For 5 months this year I have been leading trips to watch the pair of white-tailed eagles that are nesting in Tiroran Forest, Glen Seilisdeir on the Isle of Mull. There have been some memorable moments during that time: our two adults mating in a tree after the female had laid her first egg, the first sight of the downy white head of the chick after it had hatched, food being brought to the chick on the nest, aerial battles between our white-tailed eagle adults and intruding sub-adult golden eagles, and the first hesitant flight of the juvenile. But this week the most magical experience of my year occurred, with a close fly past of this year’s juvenile.
I was standing by the telescopes, outside the hide, searching the nest area for any signs of the birds in the last 10 minutes before I was due to collect the visitors for our first trip of the day. Suddenly, a huge dark bird appeared in the sky and passed directly overhead about 20 feet above the ground, almost blocking out the sun. I could see every detail of its plumage: the enormous ‘fingers’ of the primary feathers at the end of the rectangular wings, one of which had slight damage along its leading edge, the distinctive wedge shape of the pale tail feathers with their darker brown margins, and the ruffling of the soft feathers on the head and breast. I could see its eyes clearly, looking directly at me as I stood, rooted to the spot. No time to rush and get my camera. Probably just as well as I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on the bird and appreciate the majesty and close proximity of this youngster that has been the focus of our attention and concern this year at Mull Eagle Watch.
I would like to think it was looking at me with appreciation for protecting it this year, but I am certain it was just interested in another new sight, another new experience at the beginning of the learning process, of the development to an adult, of the search for a mate and territory, and of what we hope will be a long and productive life, helping to repopulate Scotland and beyond, getting this wonderful bird of prey back where it belongs.
John Clare, Isle of Mull Community Information and Tourism Officer.
The white-tailed eagle chick from the nest at Mull Eagle Watch, Glen Seilisdeir has fledged successfully. After several days of sitting on branches around the nest, when its wing flapping and teetering on the point of flying had drawn ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the visitors watching through telescopes and binoculars, it finally flew just 50 metres across the clearing into the top of another of the big conifers in the forestry plantation of Tiroran Forest. At first it looked as though it would not be able to steady itself, but gradually it scrambled toward the trunk of the tree, grasping the flimsy branch with its huge, bright yellow feet, eventually appearing to lean against the trunk for support. You could hear the intake of breath from the relieved watchers.
Plaintive calls from the chick echoed across the glen, part exultation at being free from the nest at last, part calling to its parents for food: for days both Iona and Fingal had been tempting their offspring away from the nest by bringing in less and less prey. Iona, who had been perched in a conifer above the nest, then took off and glided to where the youngster sat, alighting gently on a more sturdy branch just below. She seemed to be willing the chick to fly again and begin its journey into adulthood: the young bird will probably spend a couple of months shadowing its parents as it learns the tricks of the trade of flying and hunting - of being a majestic white-tailed eagle, the fourth largest eagle in the World.
Both birds sat there in silent harmony for 15 minutes, until Iona decided it was time for her to head off to Loch Scridain to search for another greylag goose gosling, the main prey item the eagles having been catching for the last few weeks. The chick watched intently as she flapped across the clearing and soared off over the woodland, her pale head plumage and white tail gleaming, catching the sun as she turned this way and that searching for a thermal to take her effortlessly up into the blue sky. The chick leaned forward, almost toppling, and then after a few moments launched itself from the branch, seemingly heading back to the nest, but falling short and landing awkwardly in the top of a larch just below the nest tree. Using its wings in the mantling style, it steadied itself on the foliage and finally found a good perch, remaining there for the rest of the afternoon.
It is a long hazardous journey for the white-tailed eagle chicks. Ours was laid in the egg back near the end of March, eventually hatching 38 days later. During that time both Iona and Fingal had taken turns at the incubation, never leaving the egg uncovered on the cold and wet days, and certainly never leaving the nest unguarded: attention from unwanted guests this year has included ravens, hooded crows and even the non-breeding pair of golden eagles that have been harassing our white-tailed eagle pair all year (we even had a nearby sighting of a pine marten, a recent coloniser of Mull, and a species notorious for stealing eagle eggs and young chicks from nests). Human activity too nearly caused problems for our pair this year, with some wildlife watchers approaching too closely and paying far too much attention to the nesting and roosting eagles.
Once hatched, the chick was shown constant attention by its parents for the first ten days, brooding it for much of the time, but also taking great care in feeding small pieces of flesh from the many fish and other prey items that Fingal was bringing to the nest. The small white ball of down that was the freshly emerged chick developed quickly, soon beginning to grow the dark brown flight feathers that distinguish the juvenile white-tailed eagles from the mature birds.
At the end of the second week in June, the chick was ringed: climbers scale the nest tree and check the health of the bird as well as fitting the two leg rings that are used to distinguish this individual in the future. From then on it was a question of the chick eating as much as possible, growing its full flight feathers, and exercising its huge 8ft wings to develop the flight muscles that are required to lift this huge bird into the sky. Wing flapping, ‘trampolining’ and ‘branching out’ were then the order of the days of the last few weeks on the nest.
Last weekend I watched our chick soaring expertly over the forest and moorland, but in the last few days, high winds and rain have meant that the chick has been unable to fly very far. I hope that some fine weather this week will enable the chick to really commence on its journey to adulthood, finally heading off on its four or five years of travels, maturing and searching for a mate: another small step in the repopulation of Britain by this extraordinary bird.
Our white-tailed eagle chick at Glen Seilisdeir on the Isle of Mull was 11 weeks old yesterday and is very active on the nest indicating that it will be fledging very soon. It is already ‘branching out’: flapping and scrambling out onto the branches that radiate from the broken top of the sitka spruce tree where the birds have chosen to nest this year.
This can be the most dangerous time for the young eagle as its first flight is literally a leap of faith. Sometimes the chick will be exercising its huge wings, when a sudden gust of wind catches it and off it goes. Occasionally, it gets the hang of things immediately and flaps and glides in a beautiful arc, landing back on the nest with a flurry of feathers. Other times it crashes into a nearby tree, or comes to ground below the nest tree with a bump. Often, it will then spend the next few days calling plaintively for the adults to come and feed it.
When successfully airborne, the juvenile white-tailed eagle will shadow its parents as they head off over Loch Scridain, the nearby sea loch where Iona and Fingal do much of their hunting, watching their hunting technique. Last year I watched as Iona flew down and snatched a red-breasted merganser from the water. As she headed off toward her favourite rock to perch and eat her prize, last years juvenile, Orion, launched herself from the tree where she had been watching proceedings, and flew directly toward Iona, flipping over at the last moment and snatching away the carcase. Iona had to start the hunting process all over again.
Very sadly, many of our British birds of prey still face an uncertain future as persecution is still commonplace in some areas. In the past we have had one of the Mull-fledged white-tailed eagles poisoned on the Scottish mainland, but earlier this year there was an appalling poisoning incident in Ross-shire where the bodies of at least 16 red kites and 6 buzzards were found, highlighting the ongoing problem. A couple from the Black isle that visited Mull Eagle Watch earlier in the year told me that in Spring they had been watching from their garden over 30 red kites at a time flying. Following the incident, they were only seeing one. The perpetrators of this crime are yet to be found, despite the offer of a substantial reward for information about the crime.
Hen harriers are one of the main targets for persecution, especially on the grouse moors. Last year they think that these magnificent birds were extinct or near extinction as a breeding bird in England: an appalling situation. Show your support for our birds of prey by checking out information on the internet on how you can help. Start by investigating ‘Hen Harrier Day’ which takes place for the first time on 10th August.
The ranger-lead trips at Mull Eagle Watch, which last 2 hours and start at 10am and 1pm each weekday from the car park in Glen Seilisdeir, will continue through August and September. We will be walking through the forest to the seashore, watching for our local white-tailed eagles, golden eagles and the multitude of other wildlife that occurs in Tiroran Forest. We also have many historical sites within the woodland, including the remains of a ruined township, and we plan to have our local historical expert with us on some of the trips. To book ring 01680 812 556 or call in to the Visit Information Centre at Craignure, at the head of the pier where the ferry from Oban lands.