Eagle eyes: hunt for the flying barn door

If you go to Mull, on the west coast of Scotland, there are lots of wild things to look out for – seals, otters and dolphins, for a start – but what makes it really special is to be found up in the sky: the white-tailed ‘sea’ eagle, a bird with a wingspan that exceeds the height of an NBA basketball star. The carved wooden statue below doesn’t really do the species justice. Not sure that’s a particularly good impression of one, either.

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You’d think that such a flying barn door would be easy to see, but eagle sightings are often experienced through the lens of a powerful spotting scope from a quarter of a mile or more away. I’ve often found myself thinking “So what?” in these circumstances, and I didn’t think it would impress our two boys, Sam and Mungo, aged six and three. If they were to get excited about eagles in any way, seeing them needed to have more cutting edge than that.

We started off with an old contact of mine, Dave Sexton of Mull RSPB. He met us in a battered Land Rover, which immediately made him a bit of a God in the boys’ eyes. Dave drove us along the south side of Loch Na Keal, looking for otters and eagles along the way, and round to Forestry Commission land where there was a white-tailed eagle nest and hide.

And it was here that Mungo discovered all the tools he needed for making scrambled eggs.

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Sam, meanwhile, was getting an object lesson from Dave on one of the key skills needed to be a proper ‘naturalist’ – the ability to pick up and smell organic waste matter without being revolted. I say “organic waste” because Sam is sniffing a pellet – a matted tangle of bones, scales and god-knows-what – and not a poo in the photo below. It’s a pellet because it’s something that the eagle has effectively vomited up. Proper naturalists love them, because it’s their way of telling other people, “We’re weird.” Sam certainly thought so. Proper naturalists dissect them and tell you what the eagle, or any bird of prey or owl, indeed, has been eating.

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But while there was plenty of eagle ‘stuff’ (including stuffed eagles) in the hide, there was no eagle action outside it. The nest still had a juvenile on it, Dave had said, and we might be lucky enough to see the parents bringing food back for their hungry ‘teenager’, though, rather disappointingly I thought, it wouldn’t be take-away pizza.

So Dave took us to a dark woodland glade that overlooked the nest they were using last year, and wheeled out his scope with little expectation of finding anything. It at least gave our budding eagle watchers a chance to practise their spotting skills.

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In fact, as it turned out, the juvenile – this year’s model, but already more or less fully grown – was sitting on this nest, as if he’d just discovered that his parents had a second home and had decided to squat it. Our first proper sighting! It was some distance away – not quite a quarter of a mile but that scope came in handy – but near enough for Sam to witness ‘teen-boy’ attending to his toiletry needs, a dramatic squirt of almost day-glo white that I swear could have been picked up by any passing satellite.

But for close-up encounters with white-tailed eagles, Dave recommended that we spend a morning with Martin Keivers of Mull Charters. Martin has a boat at Ulva Ferry, and most days between April and October, he motors into Loch Na Keal, throws a mackerel out of the back of the boat and waits.

So off we went, some of us consuming our packed lunch within the first five minutes. We still had a biscuit or two for the remainder of the day, or if the kids got really hungry, there was always fish.

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Anyway, luckily, something happened pretty quickly to take their minds off food.

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“When the eagle starts coming close,” Martin had warned us, “keep as quiet as possible. We don’t want to put it off its meal.”

Unfortunately, one member of the crew couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. “The big bird’s getting closer,” Mungo yelled excitedly, as the eagle circled around the boat.

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It certainly was. “The big bird’s getting closer,” he yelled again, this time prompting a flicker of consternation (polite, for now at least) from some of the other clients on board.

I’m not quite sure what he was saying as the bird swooped on the fish and took it clean out of the water as if it possessed a spear gun on its talons, because I was hurriedly stuffing him into the cabin while simultaneously trying to get some record of our adventure. Which I did, just about.

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But at least we all saw it – you could hardly miss such an event.

Sam had watched with his eyes popping out of their sockets – and we got to see it happen twice more. He was also intently looking out for any passing ravens (numerous were spotted, he got rather expert at recognising their cronking calls) or the more elusive otter – none on this particular day, but we had already had an excellent sighting from our self-catering cottage overlooking the Sound of Mull.

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Meanwhile, Mungo – released from cabin captivity – was enjoying life on the ocean waves.

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And to top it all, they got to drive the boat.

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When you consider that white-tailed eagles went extinct, thanks to persecution, in the UK in the early 1900s, and were only reintroduced (to the island of Rum, not Mull) over 10 years between 1975 and 1985, it’s remarkable that we and our children can watch them so easily today. Next time, though, it would be great if one of them could keep a little quieter.

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