Nothing to do with Johnny Vegas, Monkey or a certain brand of tea – we have the real thing here at Kindrogan.
In my spare (!) time I do voluntary survey work for the Tayside Raptor Study Group, one of a network of such groups monitoring the status of our birds of prey and feeding that information back to the Scottish Government through Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). I am lucky enough to cover the area around Kindrogan, so in spring and early summer I am regularly out checking the breeding success or otherwise of species like kestrel, sparrowhawk, goshawk, buzzard, merlin, hen harrier, peregrine, owls and raven (an honorary raptor).
Most recently I went out to check on one of our local pairs of golden eagle. It’s a two and a half hour walk in to the site with a heavy rucksack loaded with telescope and tripod, but I was able to check a couple of other crags on the way in. The kestrels still seemed to be incubating, but the ravens have failed and there was no sign of the peregrines – they were nesting, so perhaps the poor spring weather has caused problems.
I’d established on an earlier visit where the eagles were nesting this year, so knew exactly where to look. As soon as I set the ‘scope up I could see at least one small chick in the eyrie, so that was great news. Back in 2009 the pair successfully fledged a chick, but there was no nesting attempt in 2010 and neither egg hatched last year. I now needed to check if there was a second chick or unhatched egg, so that meant a visit to the nest (like all raptor workers I have a licence from SNH allowing me to do this for monitoring purposes, following strict guidelines). There was no adult to be seen, but I knew at least one bird, probably the female, would be there somewhere watching me. Sure enough, as I crossed the glen towards the crag she drifted off along the hillside, perching on a rock to have a good look what I was up to before disappearing off over the top.
Eagles are very easily disturbed, especially just before and after egg-laying, so I stay well clear in late March/ April. Even with young in the nest, disturbance needs to be kept to a minimum, so speed in and out is important. I checked the eyrie from a vantage point above and there was just the one chick, and then moved directly and quickly away, making it obvious I was leaving the area. After about half a mile I stopped behind a rock and checked back through the ‘scope – I was pleased to see the female had returned and was sitting on a prominent rock near the nest, and then actually flapped across and started feeding the chick, probably with the haunch of venison I had seen on the ledge.
A single chick is normal for golden eagles. They do lay two eggs, but the second egg is really an insurance policy in case there is something wrong with the first. The second chick to hatch is usually eaten by its bigger sibling.
In a few weeks time I’ll return to the eyrie and, assuming all is well with the chick, take a DNA sample. I’ll explain more about that in a further instalment!