Mull eagle diary part 2: the first signs of nesting

For such large birds, white-tailed eagles can be elusive. But RSPB warden Dave Sexton has to track down each of Mull's 20 breeding pairs to ensure that they are protected over the crucial months ahead

Main image by Iain Erskine

10th January 2017
Pair of white-tailed eagles by Iain Erskine

It’s never too early in the year to start monitoring white-tailed sea eagle nests for signs of activity. At this time of year I need to be ahead of the game. If I left it until late winter to start trying to pin down Mull’s 20 pairs of sea eagles, I would certainly lose track of some pairs.

Pair of white-tailed eagles
Mighty – and at times mightily elusive – a white-tailed eagle  By Iain Erskine

For such a vast bird it can go very quiet and sneaky when it wants to. So, in January, if I get the right weather, I can really hit the jackpot.

Take the other day for example. I woke to the promise of a blue sky with a hint of frost in the dawn air. The clouds on the eastern horizon across the Sound of Mull were still a pinky-orange from the rising sun. It was shaping up to be a classic eagle-nest-building-kind-of-day!

With black lab Cally by my side, the first nest I checked from afar ticked all the boxes. A well-established nest high in a mighty conifer and home to Mull’s ‘A-List’ eagle celebs Skye & Frisa. Over the last 12 years they’ve been the stars of many TV shows including Springwatch, Blue Peter, The One Show and yes, even Countryfile when John and Adam travelled to Mull to see them.

John Craven visits Mull to look for eagles. Tom Marshall/RSPB images
John Craven visits Mull to film eagles. Tom Marshall/RSPB images

Skye and Frisa have earned their retirement out of the limelight for a while and here they were on this bright, clear morning, just being eagles, perched side by side next to the eyrie. They called occasionally to each other, preened a lot and gazed out across their domain.

Eventually, 23-year-old male Skye flew away into the forest returning five minutes later with a huge lichen-encrusted larch stick, which he struggled onto the nest with, leaving 25-year-old female Frisa to rearrange it for the next 20 minutes until she had it in just the right position. Sea eagles like to take their time over things.

With a glug of hot coffee and some Mull shortbread to sustain me (shared with Cally), it was onto the next site and the base for last year’s Mull Eagle Watch ‘Eagle Hide’ in a community-owned forest. Ditto! There was our pair doing pretty much the same thing but this time the male brought in a clump of dead white moor grass as nest lining. So far, so good. Could I make it third time lucky? Well, no.

The next nest, used last year, was as flat as the day the chick fledged from it in July and looked untouched since. No sign of life, no flecks of white eagle down and the trail had suddenly gone cold. With no known alternative old nests to check for this pair, I panned across the vast kilometres of dark plantation stretching out before me and just caught the briefest glimpse of a big white-tail disappearing over the far distant ridge. It was going to be a long walk…and ‘needle in a haystack’ sprang to mind.

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