Thursday, 15 September 2011

Come in No 62, your time is up..

A few posts ago I promised to bore you with my bird ring big fish story once I found the photos.  So here we go.

My most impressive ever bird ring find was in the mid 1980s.  Wandering along a Hebridean beach, I saw the tip of a brown feather sticking out of a bank of seaweed.  It looked at first like a juvenile gull but, as ever, I went to dig it out and check what it was.  A major expletive ensued when I pulled on it and out from the seaweed appeared an immense hooky beak and a huge taloned foot.

There had been just the two of us on the whole beach so I nearly jumped out of my skin when a deep voice from nowhere growled, 'What have you got there?  I looked up to see a huge dodgy-looking bloke with a spade held against his shoulder like a rifle.  Now this was at a time when there was a battle going on between farmers and conservationists about eagles and their impact on sheep farming.  There were strong suspicions that eagles were being systematically poisoned or shot on certain estates. So, my brain worked it out faster than the blink of an eagle's eye.  Having shot the bird, buried it in the seaweed and been rumbled, he was now planning to bludgeon me to death with the spade and bury me in the seaweed too.

The remnants of no.62
I survived, but I had a feeling that the evidence wouldn't if I left it there. But what exactly does one do with a rank eagle in the middle of nowhere. The best I could manage was to retrieve the skull and, as I couldn't get the ring off the leg, I got the leg off the bird.  Lunch was turfed out of its carrier bag and in went the stinking bits of eagle.

At this point I wasn't sure what it was. Golden eagles were well established on the island but the re-introduction of the white tailed sea eagle on Rhum had been going well and birds were beginning to spread. One thing I did know for sure was that the skull was absolutely enormous.

Once home I was able to confirm from the skull measurements that I had indeed found a white tailed sea eagle.  I reported the find to the BTO ringing scheme and got in touch with RSPB Scotland and the sea eagle re-introduction programme people.  They were keen to send the skull off for any brain remnants to be tested for poisons or pesticides.  Someone from the RSPB went out, found the rest of the carcase from my description of the location and had that tested too.  The results were inconclusive for evidence of deliberate poisoning and it was impossible to tell if the bird had been shot. One worrying outcome though was that high levels of the pesticide residue DDE (a breakdown product of DDT) and also PCBs were found in the brain tissue, presumably acquired through the marine food chain and probably contributing to loss of condition and the death of the bird.

This was all the more concerning when the ringing details came through.  The bird I found was less than a year old, one of two young ringed at a wild nest the year before.  The demise of this bird was a sad blow to the re-introduction programme at that point as breeding was only beginning to get established beyond the Rhum release area.

25 years on, it's good to know that the re-introduction programme has worked in spite of the early loss of No. 62.  Without it I would not have been able to enjoy the magnificent sight a couple of years ago of a sea eagle bothering a golden eagle that had just been bothering a raven.

(Apologies for the poor picture quality. These are scans of prints that weren't sharp in the first place!)


  1. Interesting post..sad that 62 died so young but pleased that the re-introduction program has been successful:)

  2. Hi Helen. I guess its always the longer term picture that matters but that's hard to focus on when you find something like this. Thanks for your comment - I'll enjoy catching up with your blog now that I've found it!
    Best wishes