There have been so many times over the last three years that a young white-tailed eagle from Mull called Kellan has occupied my thoughts. From those early autumn 2010 days when he was in the Scottish SPCA wildlife hospital to the first weeks and months after his release he has never been far away from our minds. We were all so pleased and relieved how well he did to begin with but deep down none of us really knew what his chances were back in the harsh realities of the wild. His wing and leg injuries had been severe and life threatening but he deserved a second chance at life on his island home. From the moment the farmer reported him badly injured in the bracken, everyone worked tirelessly to fix him up and to return him to where he belonged.
No one has seen him alive since August 2011. As he lifted up above the ridge that day on unsteady, faltering wings and was mobbed mercilessly by a buzzard and an army of crows, I really felt that was that. It had been worth the effort. It was right to do all we could for such a rare UK bird. After what he and his distant Scottish ancestors had endured over so many Centuries of persecution, we owed him that chance - even if it was to be a short lived one.
Ever since then - and even recently from Australia - people all over the world, visitors to Mull, comments on the blog or Twitter, have asked "How is Kellan? Have you seen him?". My answer was always the same: "No not since 2011 but he could still be out there..." But did I really believe my own wishful thinking? So many fit and healthy young eagles do not survive their first winter. What chance did an eagle with a once broken wing and leg really have?
We stood searching the skies for the return of Kellan's feisty mother (wing tagged Yellow Black Spot - YBS) last week. Mull Charters were just kicking off another season of boat trips to see the eagles and as the 'Lady Jayne' waited patiently off shore on a flat calm Loch na Keal, Kellan's dad sat tight incubating this year's precious clutch.
The sky was blue and the sun shone as it has done now for weeks on Mull. A distant speck of an approaching eagle drifted into view high up from the north. Here she came at last. About time too! A changeover was long overdue. I got the eagle in the telescope and immediately knew it wasn't YBS. I don't know why I doubted it because I knew that peculiar flight profile in an instant. There was never any doubt in my mind from the first second I saw it but still I hesitated to utter the words out loud. As others chatted I kept silent. Although I knew, I couldn't quite believe my own eyes. I felt my heart rate quickening. Eventually as the mystery eagle cleared the tops of the old nest tree, coming ever closer, I half whispered under my breath "You won't believe this. It sounds mad...but I think it's Kellan..."
By this point it was clear for all to see. Our wonky-winged white-tailed wonder was now circling high above our heads in the blue sky and sunshine. His right wing still showing that distinctive kink - flapping and gliding merrily along as he always had. His flight silhouette is distinctly odd - it almost puts me in mind of that of an Egyptian vulture - wings slightly bowed - and yet he gets around. And he's been getting around and surviving now for nearly three years. The more he circled above us the more excited we all got. I seriously could not believe it. After all he'd been through, the terrible winters, all the odds were stacked against him but he had, somehow, won through. The farmer, the landowner, the vets and the SSPCA carers had all been part of this amazing success story. One eagle. One life. A second chance. And he'd taken it!
He glided towards Salen then turned expertly and headed straight back home, landing out of sight in a gully. We hugged, we looked at each other in complete disbelief. Kellan was alive. Not only that, he was positively thriving.
Later that afternoon my daughter Bethan and I returned to a great vantage point high on the hill overlooking the gully. Kellan had spent his first night after capture in 2010 in the girl's playhouse in the garden. It was safe and dark and comforting, though for him plucked from the wild, probably still terrifying. Now, before us there he was again, perched high up in a larch. No longer that hunched, cowering bundle of brown feathers, scared eyes and lashing talons in the darkness. Now a three year old immature white-tailed eagle sitting proud and dignified surveying some very familiar territory. His parents, with this year's nest within view, let him be. There had always been a special bond. As he flew to roost just metres from where he once fledged, we could even see the first hint of white in his tail. Kellan, the miracle eagle, had come home.
As we turned the Landrover and headed for home, the radio played and we turned it up loud. The words of the song summed it all up: "It's a beautiful day...and I can't stop myself from smiling"
Dave Sexton RSPB Mull Officer
There are places on this planet that draw you back time and time again. Even on Mull with lots of visitors from Easter to October there are still many stretches of secret coast where you can lose yourself and never see a soul. There's one such place I have the arduous task of having to visit several times a season to check on one of the remotest pairs of nesting white-tailed eagles in Scotland. And actually, it is quite arduous! Not that I'm expecting any sympathy but it is a long four hour flog to get even close to where I need to be. It can be bleak amd barren in early spring with no wheatears yet to keep me company along the boulder-strewn shoreline and no willow warblers in the coastal birches to urge me on my way.
But one day last summer it all came together. Within an hour of setting off I could see distant splashes out in the glistening sea loch. As I neared the coast and settled down for a good scan I could see five or six bottle-nosed dolphins - adults and young - leaping and cavorting as they steamed northwards. Such a sight always gladdens the heart and spurs you on. A recently fledged family of ravens was much in evidence, cronking loudly as they chased hard-pressed parents for food. I almost stumbled onto one fledgling which was sheltering on a rocky outcrop and had somehow failed to notice me approaching. As I got to within a few metres it suddenly realised its folly and took off with a loud clatter of stiffened black primaries. It wouldn't make that mistake again.
Further on, a small herd of red deer hinds with a group of following calves were grazing. The old look-out hind gave a bark and as one, the rest of the herd looked up and straight at me. I stopped; they froze. We watched each other for several minutes before the lead hind turned and trotted elegantly away across the moor followed by her fellow hinds and calves. They weren't unduly spooked; stalking season was still some months away and maybe they never got my scent. Just the vision of a lone figure tramping towards them across the bog. They all reached the skyline, looked again and one by one slipped over the top and out of sight. It was time for a breather; a coffee and a Tobermory bakery Chelsea bun for that extra bit of energy. I was still only half way there.
It doesn't do to close your eyes in the sun, propped up against a lichen covered boulder with skylarks and curlews calling overhead. As I listened to the bird calls, I thought I heard a golden plover. There were the ravens again. A wee wren let rip from a damp mossy cluster of rocks and the ever present gulls calling as they streamed up and down the coast lulled me all too quickly into a very brief mini-siesta. At least I think it was brief.
Time to move on. An hour later I was as close as I dared get to where I thought my new pair of white-tailed eagles may have a nest. I'd seen them on and off during survey trips the previous winter. Short, dark, frustrating days when I would catch a glimpse of an adult eagle disappearing in to a hidden grove of oaks and birch but then nothing for hours on end. But they were up to something. I just knew it.
At last my target stretch of coast was in view. Time to keep a low profile, to settle down, to watch and to wait. Three hours later, an adult white-tailed eagle drifted over my head and landed in a dead tree jutting out from the cliff top. By now the sun was behind me so I suspect it never clocked me crouched and cramped amongst the tick and midge infested bracken. It called loudly, the harsh notes echoing off the cliffs all around and then, it was answered. The bird I could see had a higher call - a male; the answer that came back was lower - the female was hidden somewhere in the trees. My heart skipped a beat; that little rush of excitement I still get even after 25 years of doing this when you know you may be close to a big discovery. The long flog and effort made that moment even sweeter.
Slowly I shifted position and focussed the 'scope on the male, now preening in the late afternoon sun. He had wing tags. They were fluttering in the breeze and impossible to read. Up, down, nearly and then the wind would blow them again. They were yellow...that meant 2006. Then the wind dropped and all was revealed: Yellow G. I could hardly believe my tired, watering eyes. Here was one of the two chicks Finlay, Roger and I had rescued from the rocks after their nest had been torn from the crag in a violent May storm. Amazingly. they both survived after we revived them from hypothermia, built them a new nest nearby and placed them in it with a whole wild salmon to feast on. Within hours their mother was back and feeding them at our makeshift eyrie and both went on to fledge successfully later that summer. If that all felt pretty good, sitting here now, six years later, looking at him as a fine young adult with gleaming white tail, banana-yellow beak and a piercing sunlit eye, well it was almost enough to make you shed a tear. But no, it was just the salty wind in my eyes.
Without warning, he launched off his perch leaving the dead white branch bouncing in the breeze and headed down low, just above the waves and out to sea. Within seconds he was on the tail of his intended victim: a gannet. But he wasn't trying to catch it, he was trying to scare it, which he did, very successfully. Rather than risk being caught, the gannet coughed up his latest catch of fresh mackerel which Yellow G immediately swooped down to retrieve from the choppy waters. So simple, so skilled, so delicate. With a talon or two full of fresh fish from a gannet's gullet, he headed homeward. This was the moment I'd been waiting for.
I knew where he was going and I could hear the food begging calls already. No messing, he went straight to his hidden eyrie shrouded in foliage and there was his fully feathered chick, propbably eight or nine weeks old. He dumped the fish and jumped out onto a side branch as the chick devoured the lot in a few minutes. The whole experience meant even more as I knew I was looking at Skye and Frisa's great-grand chick! Yellow G's mother had been their first surviving chick from 1998.
It was time to drop down to the shoreline and head for home. By now my dinner back home was already either stone cold or burnt to a crisp in the 'warming oven' of the Raeburn. I still had a soggy Marmite sandwich and a luke warm flask of tea to celebrate with so it wasn't all bad. Back at sea level, a pair of oystercatchers went beserk and I was glad to get out of their earshot. And then the weird echoing spouting noises began. Looking around I expected to see a water spout being forced up between the basalt dykes but no. There it was again, louder this time. Some feral goats along the shore even stopped eating the seaweed and looked up. Was it just waves crashing onto the shingle? No it was moving! The echoes got louder and then, there before me were the pod of dolphins heading back south, this time even closer inshore. No playing or jumping this time, just a steady procession along the coast, their spouts echoing off the walls of the ancient raised beach.
A final glance back and Yellow G was back on his dead tree. The boy had done well. I never did see his mate that day but she can't have been far away. A month later their chick was flying strongly and getting uplift along the towering cliffs above echo beach. The oystercatchers had fallen silent, the dolphins were long gone but the eagles flew on.
The 5* Mull Eagle Hide opens on Monday March 25th. Come and see us this year in the Year of Natural Scotland. Fingal and Iona are waiting for you! Call 01680 812 556 to book a trip, 10am and 1pm Mon-Fri.
Finlay Christine, our good friend and supporter at Mull Eagle Watch passed away on 26 December 2012. His funeral was on 3 January 2013 at the beautiful little church near his home in Lochbuie, Mull. Many friends were able to attend to pay their respects but some were not and many others will have bumped into Finlay - on or off duty - on their visits to Mull over the years. So here in tribute to his amazing and full life and work are some extracts from the eulogy written and read by Alistair Dewar at his service...including some of our adventures with the eagles on Mull.
"Finlay was born on 9th January 1961, in Paisley. Following his education at Simshill Primary and then Kings Park Secondary, he had part time jobs doing a milk round and labouring in the brick factory managed by his father. On 16th July 1979, Finlay joined Strathclyde Police and was posted to the Gorbals area of Glasgow. At that time it was still a tough environment to police, but it did not particularly phase Finlay who took it in his stride. In 1983 Finlay applied to join the Police Support Unit, which is principally a specialist department whose officers are trained in the use of firearms and search techniques, but mainly used to deal with disorder throughout the force area.
Colleagues were blown away by Finlay’s dress sense. While most of them arrived at work in old bangers of cars with casual jackets over their uniform, not Finlay, he was very much a 'Dandy', a 'follower of fashion' wearing the most up to date clothes. He even drove a gold coloured MGB GT sports car; when he emerged from his car he was more like James Bond than a Glasgow bobby. His colleagues now realised they had a larger than life character in their midst. His great sense of humour made him very well liked, and he soon became the backbone of their social life, organising the support unit nights out, to a formula which exists to this day. Finlay was seen to live life to the full.
He was physically tough too; playing the weekly, no quarter given, Support Unit 5-a-side football, Finlay was heavily tackled and fell to the ground. Limping and bleeding from the mouth, rather than go off and let the team down, he became goalkeeper for the remainder of the game. It later transpired he had a broken jaw, broken wrist and sprained ankle. His considerate colleagues visited him with a box of toffees! Following service in the Support Unit, Finlay transferred to Pollock where he served until 1991 when he decided it was time to experience rural policing and was successful in his application to come to Mull.
Not surprisingly, Finlay’s easy going nature and policing skills enabled him to adapt quickly to the policing needs of Salen and to Mull as a whole. Finlay, when he first went to Mull did not realise it, but he was to become a specialist in wildlife crime.
Several years earlier sea eagles had been reintroduced to the West of Scotland and a few pairs settled on Mull. Because of their rarity they quickly became the target of compulsive egg thieves and annually their nests were plundered. The sea eagles were very important to tourism on Mull, so it was decided by Strathclyde Police and the RSPB that the local community and volunteers could be organised to protect nest sites.
Finlay helped launch 'Operation Easter' – part of a highly successful and nationwide campaign to combat wildlife crime. This later evolved into 'Mull Eagle Watch' – the world’s biggest wildlife neighbourhood watch and it successfully prosecuted a number of cases over the years. Finlay was the glue that held it all together and as a direct result of this Mull is now on the world stage as a place that both safeguards its wildlife and shows it to thousands of visitors every year.
Finlay was also a media star and in this way helped to spread the message about wildlife crime. On Mull he featured in numerous wildlife programmes including Springwatch, Autumnwatch, Eagle Island, Landward and Wildlife Detectives. And not forgetting a starring role in Balamory! Finlay was justly proud of protecting Mull’s wildlife and of the successful prosecutions over the years; he also enjoyed receiving the 'Wildlife Crime Officer of the Year Award' and a RSPB President’s Award in 2009. But he was possibly most proud of his Blue Peter Badge! He filmed with them at Loch Frisa and Grasspoint in 2009 and wore his badge with honour.
In June 2006 during a nightime unseasonably violent storm, a white tailed eagle nest near Finlay’s beloved Lochbuie was torn from its sea cliff site and plunged 80 feet to the rocks below, taking two young eaglets with it. The RSPB thought they must have perished but the next morning both chicks were found still alive – just. With Finlay’s help the RSPB tended to the two bedraggled chicks, built them a brand new nest on the cliff and placed them in it – along with a whole salmon from the freezer at Laggan Farm. Within a few hours the parent eagles were back feeding their chicks in the nest that Finlay built. A few weeks later both chicks fledged successfully. Five years later, one of those chicks is paired up and nesting on Islay, the other is nesting not a million miles away from Lochbuie and last year raised its first chick. This year a second chick fledged. Finlay was rightfully proud of this achievement. The eagles are his amazing legacy.
This of course was over and above his main role of being a part of the small team of officers tasked with policing the island. He loved this type of policing which he carried out with credit until his retiral in July 2009, a total of 19 years which possibly makes him the longest serving officer in the same rural post ever. Finlay was an old fashioned community police officer who did not always follow the Strathclyde Police Standard Procedures, more often he chose the 'Finlay Christine' way of policing and yes, it worked well in most situations.
Finlay was someone who it was always a joy to meet; he had a twinkle in his eye and usually a humorous story to tell. You invariably walked away feeling much better having met him. A final wee story about Finlay, which I think highlights what a refreshing 'one-off' he was and why he appealed to so many – a few years ago the Chief Constable was visiting Mull. At such times most police officers, although off duty, made themselves available. The entourage arrived at Salen, no Finlay, he had a better offer. The Chief Constable opened the visitor’s book to sign as they do, and burst out laughing. A piece of paper inside read 'Gone Fishing'."
Mull Eagle Watch will miss his wise words and constant support. We all miss him more than words can say.
David Sexton RSPB Mull Officer
Finlay sat on the famous eagle bench at Loch Frisa when Blue Peter came to town
Finlay Christine, sat on the right, Andy Akinwolere (Blue Peter) on the left & Dave Sexton RSPB Mull Officer Standing
(photo Debby Thorne)
Sgt Angie MacDonald with Finlay at his retirement with an Iain Erskine photograph of one of the Loch Don white-tailed eagles. Finlay initially set up Mull Eagle Watch to help protect this particular pair of eagles after their eggs were stolen just days before they were due to hatch. In 2008 he arrested and charged a photographer who got too close to them at the nest and caused their breeding attempt to fail. And it was this legendary old pair of eagles that Finlay filmed with Blue Peter, wearing his badge with pride from that day on.
(Photo by Caroline Davies)
Autumn is in full swing - beautiful shades of red, gold, orange and brown are everywhere; the rowan trees are laden with berries which are being picked off by the fieldfares and redwings that have recently arrived on the Island. Autumn is my favourite season - a chance to reflect on the season just past and time to look ahead as the evenings draw in - wondering what lies ahead.
The Mull Eagle Hide has had a fantastic season this year. Fingal and Iona successfully raising and fledging two healthy chicks, Gorme and Buidhe (named by the pupils at Bunessan Primary School). We had several film crews visit us including BBC Springwatch, John Aitchison for a BBC series on the Hebrides (hopefully due to air in March), Ray Mears filming for ITV1's Wild Britain and a crew from the Discovery Channel. Some fantastic coverage for Mull and its wildlife.
We had 3000 visitors to our new location this year at Forestry Commission Scotland's Glen Seilisdeir forest and everyone was blown away by the view and its location - fingers crossed we will be back next spring so if you didn't manage to visit this year, come and see us in 2013 - the Year of Natural Scotland.
And to confirm how fantastic it was - we were graded by VisitScotland with 5 Stars as a 'Wildlife Attraction' - 5 Stars means 'exceptional' - we were over the moon as we were only 1 of 2 wildlife attractions in the whole of Scotland to receive 5 stars. As you know Mull Eagle Watch and the Hide is run by 5 different organisations - Forestry Commission Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, Strathclyde Police, Mull & Iona Community Trust, RSPB Scotland plus volunteers both visiting and from the local community. The award confirms how well we can work together, each adding something different and with the end result: eagles nesting successfully and a great wildlife experience.
A big thank you to all our visitors and to our many supporters, who though may not be able to join us in person, are with us in spirit - we couldn't do it without you.
Just a quick reminder that BBC Autumnwatch starts tonight - based in Scotland this year at the fantastic Aigas Field Centre. The webcams are up and running with fantastic footage of the beavers and pine marten.
Until next time,
White Tailed Eagle Information Officer
Isle of Mull
(courtesy The Three Degrees)
Wow! What a year it has been! After a fantastic summer of Olympics and Paralympics - we woke up this morning to the fantastic news that Andy Murray has won his first Grand Slam - the first British male since 1936 - there have been some incredible moments and I'm sure we all have our favourites - all I can say is that I'm glad I don't have to choose Sports Personality of the Year!
Here on Mull we have had an incredible year - unlike the rest of the UK, we have enjoyed a warm and sunny spring and summer - this has had a great knock on effect to our wildlife with many species doing very well.
Mull Eagle Watch has had a fantastic year too. We closed at the end of August to enable the Forestry Commission to commence logging operations. It has been a great season with visitors enjoying our new viewing area, hidden amongst the trees at Glen Seilisdeir. There, they could watch Fingal and Iona as they incubated their precious eggs, the hatching of our two chicks, Gorm and Buidhe right through to their successful fledging. Our last trips of the season were very special as we watched all 4 flying together against the backdrop of Loch Scridain. Good luck Gorm and Buidhe - fly long and free and most importantly, keep safe.
Elsewhere on the Island, other eagle families have done well and I shall leave it for Dave to report on this year's breeding numbers once everything has been collated.
We are delighted to report that Mara, Skye and Frisa's chick from 2006, has been spotted safe and well with his mate. These fantastic pictures were taken by Jim Michie from Loch Shiel Eagle Cruises - many thanks Jim!
The first photo shows Mara, now minus his satellite tag. It has provided us with lots of valuable information and thanks to Roy Dennis and his Highland Wildlife Foundation for their help in this area. The second photo shows Mara having his ear chewed off by his East Coast mate.
The other great piece of news this year was Skye and Frisa successfully fledging a chick - called Sunda. I managed to capture a photo of her during a recent visit to Loch Frisa - she is sat with Frisa as Dad, Skye, sits on one of his favourite lookout spots just out of shot of the camera!.
The first picture shows Frisa sat on the left and Sunda on the righ. The second picture is Sunda looking healthy and she is flying strongly too. Good luck - a very special chick indeed.
A big thank you to all our visitors and supporters - we couldn't do it without you!
Until next time,
WhiteTailed Eagle Information Officer