big adventures that make them stand out from the crowd and a few are just, well, special. Don't get me wrong, they're all special! But a handful have an extra special place in my heart.
Contrary to popular belief we don't name them all! A few have ended up with nick-names, others have been 'officially' named by local Mull school children (thanks to Simon King who started it all on the first ever BBC Springwatch in 2005 - thanks Simon!) and others might just be known by their wing tag colour, number or letter. But the vast majority are simply awesome eagles, just as they should be: utterly free of human labels, titles and traits and all blissfully unaware of the trappings of eagle celebrity.
Off the top of my head though I can still come up with quite a roll call of characters who we've known and loved. We often wonder where some of them are now. Some we know about through our pioneering satellite tracking study, others have been seen recently, others we know have soared off this mortal coil into the wide blue yonder and others are still a mystery waiting to be solved.
Here goes with the cast list: Blondie - the original and best, Misty and Lochan - the old timers, the legends that are Skye and Frisa and their many off-spring: Itchy and Scratchy, Haggis and Oatie, Mara and Breagha, Heather and Bracken, the flying satellite eagles: Venus and Oran, Midge and Shelly: then there's feisty 'Yellow Black-spot', 'White G' (RIP), the 'Free-fall Twins - 'Yellow P' & 'Yellow G', the X-Factor eagles, 'Green T', the Odd Couple. Any more? Ah yes, how could we forget the amazing one and only Kellan, recently described as "the Bruce Willis of the eagle world" having defied death on a number of occasions. I wonder who I've forgotten? No doubt someone will tell me!
Two of Mull’s ‘special’ white-tailed eagles
Photo copyright - Iain Erskine
We've written about many of them before on this Blog but here's a quick re-cap of one timeless character to get us going. Pour yourself a festive Bailey's or a Tobermory malt and remember...
Blondie was the female who fledged the first wild white-tailed eagle chick to be bred in Scotland - indeed the UK - for 70 years. That was in 1985 when she was six years old and her faithful mate was five. It was their second attempt. It was also at a time when people were beginning to get a little nervous about whether this reintroduction was ever going to work. After all, they had been releasing them on Rum since 1975, a full ten years earlier.
But Blondie finally proved the doubters wrong and with no one to teach her those essential maternal skills, she hatched her two eggs one mild spring morning and offered those precious, historic chicks their first meal. I can still see that big yellow beak turning left and right as she carefully moved her head to get the meaty morsels in the perfect position for the tiny beaks to accept it. Her massive talons safely clenched as she stalked around the nest rim and then settled back down to brood the downy bundles of joy. Ah, what a girl. She looked like she'd been doing it all her life but this was all new to her. Her inexperience eventually showed when we lost one of those first chicks at about three weeks old. Maybe not enough food came in, maybe some sibling rivalry?
All I know is we watched that remaining chick with an almost obsessive intensity, noting every move, every feed, every squirt. Nervous days and nights to be sure. And then following that longed-for maiden flight, what did Junior do? He gave us all heart failure as he ditched in the middle of the loch, floundered about and then vanished without trace. Was he dead or alive? No one knew until the following morning when we found him sitting hunched and bedraggled at the loch edge with Mum Blondie and the male either side of him for support. From then on he went from strength to strength and did what young white-tailed eagles are meant to do.
I so wish we knew where he is today. We didn't wing tag him in those early days so after he dispersed from the breeding area, we only got occasional sightings of a "young untagged sea eagle". I like to think he eventually settled down, years later and bred successfully himself. Knowing how long they can live, he could even still be out there today. I think he is. And what of Blondie and her mate?
In April 2000, she simply vanished one day from the nest where she'd just hatched that year's chicks. It was and remains a mystery to this day. She was too good and attentive a mother to abandon her new brood. Something else must have happened, perhaps a territorial clash with another eagle? We will never know but sadly we never saw Blondie again. Despite our best efforts and a helping hand with food, her bewildered mate just couldn't raise the chicks on his own and they too perished. For weeks, then months he waited for his mate's return. They'd been together for over 16 years. We'd find him perched at many of their favourite old haunts. His head occasionally tilting upwards to eye a high soaring eagle, to wonder and hope. But his wait was in vain.
I'm pleased to report that one year he did eventually find a new partner and they bred successfully for another three years before he too vanished from the hills and glens forever. That's the way of it. But the territory lives on with new occupants. And their offspring live on all down the west coast of Scotland. Blondie's dynasty is epic. Her chick from 1992 is none other than our very own Frisa who will be 20 herself in 2012. Blondie was just a stunner in all respects: always immaculate plumage, devoted mother and faithful mate and she's why I do what I do for the RSPB to this day. At least I can still watch Frisa today and sometimes catch a glimpse of Blondie in those piercing sunlit eyes.
Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer
Debby and I thank you for all your support, comments, Tweets and visits this year and wish you a peaceful and happy Holiday Season wherever you are in the world. Follow Mull's eagles @Twitter @skyeandfrisa. Let us know which of our other famous Mull white-tailed eagle characters mentioned above you'd like an update on or just want to hear more about. We'll maybe do a Christmas and Hogmanay Special? This Blog is back!