World first as sea eagle’s childhood is recorded

Mara's movements have been concentrated around the West Highlands and islands of Scotland. Picture: RSPB
Mara's movements have been concentrated around the West Highlands and islands of Scotland. Picture: RSPB
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A SEA eagle has flown into the record books as the first in the world to have his entire childhood history recorded – from birth to meeting his mate.

Every movement that Mara, who hatched on the isle of Mull in 2008, has made in his first four formative years has been mapped via a satellite tag.

The spy-in-the-sky device was fitted when Mara was just a chick, with wildlife film-maker Gordon Buchanan capturing the moment for a worldwide audience on BBC’s Autumnwatch.

RSPB Scotland Mull officer, Dave Sexton, who has followed Mara since he fledged in 2008, said: “He is a world first. His whole life, from being a chick in the nest to being an adult with a mate and a nest of his own four years later has been mapped and followed via space-age technology, using a satellite tag.

“We’ve never before been able to do that with a sea eagle and known where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing during that immature and sub-adult phase of their lives.”

He added: “Mara is a real pioneer, he’s a space-age eagle who has unravelled some real mysteries of their first few years – where they go, what they do, and now he has a mate and nest of his own.”

Experts are now studying the results of the study in detail, and Mr Sexton said: “It’s the best New Year’s gift we could wish for. It was one small flap for an eagle, one giant flight for eagle-kind. His tag was meant to fall off around four to five years – which it did, right on cue.”

Following Mara’s appearance on Autumnwatch in 2008, people all over the world have been following his progress online, from his days as a scruffy brown eaglet to the fine mature white-tailed sea eagle he is now.

Mr Sexton said the story was a happy one, with Mara now paired up with “a stunner” from the East Coast sea eagle release programme.

He added: “They have built a nest at a secret location in Scotland.”

Examination of the satellite mapping data has, however, revealed that Mara is a true West Coaster, with his movements concentrated around the West Highlands and islands.

The experiment was a joint effort between the RSPB and partner agencies. Mara was tagged on Forestry Commission Scotland land at Loch Frisa, Mull, while the tag was paid for by Scottish Natural Heritage, and eagle expert Roy Dennis of the Highland Foundation for Wildlife fitted the tag.

In Mara’s case the technology worked perfectly, with the tag falling to the ground on cue and being retrieved for future use.

Mara was one of six Mull eagle chicks sat-tagged between 2008 and 2010. Only one of the original six, a bird given the name Midge, is still transmitting, at a variety of locations in Scotland, with Mara the only one to complete the four-year project.

Each sat tag cost £2,500 and the whole experiment, including monitoring and tracking time over the four years, has cost about £20,000.

It is not known what happened to the eagles whose tags have never been found, but Mr Sexton said it is possible some may have been illegally killed, with their tags destroyed.