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Issue 97 - Ringing the new

Scotland Magazine Issue 97
February 2018

 

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Ringing the new

As this year’s eagle breeding season gets underway andconservationists look forward to a new batch of eaglets, Nic Davies reflects on a day out with bird ringers on Mull

Watching the bird ringers make  their way up a huge conifer,  and given my inherited ‘vertigo  inconveniento’ (my father was  an unlikely pilot), I hear a distinctive  ‘Kakakakakakakakakak’ and imagine this  might be the sound I'd be making if I was in  their position.

Mull's RSPB officer Dave Sexton puts me  right, explaining that this is actually the  unique sound made by disturbed White-tailed  eagles, a handy alarm call that might alert  conservationists to the presence of someone  approaching a nest with ill-intent. Today, the  very opposite is true, though the parent birds  Star and Hope, plus their as yet unnamed  chick, are none the wiser. What they are,  however, is extremely annoyed.

I've been invited along to watch a day's  ringing of Mull's iconic population of  reintroduced eagles. Amazingly, the project  on Mull has been so successful that there  simply isn't the time or budget to ring all of  the year's offspring. This is especially heartwarming  as 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the UK extinction of the species, as the  final native bird was shot in Shetland in 1918.

Aiming to ring 50 per cent of the chicks  (perhaps 10 nests) in just a few days, the  ringers' dedication is obvious and their  MO impressive. A varied selection of multi- coloured climbing gear is expertly deployed  with personal prep including a full-body  midge-net for ringer Lewis Pate. "The midges  generally reduce the higher you go," he tells  me. "I feel most sorry for those watching from  the ground."

Local PC Dominic Grierson agrees, the  standard-issue defensive equipment wrapped  around his short-sleeved black top having  proved no deterrent to these pesky critters.

Locals try many things, from promissory sprays  to the esoteric ‘Skin So Soft’ moisturiser,  whose alleged repellent qualities were  curiously discovered by Britain's armed forces.

The location of some eagle nests is well  known, a few even openly advertised by the  RSPB in order to encourage public interest,  but the nest we visit in the morning is remote  and our walk-in isn’t easy as we negotiate our bulky equipment over, under and through fallen trees. The nest reveals two healthy birds, millions of midges, and a close call as one chick seems determined to fling itself from the tree - but is saved by team leader Justin's quick thinking.

This afternoon's nest is already known to contain a single chick, easily seen from both our privileged vantage point and the recently opened Mull Eagle Watch hide at West Ardhu, the latest development in this hugely successful public project that has proven very popular with locals and tourists.

This new year of eaglets is enjoying the attentions of a new generation of ringers, guided for two years by old hand Justin Grant.

He admits that the job is getting no easier, as it is hard on the knees and personal time. His apprentices are now tasked with the main roles: manhandling, ringing and measuring. Under the intense scrutiny of the circling parents, the three ringers inch slowly up the tree, as their priority is to avoid spooking the nervous youngster. As they draw level with the chick it protests, wings spread out defensively, and backs away from Rachel Moore, the third member of the team. Cautious but confident, she reaches forwards, gently placing a bag over the youngster's head, then its body. Peace descends and we join her in breathing out. Justin pushes back on his ropes, watching and ready to guide their actions.

The bird is weighed. Usually calmed by a spell in solitary confinement, all eaglets are then un-bagged to take essential measurements. But it's a feisty one - did Rachel not hear it say ‘no’? Rachel's hand takes the brunt. My goodness, we can see the blood from our viewpoint! Improvising, Rachel takes her red and white bandana, not to wrap her injury, but to calm the bird by covering its eyes. With this addition, it's surely the coolest looking biker chick in Scotland - albeit it's probably a male.

Rachel expertly manipulates the bird to ensure its vital statistics are accurately recorded. Lengths, widths and circumferences duly logged by Lewis and the examination passes without further incident.

Before reacquainting themselves with terra firma, Lewis uses a small metal detector to check the nest for rings from killed or scavenged birds, a recent innovation now yielding valuable data for no extra effort. Job done, the ringers return to us and we leave as a group. Hope and Star return to their bemused youngster.

I'm buzzing to have seen this practical conservation work up so close. On our walk out, I suggest the chick be named ‘Bitey McBitefinger’. Thankfully, wiser and younger heads prevail, and the kids from the local Dervaig Primary School decide to call the chick ‘Mara’.

I'm also delighted to report that Rachel and Lewis swapped their own rings a few weeks later, but I have to wonder how he managed to get the bandana over her eyes.

Whether human or eagle, the wish is obviously for a long and prosperous life. As for the years ahead, when Spring arrives our attention and hopes will be focussed on Mull’s nests for yet more record-breaking seasons.

Further Information Readers may support the work of RSPB Scotland by becoming a patron. This regular donation funds vital conservation work that helps protect the nation's birdlife and grants access to special patron-only events. 

www.rspb.org.uk