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

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