September 17, 2008

WIldlife Watch

By Peter Ranscombe

AS THEY soar gracefully high above the cliffs and mountains of Mull, every beat of two young sea eagles' wings will be tracked using the very latest satellite technology.

The eagles - Scotland's largest bird, with a wingspan of up to eight feet - are part of a tagging project that will unlock the secrets of the journeys they make.

This week marks the run-up to The Scotsman's Wildlife Watch, where readers can provide invaluable data and sightings of flora and fauna - from these magnificent birds to the smallest creatures.

Mull Eagle Watch and RSPB Scotland have fitted satellite tags to sea eagles Mara and Breagha, who hatched this summer at Loch Frisa, on Mull.

In a separate project, transmitters have also been fitted to a pair of osprey chicks raised at the RSPB's Loch Garten nature reserve in Strathspey.

On Mull, ornithologists will use the information gathered from the tags - which only weigh 70 grams - to follow the chicks' movements as they spread their wings and begin to explore Scotland's landscapes. The public will also be able to watch the sea eagles' adventures online using interactive maps on the RSPB's website.

Mara, whose name means "sea" in Gaelic, and Breagha, which translates as "beautiful", fledged in mid-July but are still exploring their island home.

The sea eagles will also star in this year's series of Autumnwatch on BBC2.

David Sexton, the RSPB's Mull officer, said: "Now, with these tags, there's no escape. We'll know their every move. Although we're involving the public through the website, the driving force behind our project is that we wanted to know more about juvenile sea dispersal.

"The Mull project is a pilot scheme with just two chicks. We hope in the next year or two, we will expand the project and all this data will be analysed very thoroughly. Already, we know the male is exploring further afield than the female. I think within the next month we'll see the first trip off the island."

As well as tracking sea eagles on Mull, the RSPB is using satellite tags to monitor the progress of Nethy and Deshar, this year's pair of osprey chicks at Loch Garten, near Aviemore.

Unlike the sea eagle chicks, the ospreys have left their birthplace to migrate up to 3,000 miles to spend the winter in west Africa. So far, the pair have made it to the south of England.

Both the sea eaglets and young ospreys were fitted with their satellite tags by Roy Dennis, honorary president of the Highland Wildlife Foundation. He said: "The big problem with tagging the young ospreys is that there's such a high mortality rate.

"We need to know much more about what they are doing in that first year or two of life and in the summer when the young ospreys stay in Africa."

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