Wildlife detective on sea eagles’ trail

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This story of a young male sea eagle in Lochaber is like a TV episode of Long Lost Family or Who Do You Think You Are?, says Mull RSPB officer Dave Sexton.

When this particular eagle landed on a nest in a remote area of Lochaber during lockdown this spring little did he know he was being watched – remotely.

The nest was rigged with a hidden trail cam – under licence from Nature Scot. When restrictions eventually lifted and the nest cam could be safely retrieved the resulting image allowed sea eagle fieldworker Lewis Pate from Fort William to read the leg ring.

Itchy as a chick in 2005 on Mull taken by Iain Erskine

 

RSPB’s Dave Sexton preparing a sea eagle chick for its journey to the Isle of Wight) Credit: Nic Davies

The bird in question turned out to be G1/56. Lewis thought it sounded familiar so checked back at his ringing records and discovered that by chance he had actually been the one to fit the ring to the eagle when it was just a chick back in 2014.

And so began a detective story to trace the family roots of this now six-year-old mature sea eagle.

G1/56 was ringed on Jura during a filming trip with the BBC’s Springwatch programme and presenter Iolo Williams. Iolo and Dave Sexton had been on a mission to track down a male sea eagle known as Itchy who had been ringed as a chick in his nest on the Isle of Mull in 2005. It was during the popular series’ first live outside broadcast from Mull that viewers were introduced to the two male chicks Itchy and Scratchy – named by local pupils from Dervaig Primary School – and the parent eagles Skye and Frisa.

Itchy and Scratchy fledged successfully and were also wing tagged with red tags, S for Scratchy and I for Itchy. Both chicks were identified by their tags at intervals over the next few months as they moved away from Mull. Scratchy was last recorded a year later near Spean Bridge having survived his first winter and was found to be feeding on salmon on a Highland river. A local shepherd’s dog kept coming home with fish remains so they followed him one day to discover he was scavenging fish bones from under the tree where Scratchy was feeding!

But there was no sign of Itchy. Years went by until one day an adult sea eagle with red tags was seen on an island to the south of Mull. Dave and the Springwatch crew set off to find the bird and sure enough were able to confirm it was Itchy, still with one red wing tag intact. Even better, he was paired up and they had a chick who was ringed G1/56.

Dave then began to trace the eagles back as far as he could and it emerged that they were related to the matriarch of all sea eagles, known as Blondie, now living in Scotland following their successful reintroduction to Rum starting in 1975. The Norwegian-hatched female  raised the first chick to fledge in Scotland for 70 years.

He said: ‘Blondie was the most stunning, beautiful and striking sea eagle. It was love at first sight – for me anyway! Her pale blonde head plumage extended down her back and breast and we really have her to thank for the growing population of sea eagles we have today. Without her I think the reintroduced population from Norway would have struggled and maybe even died out again.

‘She and her mate were very productive over the next 15 years, including in 1992 when she fledged the Mull Eagle Watch female known as Frisa. She in turn paired up with a male named Skye and they are the pair which featured in that first live Springwatch with their chicks Itchy and Scratchy. It’s like an episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ The male G1/56 photographed on the Lochaber nest has some right Royal sea eagle blood in his veins, an historic lineage tracing all the way back to his great grandmother, Blondie.

It is likely Blondie died in a fight with another eagle but her legacy lives on to this day. Her daughter Frisa fledged a chick this year and her grandson Itchy did too, said Dave. ‘Maybe next year it’ll be the turn of her great grandson G1/56 to fledge his first chick?’ he added.

There are now about 150 pairs nesting in Scotland ranging from Islay to Hoy. The award-winning Mull Eagle Watch project, managed by Mull & Iona community Trust, attracts thousands of visitors a year to watch a pair of sea eagles at their nest and has distributed more than £50,000 to local good causes on the island.

Its usual base is hosted by Craignure Golf Club which was a finalist in last year’s Golf Environment Awards. The project couldn’t run in 2020 due to Covid-19 restrictions but is hopeful it might manage to open for part of the season in 2021 if conditions allow.