Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Autumn arrives and Barn Owl chicks take a dive!

Well, the storms blew through and our Barn Owl family survived, only for the wind and rain to return today with a vengeance. Ferries were cancelled this morning and from indoors the wild weather was quite exciting with trees bent right over and a mixture of torrential rain and hailstorms. Outside it was quite a different matter and we hope that all our young sea eagles are coping with the blustery weather. Autumn has certainly arrived with a vengeance.

We ringed our family of three Barn Owl chicks and I was a wee bit surprised at how small they were for their ages. The smallest has caught up quite well but isn't ready to go for a couple of weeks yet. Apart from ringing the chicks I took measurements and weights from which it was possible to age them to the day, and which told me that the oldest bird was not ready to go yet. Yet four days later the two larger chicks left the box and were seen sheltering in the bracken below. This is definitely a cause for concern as both birds are still quite downy, and their primary feathers are not fully unfurled which will hamper their flight. The younger chick is still in the box and is being fed well by the parent birds, so I hope they are feeding the older two as well. As I suggested putting up the box I almost feel responsible for our young family, so once again I will go up to the hide this evening to watch for the adult birds bringing food to them.

Skye and Frisa are still giving us some good views; they are not keen on torrential rain but they love the wind which enables them to fly long distances without having to flap - great for saving on energy. Food should be plentiful as the deer cull started last month, weeding out the weak or very old stags, and the grallochs (or innards) are left out on the hill by the stalkers for the birds of prey to feed on. Without the cull the deer would continue to multiply until there was insufficient food for all of them, and then the weaker ones would starve.

The stags are already roaring and the rut is due to start any time now, so being outside in the evening can sound quite eerie. I have a stag that frequently visits the land behind my gardens, but just recently he has started to roar and often catches me unaware when I go out to look at the stars on clear nights.

Will keep you updated on the owl family. I've only two weeks left until the end of my third season at the hide, but it will be impossible to keep away during the winter months.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Batten down the hatches

Today, as promised, the weather is wild - torrential rain and the wind getting stronger by the minute. Skye and Frisa have sensibly hidden themselves away, probably sheltering under the cover of the trees, or maybe even on the ground amongst the bracken. The forecast is bad for the next couple of days across Scotland and Northern England, North Wales and Northern Ireland, so the raptors will keep themselves as dry as possible and wait until the weather clears before they come out to hunt again. Fortunately Sea Eagles can go up to four days without feeding so Skye and Frisa will pick their moment to look for a meal.

Life might not be quite so easy for our Barn Owl family - there are now three healthy chicks in the nestbox and "mum" is mostly leaving them to their own devices during the day, probably roosting in the second barrel with the male. At night both adults have been hunting to feed themselves and their growing family so we hope that they have been able to choose their moments and bring in some voles, mice or shrews during the spells between showers. Owls don't have much in the way of waterproofing so seldom hunt in very wet weather which raises a dilemna - do I mug the neighbourhood cats for the rodents they have caught and leave them out as an easy meal for the owls, or do I let nature take its course? For the time being I will do the latter, and monitor the owlets via the nestcam to see if the adults are managing to bring in any food. The Barn Owl family has been so popular that one of our visitors to the hide very generously gave us a donation with which to purchase another nestbox so that our youngsters have somewhere to roost during the winter months (and maybe raise their own family next year).

It has been fascinating watching the owlets on camera - they have been much more active during the day than I expected. Originally four chicks hatched but the smallest has since disappeared and we now have two quite big chicks and one smaller one. Three eggs failed to hatch which is not all that unusual. We've had good views of the adult female stretching her wings, and from the wing pattern I think she is a new mum, probably just over a year old, so to rear three chicks is quite an achievement first time round. The chicks are due to be ringed this week so I will make sure I get some photos to post here on the blog.

Having just had two weeks annual leave I have really noticed the changes on the island since I came back - autumn really seems to have taken an early hold. Our Sand Martin colony has left for warmer climes, and the Swallows are already lining up along the telegraph wires. The lone Whooper Swan on Loch Frisa who stayed behind when its parents migrated in the spring will hopefully soon be reunited with them when they return next month.

We seem to be constantly refilling the bird feeders at the hide with an influx of Tits, Chaffinches, Siskins, Goldfinches etc. emptying them as fast as we top them up. There still seem to be some young birds about, particularly fat little Chaffinches with downy heads.

Those of you who followed our Buzzard-cam last year will be pleased to know that our pair reared another youngster this year, unfortunately in a different nest so our camera couldn't pick them up. The young bird is just as vocal as last year's, still demanding food from it's parents. It hasn't quite mastered the art of hunting yet, spending a lot of time running up and down the fields rather than hovering above waiting for something to move. We have also been treated to some great displays by a family of Kestrels. On Friday we watched four of them repeatedly mobbing a Hooded Crow until, after half an hour, they managed to drive it away. It's a treat to see these miniature predators, particularly since Kestrels have been suffering a decline over the last 15 or so years not only in the UK but across Europe. It's good to know that they, like so many other birds, are doing well on Mull.

Here's hoping that the storms aren't as bad as forecast, and that all the birds will be out feeding again in the very near future.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

New Star at the Eagle Hide

Apart from our resident Sea Eagles, we are treated to views of plenty of other wildlife at Loch Frisa. Last year our Buzzard-cam was a huge success, and this year we have a camera on a large Sand Martin colony which nests in the quarry where our visitors park their cars. In a former life I was national co-ordinator of the Barn Owl Conservation Network, and I've always felt that the habitat in the area would be perfect for a nesting pair of Barn Owls. The local farmer told us that he often saw Barn Owls hunting over the area in the late evening, so last summer our Forestry Commission Wildlife Rangers put up a nest barrel which could be seen from the hide. Of course it had to have a nestcam installed, but by the time the barrel was put up it was getting a bit late in the year for the owls to nest, plus the fact that 2010 was not a good year for the Short-tailed Field Vole on Mull (the Barn Owls' staple diet).

This year we were hopeful that the owls might use the box as the vole population seemed to have recovered, and sure enough when the camera was turned on, there were two adult Barn Owls in residence. At that point they were using the box as a roost, but after a while we saw the birds copulating and a couple of weeks later the first egg was laid, but not until the male had proved that he was going to be a good provider for a family of growing owls. A huge pile of voles appeared in the nest and the female has now laid seven eggs. Incubation time is 31 days, so the first egg should hatch in the next week or so. By the time there were four eggs the female had evicted the male from the box - quite normal behaviour as when the chicks hatch she sees the male as a potential threat to tiny chicks.

However, it meant that the male now needed somewhere safe to roost during the day, particularly with a hungry Buzzard family and two Sea Eagles all looking for food! So the rangers put up a second nest barrel in nearby trees and we hope that the male is using it. The design might look strange at first sight, but by having the opening near the top the adult bird(s) can come in and out with ease, but the chicks can't get out until they are ready to fledge. The floor area needs to be quite large too, as the youngsters stay in the nest until they are eight or nine weeks old by which time they are fully grown.

So now we are waiting for the eggs to hatch, and the nestcam is recording so hopefully I may be able to publish some footage of the chicks on a future blog. Seven is a very big brood of youngsters to rear, requiring up to 35 voles or mice a day between them, and it's possible that not all of the eggs will hatch, but when I've ringed Barn Owl chicks on Mull in the past I have had one brood of six healthy chicks so you never know! I'll keep you informed.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Life at Loch Frisa

It's a while since I've posted to the blog, although we've kept you up to date with "tweets". Skye and Frisa have had another unproductive year despite laying and incubating an egg. The 38 days incubation period came and went with no sign of food coming in and after another 3 weeks, when the eagles seemed to lose interest, we sent a licensed climber up to the nest to find out what had been going on. He found a single egg (unusual for Skye and Frisa as they normally lay two), and analysis showed that the egg had been fertile but had addled. Either they had been disturbed - unlikely with a round-the-clock watch on the nest, or the egg had chilled, or some other unknown reason.

As there was no point in focusing on the nest we decided to alter the trip slightly to give our visitors the best possible chance of seeing the eagles on one of their favourite perches. We now meet our visitors at the north end of Loch Frisa and escort them along the loch, stopping at various points along the way. The loch (Mull's largest freshwater loch) is over five miles long and the views over it are spectacular whatever the weather. We discovered that one of Skye and Frisa's favourite perches is in the wood where they started building their nest at the beginning of this year, before they returned to lay in the "Springwatch" nest. What is even more interesting is that from time to time they have been joined by a juvenile which we think is Heather, their chick from 2009!

We see them in other locations too, sometimes on the other side of the loch, and occasionally when we arrive at the hide we find them sitting in their favourite trees just opposite us. Our visitors tell us that they love the lochside drive, and we spot plenty of other wildlife too, including Golden Eagle, Hen Harrier, Red Breasted Merganser, Red-throated Diver, and a single young Whooper Swan which flew in with it's parents last October and decided not to join them when they migrated this Spring. Our Sand Martin colony in the quarry behind the hide car park seems busier than ever this year, and they are a welcome sight as we know that they, and the Swallows, are helping to keep the midges under control.

This year we've been laying on activities for children during the school holidays, one of which was building a lifesize Sea Eagle nest. I expected it to take them some time to build, but all the same I collected and "pruned" two trailers full of branches, twigs, moss etc. so that they would have plenty of material. However, I could have done with at least five trailers full as the whole lot disappeared in minutes. One of the Foresters made a great framework as you can see from the photos, and everyone was delighted with the end results - so much so that some of the children decided to try the nest out for size!

The finished nest - with occupants!

When the nest was finally complete I almost expected to find an eagle sitting on it the next time I drove along the loch. I wonder what Skye and Frisa make of it?

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Four seasons in two days at the hide

Things are moving up a gear at Loch Frisa with only 9 days left to go before we expect our first chick to hatch. Skye and Frisa are patiently sitting it out and taking it in turns to incubate, but the recent weather must have confused them. One day we have brilliant sunshine and temperatures of 20 degrees, the next it is 6 degrees and pouring with rain. And as the weather changes so does the eagles' behaviour.

When it is wet the bird on duty is way down in the nest, huddled around the egg(s) to keep them warm and dry, and just occasionally raising its head over the edge of the nest to check all is well. On the warmer days it will sit a little higher in the nest, maybe preening from time to time and rearranging the twigs on the nest.

During the torrential rain last week there were very few changeovers, with the incubating bird patiently sitting it out for hours, but on the first day of fine weather the eagles were changing over every two or three hours.

Today was one of sunshine and showers, and during one of the sunny spells we watched Skye gently turning the eggs underneath him before settling down again to wait for his mate. Frisa, on the other hand, had enjoyed 6 hours off the nest returning just after our last trip to the hide had finished. She can be forgiven for being away for so long, since she is usually the one to stay on the nest all night.

Both birds have been bringing in grass and twigs to line the nest and keep it clean, something that they will continue to do until the chicks fledge. There has been plenty of activity from other wildlife, including a male and female Hen Harrier seen in the same area on separate occasions so we are hoping to watch a pair sky-dancing in the future.

Yesterday we were watching two Buzzards being mobbed by a Raven, when in flew Skye, then a Peregrine Falcon joined in the fray. The Raven transferred its attentions to Skye who quickly turned the tables and our last sight of them was of the Raven disappearing over the ridge hotly pursued by a very indignant Skye!

So far this week our trips have all been full, so if you are thinking of visiting the Sea Eagle hide do be sure to book a place through the booking office on 01680 812556.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Time for a Bath

After yesterday's torrential rain, with more overnight, you would think our eagles had seen enough water, but no! We arrived at the hide this morning with the first trip of the day and thankfully it was dry enough for everyone to stand outside to get the best views of the eagles.

Skye was on the nest incubating those precious egg(s), and I started to tell our visitors about the history of the White-tailed Sea Eagle in the UK, whilst they scanned the sky and trees for a sign of Frisa. Suddenly a shout went up - "Eagle" - and we all watched as Frisa flew in over the trees.

At first we thought we were going to witness a changeover as she came right over the nest and she and Skye called to one another. But she kept going and suddenly dropped rapidly over the loch. I saw a group of gulls fly up as Frisa swooped, came up and swooped again, and I thought she must be trying to catch one. For a few moments she went out of sight, then someone spotted her. She wasn't sat plucking a gull as I expected, but standing in the water at the edge of the loch having a very thorough bath!

She dunked first one wing, then the other right under the water, then crouched down flapping both wings and her tail. Then she walked onto the shore and sat preening, cleaning individual feathers with her beak.

We thought she would be satisfied with her ablutions but a few minutes later she was back in the water going through the whole process again - whilst all the time the gulls mobbed her. Once again she hopped out of the water and this time she travelled further up the bank and spent at least another half hour preening, before flying back over the loch and disappearing out of sight.

It's likely that Frisa had been hunting earlier in the morning and her feathers were probably soiled with the blood and innards of whatever she had been feeding on. Birds of prey are very fastidious about keeping their feathers clean and healthy - soiled, sticky or salt-laden feathers lose their waterproofing and the bird can chill much more quickly.

One favourite component of Skye and Frisa's diet is Fulmar - a sea bird which they catch either in flight, or pluck from its perch on the cliffs. However, the Fulmar has an unpleasant but highly effective defence mechanism - it spits a disgusting mess of regurgitated fish at its adversary! This substance is very oily and can severely damage feathers, so predators are quick to clean it off.

Although the sun didn't manage to break through the low cloud today, it stayed dry until later in the afternoon and Frisa was spotted during the afternoon trip sitting in a tree with her wings spread wide. The breeze would have quickly dried off her damp feathers, ready for her to take over incubation duty from Skye.

We had a scare today when the alarm which warns us that someone is walking, cycling or driving along the track near the nest kept sounding at our watch point, yet no-one appeared at our end of the track. The worst possible thing for the eagles is for someone (or worse still a group of people) to stop on the track to watch the nest. Incubation is such a sensitive time and it doesn't take much disturbance to put the adult bird off the nest. In this cold, damp weather the egg(s) would chill within minutes, so I jumped in the van and drove down the track wondering what on earth (or who on earth) I was going to find.

The perpetrator of the crime was none other than a harmless spider! It had woven its web across the front of the sensor, and every time it crossed the beam it set off the alarm warning us that someone was in the wood. I carefully gathered up the spider and relocated him to a nearby tree, and peace reigned again. There's never a dull moment on sea eagle watch!

Monday, 4 April 2011

Back in Business at Loch Frisa

Well, the last six months have flown by and, as expected, I wasn't able to keep away from Loch Frisa during that time! Skye and Frisa kept us guessing as usual, building a new nest at the North end of the loch and then ...guess what? They flew back to the "Springwatch" nest and laid their egg(s) there.

So another season starts and I am delighted to be back in post (as of today) and privileged to follow the lives of these very special birds. Our eagles are about mid-way through their 38 days of incubation and are sharing their responsibilities on the nest.

Followers of our "celebrity pair" will know that they are using the same nest they used last year, and with that comes the same problems. The nest is very close to the Forestry track which, of course, is a public footpath. So in order to protect the birds and those precious eggs "Operation Easter" has swung into action and we have brought all the necessary technology into play.

"Operation Easter" is now in its 10th year and was originally the brainchild of Finlay Christine who was at that time the island's Police Wildlife Liaison Officer. Volunteers from the island, visitors, and the Mull Bird Club organise themselves to watch Mull's White-tailed Sea Eagle nests during incubation, backed up by the police. It seems ludicrous that it should be necessary in this day and age, but these rare birds are still at risk from egg collectors, and the possibility of disturbance by greedy photographers wanting to take the ultimate picture from a position too close to the nest.

Our dedicated team of watchers guard the nests 24/7 from a safe distance, aided by CCTV and alarms to notify us when someone is walking past the nest. This year the hide will be in a different position, to the north of the nest, so visitors to the hide will be escorted in from the Dervaig end of the track.

At the moment we are using a temporary hide as we can't move the main hide past the eagles' nest whilst they are incubating eggs. We will wait around two weeks after the chick(s) hatch and then tow the hide along the track to its new position. Once the eagles have chicks to feed they won't leave them, so they will be safe whilst the hide is moved.

With the new site comes a whole host of new views of the loch and the wildlife around it. Today the weather has been appalling with strong winds and torrential rain, so the on-duty eagle has been sat tight on the nest, with just its head visible to our visitors. But we have a Raven colony on the cliffs above us so we can watch the adults bringing in food to their young, and this morning we were lucky enough to see a pair of Golden Eagles flying right above us, being harrassed by one of the Ravens.

The drive from the meeting point to the hide is a little longer than last year, but the views are spectacular and we have already seen Hen Harriers. So despite the weather my first day back has been all it promised to be, and I'm looking forward to keeping you up to date with events at Loch Frisa. Until next time.