Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Good luck Skye, Frisa and Heather

Well, this is my last blog for the time being as I finish as the eagle hide lead ranger on Friday. The time has gone so quickly, and it has been such a privilege to watch Skye and Frisa from nest building through to fledging this year's chick. I feel I know them personally and will not be able to keep away for long. I have been working with and studying raptors for many years now, but I think this year has been one of the most rewarding jobs I have had, even taking into account the tragedy of losing Bracken. How many people get to work at the only White-tailed Sea Eagle viewing hide in the world, set in beautiful surroundings, and have the chance to share their enthusiasm with visitors to the hide?

All three eagles are still in the area and being seen regularly, and the hide will continue to open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for the time being. The trips will be at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. and will last two hours. Booking will continue to be through the Visit Scotland office in Craignure - the 'phone number is 01680 812556.

Skye, Frisa and Heather have had plenty of carrion to feed on recently, with a dead sheep on the hill, and now that the deer cull is in full swing there are grallochs to eat. Each year the deer stalkers, working with the Deer Commission, need to cull a certain number of red deer on the island. They begin by stalking the stags during the autumn, and move onto the hinds later in the year. The cull is necessary as too many deer would result in some of them starving to death. The elderly or weak deer are taken out, leaving fit and healthy beasts to carry on their line. After a successful stalk when the animal has been shot, the stalker removes the intestines (or gralloch) before taking the deer off the hill. The gralloch is left out for birds of prey to feed on, and often the sound of a gunshot at this time of year will attract a sea eagle to the area as the bird associates the noise with the possibility of food. If you are walking on the hill do look out for notices telling you that stalking is in progress in an area. Not only could you be putting yourself at risk, but you could also inadvertently ruin a stalk which may have taken hours to set up, quite apart from doing a sea eagle out of a meal!

During the winter months it is more difficult for all birds of prey to find food, and a gralloch could mean the difference between starvation or a full crop. For this year's young birds, if they can get through their first winter they stand a good chance of surviving so that they, too, can breed in the future.

Before I sign off I thought I would give you an update on Mull's sea eagle population - the ten pairs on the island managed to fledge ten chicks between them this year. If only Bracken had survived we would have had eleven which would have been a record for Mull! Across Scotland, the total UK population of 45 pairs of White-tailed Sea Eagles fledged 36 chicks. As the young birds from the East of Scotland releases begin to mature they will spread out and begin to breed with the West coast birds - we have already had three of the Tayside birds on Mull! There are also plans to release Sea Eagle chicks into Norfolk and Wales, so one day we may see them back across the countryside where they used to be seen regularly before they were persecuted to extinction.

One of the greatest success stories for Mull's sea eagles this year concerns our oldest pair. These birds were part of the original release scheme on Rum in the 1970s and 1980s. The female is now 30 years old, and the male 28. They have been breeding on the island for many years and have reared over 30 chicks. Last year they were disturbed at the nest by a greedy photographer who wanted the ultimate photograph. The female had only started incubating her eggs on the previous day, and the sight of the photographer under her nest was more than enough to cause her to fly off. Although the photographer was arrested, having been spotted by one of the volunteers who watch our sea eagle nests for 24 hours a day during the breeding season, the bird was off the nest for around 90 minutes - long enough for the eggs to chill on a cold March day. Of course the bird returned to her nest and continued to incubate the useless eggs for 46 days (the normal incubation time is 38 days). It was heartbreaking for those of us watching her. But for once the story has a happy ending. This year the pair built a new nest in a very inaccessible place and managed to rear and fledge two healthy chicks. This would have been amazing for most sea eagles, but for a pair of birds already considered beyond their breeding age, it was nothing short of a miracle. And the photographer? He was arrested, charged with reckless disturbance, fined £600 and had all his photographs and camera equipment confiscated. Hopefully the resultant publicity will have put off other people tempted to try to get that little bit closer than anyone else.
So thank you for reading this blog; if you visited the eagle hide it was a pleasure to meet you, and if you didn't please try to come next year - I can promise you an amazing experience.
Goodbye for now,
Sea Eagle photograph copyright Iain Erskine, Stalking photograph copyright Steve Irvine

Friday, 18 September 2009

Playing Hard to Get?

This week the Sea Eagles have really made us work hard. As Heather, their chick, gets braver they are all venturing further afield, although they always come back to the loch to roost. We have been arriving at the hide earlier each day so that we can locate at least one of the birds before we collect our visitors.

Today was the most unusual roost of all. We had driven right along the loch to try to find them, prepared to lead a small convoy of visitors to spot the birds. We drew a complete blank. They weren't at any of their favourite roosts, nor did we see them flying or indulging in one of their favourite pastimes of drinking and bathing at the edge of the loch. We set up our screen and DVD player (powered by solar panels - thank goodness it has been sunny recently) so that we could at least show our visitors some footage of the eagles, and set off to collect them and escort them to the hide.

On the way we stopped at the top of the hill (the only place we can get a 'phone signal) to call in to the booking office and check if we had any more bookings for the trip. Whilst my colleague, Debby, was making the call I noticed a number of Ravens and Hooded Crows circling and diving right on the horizon. I grabbed my binoculars and scanned the hill. There was certainly plenty of activity from the Ravens and Crows, as well several stags right on the horizon and more lower down on the hill. As I scanned lower down the hill, looking for some carrion that might have attracted the birds, something caught my eye. There, at the top of one of the Sitka Spruces, were our two adult eagles, quite happily perched one above the other. This pair have such a firm bond, and most of the time when we see them perched together they are in the same tree, sometimes on the same branch.

We set up the scope and all our visitors had a great view of Frisa at the top of the tree, and Skye slightly lower down. As we watched, Frisa looked up high above her and then took off. Whilst everyone else watched to see where she went, I scanned the area she was looking at and sure enough, there was Heather, their chick. Shortly afterwards Skye took off too. They were flying so high that we were afraid that that was the last we would see of them.

The party carried on down to the hide, we started our introductory talk whilst scanning the area, and there, sitting in one of his favourite trees opposite the hide, was Skye. He stayed there all morning, preening the last of his moulting body feathers, sometimes turning and stretching his great wings almost as if he was posing for us.

Our visitors were delighted - what more could they ask for?

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Raptor Bonanza

After days of torrential rain and strong winds the weather has finally changed and it seems that all the wildlife is celebrating.

When I arrived at the hide this morning Skye was sat in the trees opposite, preening himself and looking very relaxed. He waited there until our visitors had all had a really good look at him through our scope.

We went outside for a better view and there were Frisa and her daughter Heather, circling high above us. What a relief! We hadn't seen Heather for a few days and were wondering where she was and if she was OK. The chicks are usually seen with the parent birds at this stage, with food still being brought to them and the adults taking them on hunting trips. But today it seemed that that was exactly what was happening. The two birds circled higher and higher before heading off across the loch in the direction of Calgary. Hopefully Frisa was going to teach her chick how to hunt for their favourite meal - the Fulmars that the adults take from the cliffs. Whatever their plan, they disappeared over the horizon and had not returned in time for our afternoon trip.

Skye, possibly disgruntled by the fact that all eyes were on Frisa and Heather, took off from his perch and flew across to his favourite Larch tree, giving us a close view of his short white tail, huge beak and enormous broad wings. He settled down to preen again.

One of our visitors spotted a little flock of Crossbills at the top of the trees closest to the hide and as we tried to train the scope on them a beautiful Golden Eagle drifted across the treetops. Not to be outdone, the local Sparrowhawk put in a brief appearance in front of the hide, scattering all the songbirds far and wide. Young Buzzards seemed to be everywhere, as did the Ravens, and as a fitting finale a Peregrine Falcon flew over the old nest tree. And all the time the sun shone!

I really can't believe I only have two weeks to go at the hide. It has been such a privilege to witness a whole season with Skye and Frisa - from nest building, through egg laying and incubation, hatching and finally fledging. I've become quite attached to "our" birds and it was desperately sad to discover that our male chick, Bracken, had died after falling from the nest. But that's nature, and Heather is fit and well and receiving her parents' undivided attention. Maybe I can come back to the hide next year?

Friday, 4 September 2009

Floods, feathers and fledglings

The weather here for the last couple of weeks has been dreich to say the least, with burns in full spate and waterfalls thundering over the rocks. Most of the views of our eagle family have been of very soggy birds sat in the trees and preening, and Heather, our chick, has been out of sight for most of the time. Eagles (like all birds of prey) have a preen gland at the base of their tail; when they preen their flight feathers they take oil from the preen gland with their beak and then run it down the feathers. This helps with their weatherproofing and keeps their feathers strong and healthy. It will take a while for Heather to build up this weatherproofing so sensibly, when the weather is very bad, she finds a perch deeper in the forestry to keep her out of the rain.

Yesterday the rain was sporadic and we actually had spells of blue sky and sunshine! When I arrived in the morning both of the adults were sat up on adjacent fence posts on the way up to the hide. They looked a little bedraggled, and when I went to collect our visitors it was raining again so I fully expected them to go and look for cover. Nevertheless we stopped and there they were. The sky cleared, I put up the scope and 19 happy visitors had perfect views of Skye and Frisa. We spent an hour there, talking about sea eagles and the problems they had had to contend with over the last three centuries culminating in their extinction and the successful reintroduction programme.

This year on Mull our eagles have fledged ten healthy chicks, with 36 chicks fledged across the whole of Scotland (including ours). The Scottish population now stands at 45 breeding pairs, plus a large number of juveniles too young to breed yet.
Skye and Frisa then decided it was time to catch some lunch and both left their perches and flew off towards Calgary - probably after another Fulmar or two from the cliffs there. They hadn't reappeared by the time I collected the next group of visitors at 1pm, and I was a little concerned that we'd seen the last of them for the day. But as I started telling the group about the Eagle Watch project there was a gasp as Skye flew in to his favourite Larch tree. A minute later Frisa appeared and circled round in front of the hide before joining her mate on the same branch. The two of them sat there like an old married couple.

As they both preened their body feathers it looked as if someone had emptied a pillow full of down. Normally the female will moult her wing and tail feathers whilst she is on the nest, and the male will start to moult once the chicks have fledged. I find it fascinating that they always moult corresponding wing feathers so that they are always balanced and their flight is not impaired. They continue moulting the downy body feathers and are constantly preening.

The eagles stayed in the Larch tree all afternoon and were still there when I left the hide to go home. I wonder what tomorrow will bring? Hopefully we'll see Heather .....

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Viewing at the hide.

A quick note on changes to trips to the viewing hide at the end of the month.

From Monday 21 September trips to the hide will run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 10.00am and 1.00pm. Please note these details are subject to change as the season progresses. You can make bookings through Craignure Information Centre on 01680 812 556.


No change to prices (which include RSPB members): Adults £4, children (16 and under) £2, Family ticket (two adults and two children) £10. Free to island residents.