A SAD SAGA OF SPECIAL SEA EAGLES
The story of the sea eagles’ return to Scotland is well known. Since 1975 no fewer than 168 Norwegian fledglings, under special licences, have been set free in the west of Scotland. The first of them began breeding in the wild in 1983 and reared the first Gaelic-speaking sea eaglet for 70 years in 1985. More pairs followed their example and 2003 proved a bumper year with 26 chicks fledged from about 30 territorial pairs. The reintroduction has long attracted interest both locally and throughout the world where it has now set a standard for many similar projects not just with birds of prey but other animals too.
In the initial phase of the reintroduction project 82 young sea eagles were released on the island of Rum, flown across from Norway in Nimrods from 120 Squadron, RAF Kinloss, and shipped across to the island through Mallaig. (Phase Two again depended upon the RAF but the birds were released in Wester Ross). During my own long involvement in Rum, I know how local fishermen and fish merchants were generous in supplying fish for the eaglets, and some boats even made a special stop at the island to pass over any by-catch that would be useful to me.
Having shown so much support and given so much assistance, it is not surprising that local folk were horrified when a nesting sea eagle was found poisoned in the Morar area in spring 2002. Even worse was the fate of his mate a year later, also poisoned. Not only is such activity highly illegal but it is totally irresponsible, for such lethal baits could be found by any creature, someone’s dog or even worse a young child. The police have yet to pin down the culprit and have the co-operation of many local people who remain vigilant to prevent any such tragedy happening again.
The loss of any nesting pair of sea eagles to such vandalism is to be regretted but this particular pair were rather special in several respects. The female had been a Norwegian bird released in Wester Ross in 1996 and her mate, another imported bird, was set free there a year later. They came together at only four and three years old in the spring of 2000, not just to build an eyrie and lay eggs but even to rear a single young. They were the youngest pair ever to nest successfully in the history of the project.
It is understandable that their inexperience should have resulted in their chick not taking flight until the 29th August, aged 16 ½ weeks – the latest recorded fledging date so far. The event was especially notable since this was the hundredth chick to be fledged in the wild. Futhermore, it came from the 25th territory to be established and the event coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Reintroduction Project.
A month later a couple of hundred people – many of them locals and all of whom had contributed in some way or another to the project’s success – gathered at the Aros Centre in Skye to commemorate the anniversary.
Flushed with their success, pair 25 went on to fledge another chick in 2001 - but three weeks earlier this time. This bird was fitted with white wing tags bearing the letter S in black, which enabled observers and the public to track its movements for many months. By the start of 2002 it was in Benbecula, in March it visited North and South Uist before crossing over to Skye by the end of the month. White S was then seen in Moidart on 26 April, in Caithness of 12 May and in Canna by the end of the month – quite a round tour in only a month! But it was not over yet; in July it was sighted on Sleat in Skye and in Rum in September. No more was seen of it for nearly a year, until it was spotted at Edinbane in Skye on 17 July 2003 and in Lewis on the 6 December, before returning to Skye in 2004. We know that young sea eagles like to wander but White S really went exploring!
Pair 25 looked set to fledge twins in 2002 – their third breeding year. But on 8 May the male was found poisoned. Conscious that the female could not rear the eaglets on her own, the tiny 8-day old eaglets were taken from the nest under licence and kept overnight by Alison MacLennan of the RSPB in Skye. One was found a home in another sea eagle nest with a single slightly older chick. The parents were supplied with food at a dump nearby, and although their own chick fledged successfully the little foster chick did not make it.
The other orphan was tried in a nest with twins, but, despite the parents being given extra provisions, it did not thrive. So on 10 June it was moved to yet another eyrie containing a single chick nearer its own age. Again the new foster-parents were given a helping hand at a food dump nearby and both chicks fledged successfully in early August. The orphaned eaglet was spotted in Rum late last year so seems to be doing well, as is its foster-sibling with several sightings on Skye, Mull and Knoydart last year.
Although such fostering techniques had been used in other countries this was the first time that it had been attempted in Scotland. The successful outcome meant that something was salvaged from a bleak situation. Later in the year it was obvious that the widowed female had found a new mate and they may well have gone on to breed.
But on 26 February 2003 she too was found dead, having suffered the same horrible death as her mate the year before – poisoned.
The culprit is widely condemned by local people, who have continued to monitor the site. Although they have seen a couple of young eagles in the vicinity the territory was not used in 2004.
It is sad to lose any sea eagle to the project, but particularly so when both were members of a successful breeding pair and had been destroyed illegally in such a vile manner. From the outset this pair began to break records but were never allowed to fulfill their full potential. An awful lot of people, both within the Project Team and in the wider community, are intent upon seeing the sea eagle safely reinstated to its former haunts and now must lament the passing of a very secial pair of birds. But perhaps the intrepid explorer White S and its orphaned younger sibling will continue their proud legacy.