White-tailed Eagles on the Isle of Mull

Mull’s ‘Celebrity’ Eagles

A Worldwide Focus

With a healthy population of around 35 pairs, the Isle of Mull boasts the highest breeding density of Golden Eagles in Europe. Largely as a result of their preferred mountain and moorland habitat on the island, Golden Eagles are less likely to be encountered by the casual birdwatcher visiting Mull, particularly during the breeding season. However, much of Mull’s White-tailed Eagle population can be seen at the coast, with several breeding localities in close proximity of public roads, which can make the viewing of these awesome birds easier. The RSPB has produced an informative leaflet, The White-tailed Eagle Trail, which provides details of where to look for these iconic raptors around the island.

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Image courtesy of Terry Pickford

The long-running partnership that makes public viewing of White-tailed Eagles possible on Mull has turned the resident breeding pair at Loch Frisa (‘Skye’ and ‘Frisa’) into ‘celebrities’, aided by their inclusion on flagship national television programmes, such as the BBC’s ‘Springwatch’ and ‘Autumnwatch’.

Public Relations

In recent years, local schoolchildren on the island have been asked to give a name to each new chick that hatches at the Loch Frisa nest. Many people feel that it is wrong to anthropomorphise wild birds and animals by ascribing them pet names, yet this has engaged local youngsters with the work that is being done to ensure the survival of Mull’s expanding White-tailed Eagle population and has been a wonderful public relations exercise and a powerful marketing tool. A huge surge of interest in White-tailed Eagles on Mull coincided with BBC television’s ‘Springwatch’ programme following the daily lives of two chicks at Loch Frisa in 2005. ‘Itchy’ and ‘Scratchy’, as they were lovingly and amusingly named, were to become the most media-friendly birds in the country, as wildlife enthusiasts craved the latest information regarding the movements of these young eagles.

Contact was lost with ‘Itchy’ and ‘Scratchy’ and it could only be hoped that all was well with them as they approached sexual maturity. Ideally, it would be most welcome if they had met prospective partners and settled to breed elsewhere on the West coast of Scotland. A request for any new information regarding the whereabouts of either of these eagles proved fruitless, until…

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Image courtesy of Terry Pickford

‘Itchy’ was found successfully breeding with an untagged female in May 2011 at a secret location in Western Scotland. Just another example of how birds as large and seemingly obvious as White-tailed Eagles can be ‘lost’ to their surroundings.

Media-Friendly Eagles

The two successful chicks that were raised at Loch Frisa in 2008 were named ‘Breagha’ (female meaning ‘beautiful’ in Gaelic) and her sibling brother, ‘Mara’ (Sea). Young eagles are known to travel extensively (if not terribly far) during their early years and ‘Breagha’ and ‘Mara’ have proved no exception. Fitted with state-of-the-art satellite tags, anyone interested can follow the movements of these young sea eagles via the Internet. ‘Breagha’, now in her fourth calendar year, had moved northwards to the Isle of Skye, where she remained into 2010. The call of home has been difficult for ‘Breagha’ to resist, however, and she returned to the Isle of Mull (March 2011). ‘Mara’ appears to have a more sedentary nature, having found an area across the Sound of Mull at Loch Sunart that is very much to her liking.

The chicks that were tagged in 2009, ‘Venus’ (female) and ‘Oran’ (male) have been very mobile. ‘Venus’ has been spotted travelling in Mid-Argyll and on the Isle of Jura, while ‘Oran’ has more of a wanderlust, which has taken him south to Northern Ireland and to the bird-rich island of Islay. Unfortunately, the satellites on these young eaglets are no longer transmitting any details of their movements. They may have been damaged and dropped off, although it is sad to realise that the last known whereabouts of these birds were in areas of the mainland that maintains an unhealthy relationship with birds of prey.

Enthralling

The last year (2010) of the satellite study in to the dispersal and movements of infant White-tailed Eagles on the Isle of Mull has already provided some interesting feedback. ‘Midge’ (male) has flown south and is currently residing on the Isle of Bute in the Firth of Clyde, whereas ‘Shelley’ (female) has enjoyed a rather peripatetic lifestyle in her first year of life, roaming freely in the Scottish Highlands, from Aviemore to Ullapool. This satellite monitoring programme has been a great success, resulting in fresh knowledge of these fantastic birds and providing eagle enthusiasts all-over-the-world with the opportunity to keep track of their movements on the Internet.

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Image courtesy of Terry Pickford

The White-tailed Eagles on the Isle of Mull have a status that stretches far beyond their local coastal domain, attracting the interest and fascination of thousands of spectators throughout the world, enthralled by the role that these iconic birds play in the everyday life of the island.

Downgraded Wild Experience

The authors of this web-site do not condone the continued anthropomorphising of White-tailed Eagles on the Isle of Mull. Consequently, any future up-dates to the information contained within these pages will carry no mention of any of the pet names that have been ascribed to some of the eagles on the island.

The naming of eagles has proved successful in helping engage people in the re-establishment of White-tailed Eagles on Mull, but the authors believe that there is little justification for continuing to give human names and attributes to these birds any longer. They are powerful, wild birds, which sit at the very top of the Isle of Mull’s food chain and to refer to them by anything other than their proper name, in our opinion, can effectively downgrade the experience of seeing them in the wild.

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Image courtesy of Terry Pickford

Back Where They Belong

Success

In 1975, the Nature Conservancy Council (now called Scottish Natural Heritage) secured funding for a longer term re-introduction project, based on the Isle of Rum, a mountainous National Nature Reserve in the Inner Hebrides. Within a traditional heartland of the species, White-tailed Eagles bred on Rum until 1907, in sight of the last British breeding pair on the Isle of Skye.

 

Over a 10 year period, until 1985, a total of 82 eaglets (39 males and 43 females) were imported from nests in Norway where the White-tailed Eagle population was still expanding. White-tailed Eagle’s often rear twins, allowing one chick to be taken from such nests under special licence, to be brought to their new Scottish home.

Initially, the eaglets were looked after in captivity until they were able to fly. When capable of flight they were released in to the Rum countryside. Natural food was left close to the release site in order to enhance the young eagles’ chances of survival at this critical time. Despite no parental guidance, as they would have in the wild, these birds gradually gained their independence before beginning to range further afield in search of wider opportunities.

Insurance

To supplement achievements on Rum, thus reducing the risk of the White-tailed Eagle becoming extinct yet again, a further release programme was put in to operation by Scottish Natural Heritage and the RSPB. This second phase involved the release of 58 young Norwegian eagles between 1993 and 1998 in Wester Ross on the Scottish mainland.

To assist the gene pool of the expanding Scottish population and help the White-tailed Eagle regain its full range in Scotland, a third release project was implemented on the East coast. Based in the vicinity of the Firths of Tay and Forth, an area that boasts a wealth of suitable habitat and excellent year-round feeding opportunities, between 15 and 20 young eagles were released over a five -year period that commenced in 2007.

The final batch of young White-tailed Eagles to be released into the Fife countryside arrived in 2012 marking the end of the re-introduction programme in Scotland. This latest phase has seen a partnership between RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry Commission Scotland secure the release of a further 86 young eaglets into the East coast.

Where Next?

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Image courtesy of Terry Pickford

Thanks to the success of this phased re-introduction programme, the White-tailed Eagle is once again breeding in Scotland and increasing year on year. While the population remains small it is still vulnerable to setback. White-tailed Eagles are slow to mature and pairs often make several breeding attempts before successfully rearing chicks. Between 1975 – 2012, a total of 226 juvenile White-tailed Eagles have been released in Scotland.

(The White-tailed Eagle is also currently being re-introduced to South-west Ireland, where a programme on a similar scale to that initiated in Eastern Scotland started in the Summer of 2007. Plans are also taking shape which could see the re-introduction of this majestic raptor to England in the future.)

Raptor Politics would like to thank Mull Magic for allowing this article to be republished here.

Mull Magic Wildlife Walks and Tours, Tobermory, Isle of Mull, Argyll PA75 6QP Tel: 01688 301213
Website: www.mullmagic.com, e-mail: enquiries@mullmagic.com.

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