This page features current news and views from Skye and elsewhere. It will also provide an opportunity for others working locally to report research and results.
This post is prompted by a BBC and RSPB report claiming that Britain's oldest Golden Eagle, at 18 years of age, was found dead at Forsinard www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-34084179. Far from being old, this bird is actually in its prime. Jeff Watson's monograph shows the oldest birds from ringing recoveries were a 25 year old bird in France in 1977, and a 32 year old bird in Sweden in 1970. Seton Gordon was aware of a 46 year old bird in captivity. The Skye population has been studied intensely for over 30 years by Ken Crane and Kate Nellist. Using plumage differences Ken and Kate are able to identify individual birds, follow these birds over successive breeding seasons, and have been able to establish that at number of birds were over 25 years of age and in some cases over 30 years, bearing in mind an adult will only start breeding when it is 4/5 years old. Productivity tails off amongst these older birds and they can tell when there is a change in the structure of a pair, and an old bird has died. Another Golden Eagle friend, Mike Gregory, ringed a young bird in a nest of triplets at Inveraray, Argyll, in 1973. It was recovered long dead by a shepherd on an estate in West Perthshire in June 2012. This was probably a site I had visited back in the mid 1970s with another eagle stalwart Pat Sandeman. Even taking into account that the bird had lain undiscovered for a year during its decomposition, it is reasonable to assume it was at least 38 years old. The recovery was reported to the BTO and the information only filtered back to Mike recently. Why BTO and those in the raptor community did not make a REAL news story out of the recovery is anyone's guess. Perhaps it was because there were sensitivities about the location on the part of the landowner. Sadly there are too many negative stories about mortality in predators but this is a good news story, of a bird which lived to an age where it is could rightfully claim to be one of the oldest surviving Golden Eagles in the wild, not a mere 18 years of age!! And hats off to the landownwer who provided it with a safe haven for the duration of its breeding life.
We checked 30 well established ranges on Skye and Lochalsh and found 29 of these to be occupied by an adult pair. For a short period in spring a young male and female were seen nest building at a new site on the border of an occupied range, but not after that. Of the 29 pairs, 24 were seen incubating, 5 pairs were not nesting, and only one of these pairs prepared a nest. Three of the pairs not nesting are known to be made up of old birds, two of which have not laid since 2011. Twelve pairs failed at the egg stage and deserted aggs were collected under licence from 3 of the failed nests and sent to the Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme at the CEH for analysis. The other 12 pairs all hatched chicks. Two pairs lost their single chicks at the downy stage, both on vulnerable and easy accessible nests. On one of these we found a chewed off downy chick's wing and suspected fox predation. We suspect the other downy chick may also have fallen prey to a fox as it was also a 'walk-in' site. A 3rd pair lost a chick at approx 7 weeks, and this site had strong evidence of fox predation. Chewed feathers were found on the nest with no other remains. Fox scats were below the nest and we found a mass of feathers mainly from the chick's left wing on a mound downhill from the site, all with chewed ends, as if the fox had carried off the chick and stopped to remove some of the 'weight'. It was thought that the poor weather would have made the nests more vulnerable as both adults would have been busy hunting leaving the nests unattended for longer than usual periods.
The remaining 9 pairs successfully reared their chicks, including 3 sets of twins, making 12 fledged young in total. All 3 nests with twins were situated on sea cliffs where there were good supplies of rabbits and seabirds. One of these pairs had a female breeding for the first time and she did especially well to rear twins facing the full force of the strong winds and rain throughout the spring and summer.
Ken Crane & Kate Nellist
Because of widespread persecution of Hen Harriers on grouse moors there has been a growing campaign amongst raptor enthusiasts and activists, to raise public awareness of the problems, and this has culminated in a national Hen Harrier Day on Sunday 9th August, 2015. There are several events in Scotland, and one of these is at Loch Turret in Perthshire, details of which can be found at http://www.the-soc.org.uk/hen-harrier-day-9-august-2015/. There is also a dedicated website www.henharrierday.org with details of other events throughout the country. Regular visitors to this website will be aware that we have few persecution incidents on Skye, probably related to the fact that we no longer have grouse moors or sporting estates. My own research on Skye has shown that fox predation is a major problem. However, both adult and juvenile birds disperse in the autumn and there is little doubt that many will be vulnerable to persecution when they move south into hostile country. Numbers of breeding birds on Skye have declined by 50% in the last few years and it is strongly suspected that persecution is impacting significantly on numbers not just here, but throughout Scotland. There are strong views that the authorities are not doing enough, and this has resulted in petitions to ban driven grouse shooting and other inititiatives through social media. The hen harrier is a spectacular species and I am extremely privileged to have spent the last 16 years studying some aspects of the species behaviour. Its decline is a genuine cause for concern, and appears to be inextricably linked to its systematic elimination on grouse moors. This is not a new problem, and one I first experience on the moors of Perthshire back in the 1960s. Despite full legal protection however, persecution has probably increased during the last 10 years and that is a real worry. The unexplained disappearance of five males from breeding sites in the north of England a few months ago, illustrate the challenges facing the species. For more information see www.birdersagainst.org.