Friday, 14 August 2009

Wet and windswept

Well, the forecast for today wasn't good, and for once it was right. When we arrived at the hide this morning Frisa, our female, was sat up in one of the Larch trees looking very wet and bedraggled. There was no sign of Skye (our male), or of Heather (their chick), and that was to be the pattern for the day. As the rain got heavier and the visibility worsened, Frisa took off and flew a short distance further into the trees to keep as dry as possible. Hopefully Skye and Heather were doing the same thing.

Come the afternoon trip there was nothing to see and half of our visitors decided to cancel their visit to the hide. Reluctantly I left to come back to the office to catch up with some paperwork. If the birds fed well yesterday there is really no need to fly again today - better to stay in the trees.

Views for the earlier part of the week were more promising with great fly-pasts by both adults although Heather has been keeping herself out of sight. She has found a new place to sit, just round the headland in front of us.

Yesterday we took a stand to the Mull and Morvern Agricultural Show in Salen to promote the hide and the Mull Eagle Watch project. We always make a point of telling our visitors about Operation Easter - the round-the-clock watch we mount on our Sea Eagle nests during the breeding season. Most people are amazed and outraged that there are collectors who still steal the eggs of rare birds, and as the rarest and largest bird in the UK the Sea Eagle (at just 45 pairs) is a prime target. Operation Easter was the brainchild of Strathclyde Police and involves a large group of volunteers - islanders and some of our visitors - who give up their time to watch the nests 24 hours a day, supported by extra police officers from all over the country. The initiative has been co-ordinated by our own Wildlife Crime Co-ordinator on the island - PC Finlay Christine. In March Finlay was presented with an award for Police Wildlife Officer of the Year in recognition for all his work for wildlife, and especially for Operation Easter which has been the basis for many other nest watch schemes. Sadly Finlay has recently retired, but rest assured that Operation Easter will continue - there are too many of us determined to continue to protect our eagles.

Mull hasn't lost any eggs to collectors for nine years, although tragically the last two eggs that were taken were within two days of hatching! It is beyond me why anyone would want to steal the eggs of any bird, let alone such a rare one. The eggs have no monetary value but are seen as trophies by the egg thieves. They are placed in specially made cases and often hidden at a different address to that of the thief, as they can be confiscated if found by the authorities. An egg collector in Scotland was recently charged for being in possession of 5,000 eggs of various rare birds - potentially 5,000 chicks which could have hatched and boosted the population.

The saddest thing is that many egg collectors are extremely good ornithologists. They often keep detailed diaries as they watch the nests of the birds they hope to target. Some of these diaries would be invaluable to professional ornithologists as they give details of particular nests over many years. Egg collecting often seems to run in the family, and some diaries and collections have been recovered going back to the late 19th and early 20th century. What a shame that all the information in those books can't be used for the right reasons!

To end on a bright note, Mull's Sea Eagles have managed to fledge ten chicks between them this year - a great result!

Friday, 7 August 2009

Now you see them, now you .......

What an amazing day! Although the forecast was for sun and showers, the latter never materialised. The loch was completely still, reflecting trees, hills and clouds.

I arrived at the hide to witness a fly-past by our adult male, Skye. He landed in a tree opposite the hide and I quickly set up the scopes before leaving to collect the morning's visitors. Needless to say, when we returned he had gone and I hoped he hadn't gone hunting for the rest of the day.

I needn't have worried - not long after Skye returned, did a great fly-past giving everyone a good view of his white tail, and then Frisa appeared above him and the two birds circled above us before disappearing into the distance. Not to be outdone Heather, our chick, flew over showing off her flying skills and landed on a fallen tree in the bay opposite the hide.

We were also treated to a great view of the female Hen Harrier, and heard Kestrels alarm calling - probably spooked by the local Ravens.

Surely the afternoon couldn't be as good ...

No sooner had I started my introduction to the hide and the Sea Eagles, Skye flew directly overhead, as low as I had ever seen him. Again he circled to give everyone a very good view, then landed in the bay in front of us, just out of sight but not far from a Heron. Shortly afterwards Heather flew in and after a couple of attempts, managed to land in one of the trees opposite. As I walked down the path to the bottom of the field with our scope and a small party of visitors, the Heron caught an eel and took off, hotly pursued by Skye. As he has caught a Heron once before whilst the chicks were still on the nest, I wondered if we were going to see a repeat performance. They flew straight past us and we watched them for some time, then Skye dropped down out of sight and the Heron started to circle above him. I can only imagine that he had forced the Heron to drop his prey and had then taken advantage of it.

Whilst we waited to see what would happen next a Golden Eagle circled over the crag, and a Buzzard treated us to great views as he caught a thermal and spiralled up just above us. Everyone agreed that, whilst they are no longer a rarity in the UK, Buzzards are still beautiful birds. One of the youngsters in our group of visitors found a tiny common lizard on the grass path, and all the children crowded round to see it before it scurried off into the undergrowth.

Heather started calling every few minutes, and we were able to hear an adult calling from further away. I wondered if the adult had caught prey and was trying to persuade Heather to go and get it (rather than having it delivered by one of her parents). Whatever the calling was about, Heather was not going anywhere and sat in her tree preening.

At 15.00 our visitors managed to tear themselves away, and whilst I was tidying up the hide I happened to glance up to see Heather flying towards me. She came right overhead and I was amazed to see how much confidence she had gained in the short time since she fledged. She was flying very strongly with deep wingbeats and I watched her until she disappeared, before leaving for the day - though it was quite hard to tear myself away.

There are some days which are near perfect, and today was certainly one of them - good weather, an enthusiastic group of visitors and great views of our eagles. Wonderful!

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Hide and Seek

Now that Heather has fledged she is really keeping us guessing: we never know where she is going to appear next! Each time we see her her flying skills have improved a little more. At one point we saw her flying alongside Skye, her father, and it was incredible to see this 15 week old chick who was larger than her 15 year old father! As with most birds of prey the female White tailed Sea Eagle is larger than the male, so Frisa and Heather are 25% bigger than Skye. (The scientific name for this is reversed sexual size dimorphism!).

To begin with Heather wasn't too adventurous and spent a lot of time sitting on a headland protruding into the opposite side of the loch. Frisa caught two Common Gulls and delivered them to Heather, and she spent hours sat with her daughter. On one occasion two walkers spotted them, but instead of enjoying the view they had from the track they decided to walk across the fields until they were directly opposite the eagles. This proved too much for Frisa who took off and flew back across the loch to perch in a tree. She never took her eyes off the intruder.

Heather stayed put and we wondered if she would be tempted to join her mother. When the afternoon trip ended we stayed on to see what would happen, slightly concerned that Heather was on her own on a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides.

The following morning there was no sign of the bird and it had been raining hard. Where was she? We need not have worried. As the weather dried up and the sun came out Heather crept out of the bracken where she was sheltering from the rain. We were very relieved.

Since then Heather has become a little more independent and isn't so reliant on her parents. We have seen her flying quite high, although she is still a little wobbly from time to time. We think Frisa has been teaching her chick how to land as we have seen the two birds flying together. Frisa lands in a tree and then takes off again and Heather follows, landing on exactly the same branch! Maybe Frisa is trying to teach her which branches will take her weight?

Our resident Hen Harriers have been flying close to the hide giving our visitors amazing views of both the male and female. We are hoping to see them with their chicks in the next week or two. On a smaller scale a family of Spotted Flycatchers have just fledged right in front of the hide and we have enjoyed watching their antics with our visitors. There's never a dull moment at the eagle hide!