Monthly Archives: July 2016

An Eagle Called “Hope”

On Monday, a remarkable thing happened.

Our family friends, Hunter and “Boo” Steele, are avid collectors of second hand books.

Each time they visit my in-laws on Mull they sweetly bring a selection of volumes for Alexander and me.

These books arrive in a large cardboard box, wrapped in bright paper and signed off with kind wishes. When you open up the package, that special old book smell wafts out like nostalgia.

My contents of my box always have a distinctly avian theme – eagles on this occasion (Hunter and Boo are excellent at keeping up with our latest interests and career developments).

Mixed in with the others was one titled “The Manual of British Birds”. It was a handsome pale green, with pages that looked slightly out of kilter in a very satisfying vintage fashion.

The book held great promise, being written originally by Howard Saunders and enlarged for this edition by William Eagle Clarke (a middle name to cherish, if ever there was one…)

It wasn’t exactly a pocket guide; in the wrong hands, it could have knuckle-dusted its way through the liveliest Glaswegian bar brawl on a Saturday night.

I turned to the front of the book to see when it was published – third edition, late 1920’s.

It was only then that I noticed the name and address, neatly written on the inside front cover.

It read:

George Waterston

27 Inverleith Terrace, Edinburgh

18/10/35

I blinked a couple of times, and read the name again.

I suppose that many of you reading this are staring blankly at your computer screens and thinking “…who?”

But if I told you that here, in my lap, was a book that belonged to one of the greatest ornithologists and conservationists that Britain has ever seen, you might begin to understand my delight.

When Mr Waterston acquired this book – taking the trouble to add his name and address in carful fountain pen ink, he was just twenty-four years old.

I have seen photographs of George at this time. He looked like the sort of man that smiled a lot, with a generous pair of eyebrows and very twinkly eyes.

My father in-law actually knew George – who was a friend of his own father, and visited their house in Edinburgh. He describes him as an energetic and vital man.

George Waterston 1935

George Waterston, Fieldy (George Stout) and Archie Bryson, 1935. © George Waterston/FIBO archives

When this picture was taken, Waterston couldn’t have known that ahead of him was involvement in the Second World War and subsequent capture by German forces as a POW.

He couldn’t have guessed that he would be instrumental in the protection of Britain’s first returning ospreys, following their extinction from our isles as a breeding species in 1916.

He probably hadn’t yet thought about buying Fair Isle and setting up its internationally acclaimed Bird Observatory in 1948 – though he had visited the island for the very first time in 1935, the year that he bought the book.

And perhaps, most importantly to me, George hadn’t yet imagined bringing young white-tailed eagles from Norway and releasing them first in Argyll and then on Fair Isle, with the sprouting intention of restoring this majestic species to our skies.

He was so loved by the island people for his interest in both their natural and cultural heritage, that there is now a museum on Fair Isle named after him.

Holding his book and feeling the vertigo of gazing back through an unknown mans life, it struck me what a fabulous coincidence this was.

I first came to know about Mr Waterston when I worked at the Loch Garten Osprey Centre, part of the RSPB’s blue-chip Abernethy National Nature Reserve.

George was one of the founding members of the Scottish Ornithologists Club, and later became Scottish Director for the RSPB.

The swashbuckling story of how the first returning ospreys were protected from the depredations of egg collectors – and eventually, raised to celebrated status when the public were invited to view them at their nest – is one that I told often.

George was pioneering in his desire to welcome the public and share the excitement of such special sites.

He was also quick to understand that doing so effectively increased the level of protection for the birds, and minimised disturbance elsewhere as they slowly regained their ancestral haunts.

During that first summer in 1959, fourteen thousand guests came to view the ospreys.

Since that time over two million others have followed suit – and that’s just at Loch Garten.

How many people, then, have been touched by the manifold splendour of our natural world because of this man and others like him?

Later today, I am meeting a group of guests to show them the family of white-tailed eagles that I watch. Their chick fledged last week and is taking his first faltering flights around their territory.

This eagle family is one of twenty breeding pairs on Mull, and over one hundred others across Scotland and Ireland.

The spectacle of “Hope” (our magnificent resident female) thermalling with all the swagger and innate confidence of a native in her homeland, is a sight that I think would have pleased George.

It certainly pleases me.

What a joy it would be if we could get the Sea Eagle back to Scotland as a breeding species…

George Waterston 1911 – 1980

George Waterstone - Scottish Ornithologist's Club Archive

George Waterston © Scottish Ornithologists’ Club archive

Stephanie Cope

Community Ranger for Mull Eagle Watch

With special thanks to John A. Love whose excellent book “A Saga of Sea Eagles”  [ISBN: 978-1-84995-080-0] helped to fill in some of the gaps for this blog.

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Chicks in the Mist

The glen leading down to West Ardhu is a fickle place.

Though the massive rock terraces are themselves immovable, weather conditions lend them a shadow-life that belies their static nature. It is a place fit for eagles.

There are days when the sun slants over the geological scars in this landscape, calling to mind the great steppe of Ethiopia.

Other times, the light is full and bright and flat; tempting the casual observer to a higher place, where the air drips with the song of skylarks and the sleepy drone of distant cuckoos.

Each step on this terrace is a green and gold. Above, curlews trill a soulful lament. Below, sheep peer out from roofless dwellings on the valley floor.

Lately the glen has been hidden. Familiar lines in the fabric of the landscape are shrouded in low cloud.

Trees steam as the water vapour leaving their needles condenses and feeds into a burgeoning mass of grey above.

At the the nest, the chick’s efforts to exercise have been somewhat dampened. Water droplets dribble from his horny beak, and his feathers must be shaken often to dislodge the moisture collecting there.

With tendrils of mist curling about them, the adult birds sit in strange half-light. No insects fizz in the ditches. No small birds twitter from the birch stands.

The silence is heavy, but the spectacle is magnificent.

At the time of writing the chick is approaching his twelfth week. He has developed a preference for sitting out on a branch at the side of his nest platform, but as yet, he has not taken his maiden flight.

Conditions are set to improve as we move towards the weekend, and I feel sure that this will bring about a change.

It won’t be long before his shadow joins the play of sun and cloud and rain that animates our glen.

I hope you’ll come and see it too.

Remember, booking is essential if you would like to join a trip. The number to contact is: 01680 812 556

Stephanie Cope

Community Ranger for Mull Eagle Watch

To get the latest from our sister site at Tiroran Community Forest, please see:

https://www.rspb.org.uk/community/wildlife/b/mulleagles/default.aspx

Branching Out

It can’t be easy, learning how to eagle.

Wobbling inexpertly on a spruce branch, you can almost see the brow of NWMCWC’s 10-week old chick furrowing as he tries to marshal his gigantic wings and make them flap at the same time.

So far his efforts have yielded mixed results: on Monday, he jumped from a side branch back into the nest – but finished by skidding on his keel and almost bumping into the tree trunk. Tuesday saw two yellow feet and a pair of brown, bird trousers dangling optimistically a foot above the nest platform… before crashing down in a mess of dark feathers and pine needles.

Once his dignity was recovered, beady eyes popped out from behind the foliage. The short feathers on the back of the chick’s head were spiked up in excitement; it was clear that he couldn’t wait to try it all again.

The adults, meanwhile, perch in stately silence above. Their capacity for sitting seems to be almost limitless.

At times it feels like civilizations could rise and fall and Star would still be stapled to the right of the nest, staring into the middle distance and brooding over his eagle thoughts – whatever those might be.

Luckily, these marathon bouts of sitting are interspersed with nuggets of action.

The parent birds still like to give us all the once-over from time to time, circling low and lazy over the hide for their adoring public (Hope’s hand wave needs a bit of work; aside from that, she could give any Royal a run for their monarchy).

The mood at the nest tree is relaxed. The chick is able to tear up prey for itself, so carcasses are pretty much dropped and left for it by the adults.

Though it isn’t always easy to see what is being brought in, Fulmar appears to be a popular menu choice.

It has to be said that Star’s beautiful white tail is looking somewhat grubby these days – being a much besmirched shade of vomit yellow (!) This is likely thanks to fulmar oil.

So, as we approach fledging time, I expect there’ll be some skinned knees, collisions and calamities… but when the stabilizers come off and this youngster takes his first “proper” flight, I guarantee that I will be as pleased and as proud as punch.

Remember, booking is essential if you would like to join a trip. The number to contact is: 01680 812 556

Stephanie Cope

Community Ranger for Mull Eagle Watch

To get the latest from our sister site at Tiroran Community Forest, please see:

https://www.rspb.org.uk/community/wildlife/b/mulleagles/default.aspx