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.