Eagle ringing

Climbers ringing Mull eaglesThis week I was privileged enough to head out with the FCS and RSPB eagle ringing groups to two different eagle territories. I was so grateful for the opportunity, as I’d not yet had the chance to view a ringing before, and it was a brilliant learning experience. Unfortunately the Mull Eagle Watch chick was too young to be ringed this week but it’s on the list for the next ringing trip to the isle.

Ringing birds and actually getting up to the nests themselves isn’t for the fainthearted and it takes a lot of training. You have to be a trained tree climber with the knowledge to safely use the climbing equipment to make it up to the eagle nest sites which can often be extremely high up in awkward trees like Sitka spruce and larch. Safety obviously comes first for both the birds and the climbers, some nests aren’t ringed due to being too dangerous and inaccessible. You also have to be trained in ringing with experience of handling birds, especially large raptors. Training to ring birds is a long process requiring perseverance and an experienced ringer who is willing to teach you for at least a year. You need to be equipped with the correct climbing equipment and ringing equipment.

Starting climb to second nest (Medium)

Arduous climb

We first headed out to a well know pair who nested on a very exposed sea stack last year after their original tree nest collapsed. Over winter they repaired the tree nest and are now happily back in their regular home with one large chick. We approached the nest, getting our first view of the huge structure and a dark brown head looking out. It felt very odd going so close, usually in any other circumstances this would be highly illegal – the ringers and climbers have licences allowing us to be there. As the climbers got their gear out and began to harness up we scouted around the base of the tree for feathers, pellets and prey remains. There wasn’t much to be found other than a few small eagle feathers and some fulmar feathers. How on earth do you tell if it’s a fulmar? They smell very strange, very recognisable after it’s been pointed out!

This particular tree was quite difficult and slow going for the climbers due to lots of brash and branches running up the trunk from the base. As we stood watching the first member of the team head up the adult female returned calling in annoyance, she flew about above us and was soon joined by the male, both uttering calls with a slight difference in pitch. I asked plenty of questions, learning about the whole process and what interesting prey remains had been found in nests before. There was currently a fresh mackerel and what looked like deer liver in with the chick! Once up there, the climber called for the ringing bag to be sent up and he began the process of weighing, measuring and ringing the bird. We no long use wing tags here in West Scotland. We finished and left the adults and the chick to settle back down and trooped back to the vehicles.

Prey remains from Mull eagle nest

Delicious delights

Our next visit was to the pair that have recently been featured on Springwatch. The female is noticeable with wing tags because she’s an east coast released bird called Sula. This nest site was much more interesting in regard to prey remains, we found a lot including shag, fulmar, greylag goose, puffin, guillemot and some lamb. The ringers are so experienced that they can identify a prey species from one bone in some cases – fascinating!  Prey with white-tailed eagles is very varied as they’re opportunistic – they take what they can, when they can. Fish are important and can vary from mackerel and sea trout to freshwater pike. Seabirds include puffins, razorbills, guillemots, greylag geese, herons, fulmar, herring gulls and even great black-backed gulls. Mammals also play a large part including rabbits, mountain hare, hedgehogs, feral cats, American mink and red deer calves. On the mainland, good size fox cubs and roe deer youngsters are often recorded and even a badger cub once. Another healthy chick was measured and ringed in this nest whilst we battled against midges and ticks.

Ringing equipment

Rings and tags

A lot of the birds across West Scotland now have no wing tags making it difficult to tell who’s who but we now use chunky colour rings as well as the small silver BTO ring. If you have binoculars, camera or a scope you can still see the detail and let us know. Similarly some birds around still do have big, bright wing tags. The Irish reintroduction and east coast reintroductions are much more recent and still rely on sightings to understand how the birds are doing. If you see any birds with tags let us know colours and letters, we’ll be able to pass the info on and tell you the age and where the bird came from too. Tags and rings play an important part in dealing with the ongoing raptor persecution across the UK too, allowing us to monitor birds easily.

Thanks for reading again, hope you enjoyed the insight into the ringing process. Hopefully soon I will have some photos of the chicks in the nest itself I couldn’t get any as all of the ringing takes place up in the tree. Keep an eye for those coming soon – Rachel.

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