Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Going out on a high

Once again my final week of the season has come round and on Friday I sadly have to tear myself away from the hide - though I don't think I'll be able to stay away from Loch Frisa for long, and I can envisage at least one visit a week to check out the eagles.

It's been an odd year with no chicks for our pair to rear, and sometimes it has been a struggle to guess what they are up to, but with some extra effort on our part we have managed to keep up with them and our visitors have, as always, been thrilled at the spectacle of the fourth largest eagle in the world gracing our skies.

From the poignant days when we watched Frisa sit on her second egg day after day (78 days in all - a record for a White-tailed Sea Eagle), through the period of limbo when she left the nest and seemed to be at a loose end, the birds are now wowing our visitors with spectacular flights.

It's early days yet, but already they have taken a look at a nest for next year, though who knows which one they will choose, or whether they will build a new nest altogether? We have seen them talon-grappling over the loch, flying together, or sitting in the trees preening each other - all part of pair-bonding and a great sign that they are gearing up for next year.

We've also been treated to views of a number of juvenile Sea Eagles recently, sometimes flying with the adults. All the young birds fledged around seven weeks ago and are beginning to explore further afield - there are few territorial disputes now as we are outside the breeding season so there are no nests for the adult birds to defend. We have seen up to five Sea Eagles flying close together, and the Golden Eagles have been making plenty of appearances too. Mull has the highest density population of Golden Eagles in Europe with over 30 pairs on the island, and 2010 has been one of the most productive years for fledged chicks for a long time.

The Sand Martins and Swallows have left, great skeins of Greylag Geese are flying in to increase our already large population, Fieldfares and Redwings have been seen as well as Bewick Swans. Autumn is truly upon us.

Yesterday I had a full trip at the hide; right on cue as we arrived both birds flew in to their favourite perches in the Larch trees and settled down together. It was a typical September day on Mull, and although it had been dry and sunny a sudden squall blew through with both eagles getting drenched. Frisa moved deeper into the Larches nearer the hide whilst Skye flew into one of the Spruce trees. As the rain cleared and the sun came out again, Frisa took off and treated us to the best display I have seen all year. Leaving the Larches she flew round to the track in front of the hide. We all rushed outside and there she was, perhaps 30 feet over the car park, circling slowly on those enormous wings and looking down at us. She stayed for almost ten minutes before gradually getting higher and drifting off. One lady was in tears, saying she had waited so long to see a wild Sea Eagle, and that it had made her holiday. I was full of emotion myself, and almost wished that that had been my last day - what a wonderful way to remember the Loch Frisa Sea Eagles.

Till next year .....!

Friday, 3 September 2010

Mull Sea Eagle hide - a four star experience

This year we decided to apply for Visit Scotland accreditation, and shortly after putting in our application their assessor visited the hide. Imagine our delight when a couple of weeks later we heard that we have achieved four stars! I'm told it's quite unusual to score this highly at the first application, so we're very proud - and determined to pull out all the stops and achieve the ultimate goal of five stars next year!

As usual when all the children go back to school the weather changes for the better, and this year is no exception with a week of fabulous warm, sunny days. Fortunately for us there is usually a slight breeze near the hide which stops us from becoming too hot and has the added bonus of keeping the midges at bay! The eagles have been performing well this week too, with plenty of great views of Skye and Frisa soaring overhead and enjoying the thermals. Normally birds of prey tend to fly when they need to hunt, and spend the rest of the time just sitting, digesting their last meal and conserving energy since they don't know where the next meal is coming from. But on a lovely warm day, when the hot air currents mean the birds don't need to flap their wings in flight, I am sure that our eagles fly just for the sheer joy of it. They find a thermal and just sit on it with their wings outstretched, circling higher and higher, almost like they are on a lift, then glide across the sky. It is a joy to watch them. I was once lucky enough to go up in a glider and fly with a colony of Griffon Vultures in South Africa - the nearest thing to flying like a bird I'll ever experience. Every time I see Skye and Frisa fly I envy their freedom and am in awe of the way they can drift across the sky so effortlessly.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Life at Loch Frisa

They may not have chicks this year, but Skye and Frisa are keeping us on our toes. With no young to rear they have had plenty of time to themselves and have found several new places to roost, and although they are still up and down the loch we are never quite sure where they are going to be. This is an added bonus for our visitors as they are often taken on an extra journey to different viewpoints, and as a result we have been treated to rare sightings of other special wildlife too!

One favourite place overlooks the loch from a high vantage point, and we have had the occasional view of Black-throated Divers (although we usually hear their mournful call before we see them). Red-throated Divers have also been seen, and these stunning birds have been venturing closer to the head of the loch near to the hide.

Our Buzzard chick fledged successfully and is seen daily. Occasionally the female leaves a piece of food on the nest to give him a helping hand, but generally he is managing to hunt well for himself, still favouring frogs. He is easily recognised by his juvenile plumage, and by the fact that he has inherited his father's tail - two ginger feathers in the middle of the other brown ones. In today's torrential rain he was hoping the worms would come to the surface and was running around on the ground and pouncing every so often. He calls frequently - probably reminding his parents that he is still there - and he has turned into quite a character, very popular with our visitors. Sometimes we see all three Buzzards flying together.

All the other Sea Eagle chicks on the island have fledged now - of our ten pairs eight were successful and produced a total of ten healthy fledglings between them. Although they have all left their nests, they are still in the vicinity, and there have been some great views of the chicks sitting with their parents. Two more chicks have been satellite tagged this year so you will soon be able to follow them on the RSPB website when they start to venture further afield.

Skye and Frisa may not have a family this year, but they are reinforcing their pair bond as we often see them sat side by side on the same branch, and recently they were perched with their necks entwined (more like a pair of swans!). As they are not defending a breeding territory now their daughter from last year, Heather, has decided it is safe to return to roost with her parents and we sometimes see all three of them sat together. Her beak is almost the same bright yellow as the adults' now, although it will be three or four years before she gets her full white tail.

Our large flock of Siskins have fledged all their young and left the area now, although the Chaffinches are still going strong. The Redpoll family are still visiting the feeders, and both the Pied and Grey Wagtails nested in the quarry by the hide car park. The Sandmartin colony has been constantly busy with the first brood fledged and the second brood still to go, all of which has been captured on our camera showing live footage in the hide.

So there is plenty to see on Loch Frisa, and if you are thinking of visiting Mull in the next month or two, do come and see us at the hide.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Skye and Frisa settled again

At last Skye and Frisa are back into a routine, albeit a strange one for them. After my last blog Frisa returned to the nest and sat for 78 days in total, but then left it altogether and the birds went through a period of limbo when they didn't seem to know what to do. They would sit in their favourite tree together, then disappear for a couple of days at a time which is most unusual for them. Thankfully now they are back and we are getting great views of them, especially since we have a very powerful camera which we can pan around the landscape and home in on wherever our eagles are sitting, with the live pictures showing on our screen in the hide. Of course we have our telescopes as well, but the camera is over twice as powerful as our strongest scope so the images we get are fantastic. Sometimes we don't need binoculars, scopes or the camera; one day last week Skye left his perch and flew towards us and straight past the hide with great deep wing beats - obviously on a mission. It was a beautiful warm day with bright sun which highlighted his white tail, leaving our visitors speechless.

It is great to see them back, although it must be very odd for them to have no chicks to care for. They are both moulting heavily; they sit in the trees preening, then every so often give a shake of their wings and a huge cloud of tiny white body feathers appears like snow, and the trees look as if they are covered in little white flowers. They are spending a lot of time sitting together, maybe reassuring one another; one day they sat with their heads entwined in the way that swans do, and they often call to each other. With no hard work this year feeding hungry chicks, Skye and Frisa should be fighting fit by next year's breeding season, and they are both still in their prime.

Just an update on our Buzzard nest: egg number two failed to hatch, but the first chick is thriving. Now three weeks old it seems impossible that it could have come out of an egg the size of the unhatched one it is sitting next to. Both parent birds are bringing in food for the chick, ranging from vole to rabbit with plenty of frogs and slow worm in between. The female will not tolerate the male bird on the nest and grabs the food from him before chasing him off. It has been known for male raptors to eat their own chicks (possibly confusing them with other food left on the nest) so our female isn't taking any chances. Our visitors have been transfixed watching the female tenderly feeding her chick, but now as it grows the chick is greedily grabbing food from her almost before she can tear it up. She is busily bringing in greenery to line the nest and keep it as clean as possible, but already the chick manouevres himself to the edge of the nest to evacuate himself, so the nest actually looks cleaner than many I have seen.

So all's well at Loch Frisa, and if the weather stays as beautiful as it has been, our visitors can look forward to a fabulous trip.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Bouncing Buzzard Baby!

After all the disappointment of our Sea Eagles' nest failing this year we've been hoping for some good news from our Buzzard nest. Yesterday we arrived at the hide and turned on the camera just in time to see the female showing off her first chick. The tiny, white ball of fluff must have hatched on Sunday and, thanks to "Buzzard-cam", we were able to share the happy event with our visitors. During the morning "mum" left the nest briefly and re-appeared with a Slow Worm which she proceeded to tear into minute pieces to feed to her chick. It was a little hit and miss to begin with as the new mum struggled to aim the morsels of food at the wobbly chick, but after a short time they got it right and the wee one greedily grabbed at the food until it had had enough. It was a little disconcerting to see the slow worm still wiggling, but mum was not put off and finished off what was left. Later in the day she brought in another Slow Worm - she must have found them easily available as she was only away from the nest for a couple of minutes.

The second egg is still to hatch, but as there was a four-day gap between the eggs being laid we are not expecting to see chick number two until at least Thursday. Today rabbit was on the menu, so it looks as though the male Buzzard has finally come into his own and started hunting to feed his offspring. To date he has not been a very attentive partner, leaving the female sitting on the nest for hours on end, then coming to relieve her for around five minutes before disappearing again. We have often seen him hunting near the hide whilst the female can be seen on screen calling for him to take over from her. The emphasis on sharing the incubation is very different to Sea Eagle behaviour, where Skye and Frisa have always taken equal turns at sitting on their eggs. It will be interesting to see how hard our male Buzzard works to feed his family, although for the time being it is up to him to bring in the bulk of the food as the chicks will need brooding for two or three weeks until they can control their own body temperature. On the day our first chick hatched the weather was dry and very warm, so we are hoping that the weather stays favourable - we don't want a repeat of the night that Skye and Frisa's chick hatched!

Speaking of our Sea Eagles, they have finally given up incubating their remaining egg (almost!). Skye lost interest about two weeks ago, but poor Frisa's instinct was so strong that she remained on the nest for 75 days (compared to the normal 38 days' incubation time). Even yesterday she spent some time sitting on the nest - it must be so hard for her to see an egg in her nest and have to fight the instinct to incubate it. Today the weather was fine and Loch Frisa looked beautiful, and it was such a relief to see Skye and Frisa sat side by side in their favourite tree. They have been very vocal, throwing their heads back and calling time and time again - it's amazing how far that call carries. They are both moulting now and are busy preening out all the loose feathers. Every so often they have a little shake and clouds of wispy white body feathers decorate the branches around them.

Even though their nest has failed, Skye and Frisa are still giving us great views. Loch Frisa is their territory and they will always return here after they have been hunting, so whilst we can't show off their chicks this year, there are plenty of opportunities for our visitors to see them perched or in flight.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Still waiting

Although it is way past time for Skye and Frisa's remaining egg to hatch, they are still incubating, taking it in turns to sit on the nest whatever the weather. There is an outside chance that they might have recycled and laid another egg, but this is so rare it is really clutching at straws. It is more likely that the eagles just aren't quite ready to give up yet, but sooner or later they will lose interest in the remaining egg that hasn't hatched, and go back to normal everyday life. I think this is beginning to happen now as the off-duty bird seems to be spending longer and longer away from the nest, rather than being on hand to relieve the bird that is sitting.

Once they have given up we will start to see more of them again, sitting in their favourite perch trees preening, and hunting for prey. Frisa has already started to moult - we have watched her pulling at a wing feather that was sticking up at a strange angle, but wasn't quite ready to come out.

Our Buzzard-cam is as popular as ever, with the female appearing to do most of the incubating. She calls when she has had enough and usually the male returns to take over, although yesterday he was hunting over the hill opposite the nest and ignored her calls before returning to the nest for five minutes. When he took off again his mate came back immediately, but was obviously not happy and took out her frustration on a twig in the nest.

The farmer who lives further along the track told us that he often sees Barn Owls hunting the fields close to the hide, so we have now put up a nest barrel in an isolated tree. We are planning to put a camera in the barrel next week, so hopefully we will be able to watch a Barn Owl family later in the season! Barn Owls do well on Mull - I monitor them and ring the chicks and in a year when there is a good population of Short-tailed Field Voles on the island we can have around 25 nesting pairs. There is plenty of excellent habitat, not too much fast traffic and usually a good food supply. Their only real problem is a lack of nest sites - Barn Owls like to nest in isolated hollow trees or old barns. There is at least one pair nesting in a cleft in a cliff face, but we also have a number of nestboxes and nest barrels fixed onto trees, and these are proving popular with the owls.

Next week is Mull and Iona Wildlife Week, so the island will be busy. We're expecting plenty of visitors to the hide and there are other events planned all around the island.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Disappointing news at Loch Frisa

I've been putting off writing this blog in the hope that I might have some good news, but it seems almost certain now that Skye and Frisa's nest has failed this year. After the excitement when it seemed that the first egg had hatched and we thought we had witnessed the adults feeding a chick, it looks likely that that chick was too weak to survive. When Skye and Frisa went back to sitting tight on the nest we hoped that a second egg might produce a stronger chick, but it was not to be.

Although both adult birds are still taking turns at sitting on the nest, too many days have gone by now for anything to hatch, and the adults don't seem to have the same enthusiasm for their nest duties as they did earlier on. It's easy to give Skye and Frisa human feelings and say they look miserable, but it must be hard for them, having gone through all the motions of pair-bonding, displaying, mating, egg-laying and incubating, to end up with no chicks to rear.

This morning I drove along the loch to check the birds; Skye was sat in their favourite tree and Frisa was still on the nest, but she was looking all around her, preening and shuffling about. It's likely that they could continue to incubate for two weeks or more but as time goes on they will be less conscientious about sitting tight and eventually they will give up.

Today has been such a beautiful day I've been unable to dwell for too long on the disappointments at the nest. The Raven colony was as active as ever, and the Red-breasted Mergansers were displaying to each other. This afternoon I was talking to some visitors at the hide whilst watching Frisa sitting in the lochside tree. Three Common Gulls flew over and began relentlessly mobbing her, diving at her again and again. Occasionally she ducked, mostly she just shrugged her shoulders and ignored them. After fifteen minutes the gulls bored of the sport and flew back to their favourite roost on the headland opposite the hide. Frisa sat for ten minutes and then took off, flying low over the loch. Just as the gulls flew up in alarm we realised what she was planning, and sure enough she dived down. Unfortunately she was just out of sight, but the gulls began mobbing again, so it was clear that she had caught one of them and taught the rest of them not to mess with a Sea Eagle. Maybe it helped her to take out her frustrations on her tormentors.

There may not be Sea Eagle chicks at Loch Frisa this year but life will go on as usual at the hide - there's plenty of wildlife to see and Skye and Frisa will still be around the loch giving us great views. If you are planning to come to the hide this year, please don't be put off - we have lots to share with you. The other nine pairs of Sea Eagles on Mull are all in the midst of the breeding season, and I will keep you up to date with what has been going on with them, as well as updating you on our Buzzard-cam, and hopefully a few surprises too.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Good news and not so good!

Well, the weather this week has been up and down, with one fine day followed by a bad one. At the worst we had hail, sleet, heavy rain and strong winds in freezing temperatures, at best clear blue skies and sunshine (but still quite cold).

The activity at Skye and Frisa's nest hasn't been as we expected, and we are very concerned that we have lost a chick. From that first feeding we witnessed at the beginning of the week we have seen no more food come in, so it does look as if the first chick has perished. The adults are still sitting tight though, so it seems that they are still incubating the second egg and we are keeping everything crossed that it hatches and thrives.

Sometimes a glitch early in incubation (perhaps when the changeover takes a little too long) can result in the egg chilling, resulting in a weak chick exhausted by the effort of hatching and unable to feed well. Or it could be that the awful weather just after the chick hatched took its toll - even though the adults continued incubating. In fact on one changeover in the rain we witnessed both adults holding their wings like an umbrella over the nest whilst one stepped off and the other settled down to incubate.

We won't know for a day or two whether chick number two has hatched safely. The eggs are normally laid on alternate days with the adults incubating from day one; however, in bad weather there can be a much larger gap between eggs, so we are still hopeful.

The good news is that our Buzzard cam is giving us some wonderful views and there are now two beautiful pale blue eggs on the nest, with the possibility of more to come. The female is very attentive to her duties, standing up from time to time to turn the eggs before settling down again and tucking them under her feathers. On one of the warmer days with the sunlight streaming through the trees we watched her nodding off before tucking her head under her wing and enjoying a snooze.

The male is playing his part too and from time to time brings in greenery to help line the nest. On one occasion he flew in, dropped some grass on top of the female's head and flew off again. She looked very suprised, and none too pleased!

Now that the eagles have gone back to incubating, the off-duty bird is often back perching in their favourite tree, and we have had some fantastic displays of flying. Yesterday Frisa took off and began soaring right above the hide, getting higher and higher without a single wing beat, before drifting off to search for food.

Hopefully I'll be able to bring you some more positive news with my next posting - if only the weather would improve!

Monday, 19 April 2010

The patter of tiny talons!

What a day! On arrival at the hide today Chris, our technological genius, told us that he had been working yesterday on our camera setup and was viewing our Buzzard cam. Both adults had been adding to the nest and the female shuffled around, sat down and then shuffled again. As Chris watched she produced an egg right on camera! So after last year's disappointment when she built up the same nest and then decided to raise her family in another one, this year we have the camera in the right place - as long as she doesn't add too many sticks in front of the camera! Hopefully there will be another egg tomorrow afternoon, and maybe more to come. I'll keep you posted.

The even better news is that Chris thinks we will be able to continue watching Buzz-cam even when we have moved the hide several hundred metres to its new site, so we hope to follow the Buzzard family right through to fledging. The wonders of technology, and all solar-powered!

And to the best news of all - this afternoon we saw the first food being brought into Skye and Frisa's nest, meaning that at least one chick has hatched. Both adult birds stood in or on the rim of the nest feeding their chick(s) for at least half an hour, making us think there may be two chicks there already. Now the hard work begins for the parents. This evening there were two or three very heavy rain showers and with the cold wind the precious chick(s) needed brooding very closely by the adult, whilst the other bird kept watch from its perch in a nearby tree. The forecast is a little better for the next two days - the chicks are so vulnerable at this early age when they are not able to regulate their body temperature.

In two or three weeks Skye and Frisa will be settled with their new family and we will be able to move the hide along the track to its new position so that we will have an excellent view of the nest. Our high powered camera will also move so that we can beam live pictures into the hide as well as recording them. In the meantime we will still have excellent views of the adult birds hunting from our current position, and they will be more active than ever as they will need to find foods for the chicks and for themselves.

If you are planning to visit the hide in May, please do check where the meeting point is when you book your visit. If you can't make it this year, keep reading and I'll let you know how our Sea Eagle family progresses, not to mention our Buzzards.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Exciting times!

Another beautiful day at the hide - what a week it has been! With clear blue skies and thermals rising, Skye and Frisa have been giving us some fantastic displays. On Tuesday Frisa drifted over the top of the hide, caught a thermal and spiralled up and up until she was no more than a dot in the sky, with never a wing beat. It must have been wonderful for her to stretch her wings after a long spell on the nest.

Talking of the nest, we are all on tenterhooks as we wait for the egg(s) to hatch. Today is day 36 of an average 38 days of incubation and the birds have been quite fidgety on the nest, which is a possible sign that a chick is getting ready to hatch. It can take 36 hours from the time the egg first pips to the time the chick hatches, but even before it pips the adult birds can hear the chick calling inside the egg and will sometimes call softly back to it to encourage it to start to break out. The chick develops with an "egg tooth" - a tiny sharp bit on the top of the beak which it uses to tap away at the shell from inside until it breaks. It then works its way right round the egg until the top falls off and it can struggle out - damp and bedraggled and small enough to fit into a human hand. It's tiring work, but the adult bird will keep encouraging it with gentle calls.

The chick hatches with the remains of the "yolk sac" inside it and spends up to the first 12 hours of its life outside the egg absorbing the sac and all the goodness within it. Then it will start to call for food and that's when the adults' hard work really starts. To begin with one adult will continue to brood the chick (and the remaining egg if there were two), whilst the other hunts and brings food back to the nest. Then the adult will stand over the chick with its talons bent underneath its feet to avoid standing on the chick, and will tear tiny strips of food from the prey with its beak which it offers to the gaping chick. It is the most amazing thing to see - such an enormous bird caring so tenderly for its young. By day four the chick's egg tooth will have disappeared, it will have dried out and be covered in pale grey down. The adults will continue to brood the chick(s) for two to three weeks while their adult body feathers are coming through and they are less susceptible to the cold, but if the weather turns cold and wet the adult birds will make sure that the chicks are kept warm.

Both adults hunt to feed the chicks, taking turns at feeding, brooding or just perching close by "on guard". By the time the chicks are ringed at around eight weeks old they are fully grown and spend the last three or four weeks in the nest growing down their flight feathers and practising wing flapping exercises ready for their first flight. It is an incredible growth rate. As with most birds of prey, female sea eagles are larger than the males, and it was strange to see last year's female chick, Heather, perched next to her father and looking down on him when she was only three months old.

As yet we don't know whether we have one or two eggs, so we will be watching with bated breath over the next few days to see how many little heads pop up in the nest. As the eggs are laid two or more days apart, there is an equivalent gap in their hatching, so we probably won't know until this time next week how many chicks we have. Watch this space!

If you read my last blog about Operation Easter, I can give you an update on our oldest pair of sea eagles on the island. Their first chick hatched on Monday, so we are waiting now to see whether they are feeding one or two chicks. It really is amazing to see how this pair keep going - last weekend there was a major grass fire just half a mile from where they are nesting, yet despite the activity with three fire engines and their crews working hard to put out the fire, the birds kept calm and stayed put. I've been privileged enough to watch this pair for over 10 years now, so have become very attached to them.

Fingers crossed for Skye and Frisa and their offspring - I'll keep you informed.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Operation Easter

After the amazing day I described in my last blog the weather hasn't been quite as good and things have been a little quieter. We can't complain as we are still seeing at least one of our eagles at each of our trips, and there's plenty happening on our Buzzard-cam at the moment with the nest growing every time we look at it. It's fascinating to see the bird carefully weaving grass and twigs into the nest until it looks just right!

The hide (and the island) has been very busy this week with the Easter holidays - all the more reason for us to keep up our vigilance whilst the Sea Eagles are on eggs. For eleven years now the island has run a nestwatch 24 hours a day for our most vulnerable pairs, masterminded by Strathclyde Police. The birds are highly protected by the Wildlife & Countryside Act, but there are still people who ignore the law.

The police had bright yellow signs printed asking members of the public to contact them should they see anything suspicious, and these are positioned all around the island. The watch is carried out voluntarily by islanders supported by the police, RSPB, Mull Bird Club and other enthusiastic volunteers. Over the Easter weekend we were supported by a large group of Air Cadets who camped out in bitterly cold weather to help with the watch. We are also very lucky to have a full-time Police Wildlife Crime Officer on the island who is constantly on call.

You might wonder why we need to go to these lengths, but even in this day and age we still have problems with would-be egg collectors, and people wanting to get close to take photographs. Since we have been running the watch we have only lost eggs once, although sadly these were in two days of hatching when they were stolen. Two years ago, however, a photographer was caught underneath a Sea Eagle nest. Although the police were on site within 20 minutes of receiving the call, the female had already left the nest. It was only the second day of incubation and it took almost two hours before the eagle was confident enough to return to her nest, so the eggs chilled. Of course the eagle went back to incubating her eggs and sat on them for over 60 days (although the normal incubation time is 38 days). It was heartbreaking to watch her sitting on the nest day after day. The photographer was fined and had his photographic equipment confiscated, but of course the damage had been done. Without Operation Easter this could happen again and again and we are so grateful to everyone who takes part and helps to protect our precious Sea Eagles.

To end on a brighter note, the same pair went on to build a new nest the following year and successfully reared two healthy chicks. This was quite amazing as the birds are our oldest pair on the island, from the original birds brought over from Norway and released on the Isle of Rum. The female is now over 30 and she and her mate are incubating eggs again this year - quite incredible.

Next week I'll report back on Skye and Frisa as we start the countdown to their eggs hatching. It's an exciting time!

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Raptors, raptors everywhere!

What a day! With the Easter holidays upon us, trips to the hide are really busy this week and today both sessions were almost full. It has been a beautiful day - warm sunshine, blue skies with puffy white clouds, and Loch Frisa looking like a sheet of glass.

When we arrived with our visitors for the morning trip Frisa was obligingly sat in the favoured "off-duty" tree whilst Skye incubated their eggs, sitting well down in the nest cup to keep those precious eggs safe and warm. Everyone had a great view of Frisa through the scopes and this season we also have a fantastic live camera set up which we can pan round to home in on the birds and then show on our screen in the hide.

Frisa stayed put, preening and stretching until we had finished our introductory talk, then took off and after circling above the nest wood she turned and headed towards the hide. We all rushed outside and had wonderful views of her flying right above us before she began circling higher and higher using the thermals to help her. As if that wasn't enough a call went up to point out another bird to the south which proved to be a Golden Eagle. With both birds in the sky it was easy to see the difference between the two species - the huge broad wings of the Sea Eagle (hence the description coined by a crofter on Fair Isle many years ago - a "flying barn door"). The Sea Eagle's flat wing profile, large head with an enormous yellow beak and the short, wedge-shaped white tail contrasted with the shallow v-shaped profile of the Golden Eagle with its narrower wings. The Golden Eagle flies with its finger-shaped wing tips upturned. Its tail is longer and more square than the Sea Eagle, and its head is smaller and appears hunched back into its shoulders when it is flying.

As if this wasn't enough, a pair of Common Buzzards joined in the display. So many of our visitors ask us how to tell the difference between eagles and buzzards, and here we were with the perfect opportunity to see it - the buzzards smaller with a much more pronounced v-shaped profile, and thermaling in tighter circles above us.

Eventually all the birds drifted off in different directions but the display wasn't over. A male Sparrowhawk (which regularly comes in to try its luck with the birds on our feeders) began circling overhead, mobbed by Hooded Crows. The local Ravens flew over their nest crag, diving on each other and displaying.

And finally, our Buzzard-cam came into its own! Last year we had a camera set up viewing a Buzzard's nest. A pair of Buzzards added twigs and grass to it throughout the spring but then moved to another nest to rear their family. We decided to leave the camera in place this year and every morning more material has been added to the nest - but we never saw it happening. Then today we checked the monitor and there was the female, carefully weaving grass into the nest. It was fascinating to watch her on the big screen.

Our visitors were amazed; so much activity in the space of two hours! And our afternoon group were not disappointed either, with Frisa, the Buzzards and the Sparrowhawk putting in repeat performances. Raptorphile heaven!

Friday, 2 April 2010

It's great to be back!

I'm delighted to say I'm back after six months away from Loch Frisa - although I have to say that I couldn't stay away completely and had to pop back from time to time to see how Skye and Frisa were doing!

The hide is now open again all week, and this year our White-tailed Sea Eagles have chosen one of their old nests. They are just over half-way through incubation, and as ever are being model parents. As one bird leaves the nest the other takes over immediately and we can often hear them call to each other when it is time for a changeover.

The weather this week has been changeable to say the least; as the clocks went forward last weekend we all thought Spring had truly sprung. How wrong we were! On Wednesday temperatures plummeted and we were treated to a day of blizzards, sleet, hail and strong winds. We had to cancel trips to the hide as the track was too slippery to drive along, but by the afternoon the snow was beginning to thaw and on Thursday the weather was improving (although still bitterly cold).

It is always a worrying time when the weather changes for the worst whilst the eagles are incubating eggs. The sitting adult needs a break from incubation from time to time, whether to go hunting or to stretch their wings and legs, but the changeover needs to be rapid to avoid the eggs chilling.

Two years ago another pair of Mull's Sea Eagles were disturbed by a photographer who stood under their nest to try to take the ultimate photograph. The female eagle was sitting on the nest at the time, on the first day of incubation. She was frightened off the nest and was away for long enough for her eggs to chill and die. Of course, she could not be sure that the eggs weren't viable, and the pair went on to incubate for over 60 days (when the normal incubation time is around 38 days). It was heartbreaking to watch them sit there day after day long after the date when their eggs should have hatched.

Fortunately our excellent "Operation Easter" Scheme (of which more later) meant that the photographer was arrested, charged with reckless disturbance, fined and had all his photographic equipment confiscated. Last year the birds built a new nest and successfully reared two healthy chicks, and they are incubating eggs again this year - not bad for a pair of birds over 30 years old. We would normally expect them to stop breeding in their early to mid twenties.

The weather today is beautiful; one of those clear, crisp days with blue skies and brilliant sunshine that make you glad to be alive. Our eagles must think so too, as at the 10 a.m. changeover Frisa (our female) stretched her wings and, after checking that Skye was safely settled on their precious eggs, flew off into the sunshine to find her breakfast.

Just to convince us that Spring really must have arrived, our Sandmartins have arrived back from Africa and are already checking out last year's nest holes in the old quarry wall at the rear of our visitors' car park by the hide. Lapwings are flying across the fields in front of the hide and our feeders are a constant hive of activity with chaffinches and siskins squabbling over the feeders and a Greater Spotted Woodpecker coming in to the peanut feeder.

At present our hide is in the same position as last year and we are not able to see the nest, although we have excellent views of the "off-duty" bird sitting in their favourite perch just opposite the hide. We can't risk moving the hide at this sensitive time whilst the birds are still incubating, but as soon as those eggs have hatched the hide will be moved into position and we are promised excellent views of the nest, chicks and adults. 2010 is destined to be an exciting year for us, for Skye and Frisa, and for our visitors. Do come to see us if you can.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Bill Bailey's birdwatching bonanza

Mull's sea eagles are featured in a forthcoming episode of comedian Bill Bailey's new show on Sky 1.  Mull is the venue for some of the show's birdwatching challenges, including tracking down a sea eagle at Loch Frisa.

Bill is quoted as saying "I've always had a passion for wildlife and birds in particular, so I relished this opportunity to camp out in some lovely corners of Britain and spot some beautiful birds.  Hopefully this show will encourage more people to celebrate our extraordinarily diverse birdlife, while at the same time enjoying the great British countryside."

The Mull episode features journalist Donal Macintyre and TV presenter Jayne Middlemiss undertaking a series of challenges to spot and photograph several birds, including hooded crows.

More details on the show at http://sky1.sky.com/bill-baileys-birdwatching-bonanza.