Springtime Raptors & Reptiles

Springtime Raptors & Reptiles – 4th April 2017

Mull Eagle Watch reopens for trips on 11th April 2017 (bookings now being taken on 01680 812556)
Fresh faces
After a year and a half working locally at Ulva Primary School, I’ve returned to the Seasonal Eagle Ranger Post, which I filled during 2014 and 2015. I’ll be working for the Mull and Iona Ranger Service and the Mull and Iona Community Trust. Meryl Varty has taken on the RSPB Community and Information Officer post. Between the two of us we’ll be providing daily guided trips to view White-tailed eagles at two different community owned sites. You can join us at West Ardhu (North West Community Woodland) or Glen Seilisdeir (Tiroran Community Forest) to learn more about the local community forest practices, the eagles and other local wildlife species whilst hopefully viewing the eagles in the area.
Eagle Viewing Hides – ‘incubation initiated’
I’ll mostly be based at the West Ardhu viewing hide near Dervaig in the North West of the island. This area is now my home patch, having moved away from the ‘big city lights’ of Tobermory last year. This area of the island is home to brilliant wildlife, beautiful beaches and the community managed woodland in which Star and Hope have been nesting since 2014.
Hope, the female White-tailed eagle is now incubating on her nest in the West Ardhu. Along with her mate, Star they’ll share the incubation duties (although the female often does more) and we’ll expect the hatching to take place toward the end of April.
Meryl will be based at Tiroran Community Forest, where eagles Iona and Fingal are also currently incubating and hatching should take place at the beginning of May. Mull Eagle Watch has viewed this pair since 2011 and they’ve been really successful since then, raising a chick each year.

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West Ardhu Viewing Hide (North West Mull Community Woodland)

Spring Sights
Spring is a great time to explore the island, whether you’re a visitor or a local. The wildlife bursts back into being busy, making the most of the longer days and abundant food. Both White-tailed eagles and Golden eagles will be active, and often you’ll spot adult territorial eagles defending their patch from younger individuals.

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2-3 year old White-tailed eagle (Image: Ewan Miles)

Other raptor species including Hen Harrier and Buzzard will be preparing for the breeding season ahead – watch out for the famous sky-dancing male harrier. Ravens, the honorary raptor species should be breeding in full swing – they can be very early to nest.

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Raven on a Mull territory

Reptiles are a wonderful group to focus on in April, with male Adders emerging earlier than the females. We spotted two male individuals basking in the warmth of the sun at the end of March, along with a few speedy Common Lizards. Adders are highly unlikely to cause you any harm, unless trodden on and it’s a thrill to see one. Slow-worms are our third and final reptile species here on Mull and they’re harmless too – a legless lizard rather than a snake or worm!

Loch Torr roadside - same place as previous years. March 26thMale?

Male Adder

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Common Lizard

Thanks for reading! We’ll be back soon with more on our eagles – trips start from 11th April (book now on 01680 812556). See below for upcoming Ranger Service event details.

Egg-ceptional Events
The Mull and Iona Ranger Service are running a couple of events for the Easter school holiday. Our Easter Egg Hunt is in conjunction with the Glengorm Wildlife Project – come along and have some fun!
Bunessan Birdsong – Wednesday 12 April
A gentle walk around the village, listening and learning to identify the distinctive spring songs of our local birds. You don’t have to be up at dawn to appreciate beautiful birdsong!
9.30-11am
Meeting in main car park, Bunessan
£5 adults £3 children

Glengorm Easter Egg Hunt – Wednesday 12th April
Starting at the Glengorm Wildlife Lab, next to the Coffee Shop. Come in your home-made Easter bonnet to win prizes!

Activities include:
Egg-citing Scavenger Trail
Make you own basket
Egg-cellent Easter Crafts

11am-3pm
£3

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.

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

Easy Living

The white-tailed eagle family at NWMCWC’s West Ardhu site is ticking along at a steady pace.

The chick, now nine weeks old, is both well grown and well fed. He only has one more week of growing to get through before attention turns to his first flight.

For the last ten days “Star” has maintained a stoic presence by his nest. “Hope” is often away, and when she returns, she is mostly empty-handed (so to speak).

Though we cannot see what the eagles have in their larder from the hide, I get the impression that the hunting is good and the living is easy.

When watching the adult eagles, it strikes me that they have very different “personalities”. Further, unless they are united by a common cause – such as the need to protect their nest, they seem to work to a rather individual schedule.

White-tailed eagles pair for life. At up to 30-years in the wild, this can represent a very long and productive relationship indeed.

However, unlike many of the other socially monogamous birds that I have observed, I have never seen them preen one another [allopreening] or demonstrate anything that could be interpreted through human eyes as affection, now that the main pairing period is over.

They sometimes perch close – but I have not yet seen them side by side. They occasionally vocalise together or engage in a brief bout of mutual soaring, but that’s about as saucy as it gets at this time of year.

If I’m honest, they treat each other with what appears to be a mixture of tolerance and indifference.

I don’t see the continuous pair-bond reinforcing behaviour that is so obvious in parrots or cranes for example.

I suppose the eagles are just a bit more subtle about it, and don’t engage in Public Displays of Affection?!

Hope seems to have a more confident and curious attitude than her partner. This week, for the first time, we were able to enjoy prolonged views of her on the ground in front of the hide.

The huge talons of a white-tailed eagle give it a somewhat “considered” gait when it wanders through the brash.

Watching the majestic Hope tootle about like an extra-large chicken certainly raised a smile or two from the group. I’m not sure what she was up to – looking for small mammals, possibly.

She had that fluffy, mischievous look about her that birds sometimes get when they’re really interested in something.

Star, meanwhile, has been busy causing traffic pile-ups on the Dervaig hairpin bends.

Tom (my work experience student) and I were driving back from a Ranger Service drop-in at the Torr hide.

As we hit the highest part of the road, I almost had to swerve to avoid Star – who looked like he was on course to fly through my side window!

There were quite a few cars and campers about, so the scramble was on for everyone to get off the road safely and get their optics out.

I often wonder if the eagles are able to recognise my van, crawling like a wee green snail up to the hide every day.

It was an incredible encounter. Star stayed with us all for quite some time before floating back to his family at West Ardhu.

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Here are Star [top] and Hope [bottom] engaging in a spot of mutual soaring!

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

Running Rings

My goodness, what a busy – but exciting –  few weeks it’s been.

We’ve had primary school visits, beautiful weather, sensational views of the eagles… and of course, the ringing of the chicks!

At West Ardhu, the single chick was fitted with its leg rings on Tuesday June 7th.

As the team arrived, “Hope” [the female eagle] was away hunting and “Star” [the male eagle] was on babysitting duty.

It had been a quiet sort of day, but gloriously sunny and warm. As a result, Star was half asleep when the team approached his stand of conifers – it must have been quite a rude awakening for him?!

Once he realised what was happening, he lurched out of his tree and started to circle, calling, directly in front of the hide.

There are several pockets of plantation conifers left standing at West Ardhu. Each one has its own resident pair of buzzards, and these neighbours were quick to notice that something was amiss with their larger cousin.

The buzzard pair that live opposite the eagle nest were first on the scene, launching a very confident and persistent attack.

On the one hand, Star was trying his best to watch what was going on at his nest – but on the other, he was being mobbed and shunted by the buzzards, who simply wouldn’t leave him alone.

Star kept flashing his talons, but in his distracted state, this threat was having little effect on his antagonists.

I found myself looking around, wondering where his mate was. When push comes to shove, it is usually Hope that escorts any intruders off the premises: she doesn’t mess about when it comes to “chucking-out time”.

I knew that she had returned when I saw a large shadow streak across the escarpment to the left of the hide.

Looking up, Hope had her wings pulled in and was heading directly for her mate. When she arrived, the two of them circled so close together it seemed that they were almost touching.

The buzzards, knowing that discretion is the better part of valour, discreetly piped down and split the scene.

Meanwhile at the nest, ringers Rachel and Lewis were faced with a very indignant seven-week old eaglet.

In most cases, after an initial nod to bravery, eagle chicks resign themselves to their fate and sit quietly during the ringing process.

By all accounts, Star and Hope’s chick was “a feisty one”. This was corroborated by Rachel’s rather sore looking arms (!)

I couldn’t help but smile at this, thinking of his mother and her no-nonsense attitude.

Initial measurements suggest that this chick is a male – but we will need to wait for the DNA sexing results to know for sure.

Star and Hope stayed close to their nest throughout, and returned quickly once the ringers had moved away. By the following morning, normal service had resumed.

Elsewhere in Scotland, Lewis and Rachel have been busy fitting very different rings… They were married on Saturday!

Rachel is, in fact, my former senior keeper from the bird section at Bristol Zoo. It was an interesting combination of strange and lovely to bump into her at an eagle nest on Mull?!

I’m sure you’ll all join me in wishing her and Lewis every happiness together.

If you would like to visit the eagles and learn more about their lives here on Mull, please contact: 01680 812 556

Stephanie Cope

Community Ranger for Mull Eagle Watch.

Now, as is often the case in life, we must go from happiness to sadness: there is also ringing news from our sister site at Tiroran Community Forest.

Though Fingal and Iona still have one very healthy chick, unfortunately, the smaller of the two was found dead on the nest.

You can find out more here:

http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/wildlife/b/mulleagles/archive/2016/06/13/all-was-going-so-well-until.aspx

In the Eye of the Beholder

There’s been a little bit of excitement to start my week at West Ardhu…

I’m delighted to tell you that on Monday, for the very first time, we were able to see Star and Hope’s single chick from the hide!

Admittedly, it’s not at the most visually appealing stage in its development [think half-plucked chicken with the head of a vulture] – but nevertheless, watching it flop about enthusiastically with every appearance of good cheer and good health really made my day.

At just over three weeks old, the West Ardhu chick has a spongy coating of smoke-grey down. This down is somewhat thicker than the white, wispy covering that it hatched with. Now that the chick is a bit more robust, the adults often perch to the side of the nest and no longer feel the need to brood it constantly. This has produced some prolonged and very beautiful views.

Over the next two weeks, our chick will “feather up”. Spiky, tube-like protrusions will appear all over its body, and from the tip of each, a chocolate brown feather will gradually emerge.

These strange tubes shield the delicate growing structure inside. Once the feather has started to form, bits of this covering will be nibbled and preened away by the chick. The youngsters can look a bit disheveled and dandruffy at this stage.

By five weeks of age, our chick should look more or less like an eagle (!) This is also the time that it will start to pick off morsels of food for itself.

Meanwhile, both Star and Hope have continued to wow our guests. There’s no real necessity for them to come over the hide, or indeed, to casually circle above it – but they do. It’s quite an amazing thing to experience.

I think Star must have taken umbrage at my comments in the previous blog… he seems to be trying his very best to out perform Hope! This is one of my own photographs from last week:

Star

We’ve also enjoyed regular sightings of Golden Eagle [both adult and immature birds] and some spectacular Sparrowhawk action!

It’s all GO at NWMCWC’s West Ardhu…

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