Ian’s Bird of the Moment – White-tailed (Sea) Eagles

It’s been a long time since the last bird of the moment, so here is a special one to make amends. Furthermore, at a time of increasingly depressing stories about the state of the planet, it comes with a great conservation story.
I’ve recently returned from a short visit to Europe. The purpose of the trip was to catch up with family in France and Ireland. The temptation to do a bit of bird photography as well was too great to resist so I went from Paris to Dublin via the Isle of Mull in Scotland (above) in search of White-tailed (Sea) Eagles. My nephew Ian joined me from Dublin so the detour naturally still qualified as family business.
We chose the Isle of Mull because of its reputation of being one of the best places in Europe to see White-tailed Eagles following their successful reintroduction to Scotland over the last 45 years. On our third and last day, having had little success finding any eagles on our own, we went out with Mull Charters on their Sea Eagle Adventure trip, during which I took all of these photos. The red arrow in the map above shows the approximate location in a beautiful bay with high mountains forming a spectacular backdrop.
The sea eagles in this region on the west of the island have become accustomed to being fed on frozen mackerel, providing spectacular views of these huge birds in action and providing wonderful photo opportunities. The above photo shows an eagle banking to get into position to come in for a fish and the next four photos shows the results of this foray.
The eagles come in very fast. Three seconds elapsed between the banking photo 201182 and the next one 201188 showing the bird just about to grab the fish, visible floating on the surface in front of the eagle. This photo and the next three, 201189, 201190 and 201191 were all taken in the space of one second so there is little margin for error on the part of either the eagle or the photographer.
In 201189, you can see that the bird has caught the fish with only one talon. As a result, 201190 and 201191, the fish falls off and drops back into the water. Maybe it’s just my imagination but it seems to me that the look of intense concentration in 201188 changes to frustration or disappointment in 201190.
A little over 20 seconds after the abortive attempt, another bird, photo 201208, has swept in and successfully scooped up a fish. As soon as a bird had captured a fish, it left the vicinity.
These eagles were very vocal, often making a repeated klee, klee, klee call which sounded gull-like to me and rather undignified for such a large raptor. The captain on the boat said that the most vocal bird was a female objecting to the presence of other eagles in her territory.
Until the eighteenth century, White-tailed Eagles were widespread throughout Eurasia from Ireland to Siberia. In the nineteenth century, increasing persecution by farmers, gamekeepers, shepherds and fishermen and the spread of firearms led to population declines in Europe and ultimately to extinction in Ireland (last known nesting attempt in 1898) and Britain (last breeding attempt in 1916).
Like its close relative the Bald Eagle of North America, the remaining populations of White-tailed Eagles suffered badly from the use of persistent organochloride insecticides such as DDT after the second world war. The banning or phasing out of such insecticides and more enlightened attitudes to conservation led to increases in eagle populations in Europe and North America in the final quarter of the twentieth century, making possible their reintroduction to places where they had become extinct.
Reintroductions of White-tailed Eagles are done using young birds taken from nest at the age of about six weeks. White-tailed Eagles rear one or two chicks per year, so the birds chosen for reintroduction are taken from nest with two chicks. The birds take five or six years to mature so, for a reintroduction to succeed, the population needs to reach a critical mass to become self-sustaining.
The Scottish reintroduction started in earnest in 1975 with Norwegian birds being introduced to the Isle of Rum, shown by the green arrow on the map (the Isle of Mull is indicated by the red arrow). Later introductions were done to the mainland near the Isle of Rum (Wester Ross) in the 1990s. There are now about 130 breeding pairs in Scotland, mainly in the west and there are 22 pairs on the Isle of Mull.
Reintroductions to eastern Scotland were done between 2007 and 2012. In August 2019, six Scottish-bred young eagles were released on the Isle of Wight as the first stage of reintroducing them to southern England. Meanwhile, in Ireland a parallel reintroduction of Norwegian birds started in 2007 with the first successful nesting in 2012. Now there are about eight breeding pairs (and a few more holding territories) but the population is not yet large enough to be self-sustaining.
So, there you have it. A good news story and, for nephew Ian and I, a memorable day with these magnificent birds of prey in Scotland.
Greetings, Ian

“… as the eagle swoops down… (Deuteronomy 28:49b NASB)

“… Like an eagle that swoops on its prey.” (Job 9:26b NASB)

“… The way of an eagle in the sky,…” (Proverbs 30:19a NASB)

“… Behold, He will mount up and swoop like an eagle and spread out His wings against Bozrah…” (Jeremiah 49:22a NASB)

Thanks, Ian. Was beginning to wonder if you had given up on birdwatching. Our adventures may become less regular, but there is always another birding adventure to inspire us. Thanks for sharing.

What a beautiful Eagle! Reminds me of our Bald Eagle with that white tail, but also of the Steller’s Sea Eagle we saw in a zoo. Fantastic avian wonders from the Creator.

Birdwatching at Staffa: Puffins, Shags, & more

Birdwatching at Staffa, near Iona: Puffins, Shags, and Herring Gulls

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

Let them give glory unto the Lord, and declare his praise in the islands.  (Isaiah 42:12)

The three birds that I recall most, from visiting the island of Staffa (Inner Hebrides, just north of Iona) were Herring Gulls (a very common seagull),  Shags (a yellow-mouthed but otherwise all-black cormorant), and those cute and colorful (and comically clown-like) Atlantic Puffins, a couple of which settled (after some aerial arcing) not much more than a yard (i.e., meter) form where I was standing, upon the grassy cliff-side of the pasture-topped island.

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SHAG  at  STAFFA   (Public Insta photo credit)

Below is a limerick I wrote to recall my observations at the Isle of Staffa (same island that has Fingal’s Cave, made famous by Felix Mendelssohn’s overture written in AD1829), a small uninhabited island north of Iona (where I ate some of the best sea scallops, after soaking my feet in the cold Sound of Iona tidewaters!), in the Inner Hebrides archipelago on the western side of Scotland (July 19th AD2019).  Norse Vikings were reminded of staves (plural of “staff”) when they saw the upright timber/log-like columns (contiguous pillars) of basalt there  —  hence the name “Staffa“.

BIRDWATCHING  FROM  CLIFF-EDGE  ATOP  STAFFA  ISLAND,  NORTH  OF  IONA  (INNER  HEBRIDES)

Herring gulls, puffins, and shags,

Launch from cliff-edge grass and crags;

Flying low — then a splish!

Success!  Caught a fish!

Herring gulls, puffins, and shags.

Herring gulls, of course, I first observed during my boyhood days (in elementary school).  But shags and puffins are not seen in the parts of America where I have lived, so seeing them at Staffa was quite a privilege!

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PUFFINS at STAFFA   (Mull & Iona Ranger Service)

 

 

Moorfowl is Fair, in Highland Heather

Red Grouse:  Moorfowl is Fair, in Highland Heather

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

“For the king of Israel is come out to seek a flea, as when one doth hunt a partridge in the mountains.” (1st Samuel 26:20b)

As noted in a previous blogpost, in “Fowl are Fair on Day 5”, the Holy Bible’s  “partridge” (which is mentioned in 1st Samuel 26:20) is a type of galliform (i.e., chicken/partridge/quail/pheasant/turkey/peafowl-like ground-dwelling bird.

Other examples of galliforms include the partridge-like birds we call “grouse”. (See also “Rock Partridges:  Lessons about Hunting and Hatching”.

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RED GROUSE in Scotland   (Simply Birds and Moths photograph)

The RED GROUSE is a variety of fast-flying WILLOW PTARMIGAN, often camouflaged within Scotland’s heather scrublands, sporting reddish-brown plumage (with white feathered legs underneath, that somewhat resemble rabbit feet!), yet accented by scarlet “eyebrows”.   It is often hunted in Scotland, by humans as part of a regulated sport, as well as by birds of prey, to the extent that they are present in Scotland heather moors.

The Red Grouse has been described as follows:

“The Red Grouse … of the British Isles [is] a race of the Willow Ptarmigan … coloured entirely chestnut-brown, winter as well as summer. [It] presses itself low to the ground when danger threatens. … [Its habitat is] open taiga, bushy tundra, marshes and moors with willow, birch and dwarf scrub; generally at lower altitudes than [other varieties of] Ptarmigan.  … [For food, it eat] leaves, buds and berries of dwarf shrubs, especially billberries, cranberries and crowberries; in winter buds and leaves of dwarf birch; in order to get at their food plants, the birds dig long tunnels in the snow.  Red Grouse eats mainly heather shoots.”

[Quoting Jürgen Nicolai, Detlef Singer, & Konrad Wothe, BIRDS OF BRITAIN & EUROPE (Harper Collins/Collin  Nature Guides, 2000; translated from German & adapted by Ian Dawson), page 144.]

Red Grouse, as well as other varieties of Willow Ptarmigan, are ground-fowl found in cool scrublands of Earth’s northern habitats, in lands as widespread as Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Canada, and Alaska. [See Wikipedia-posted range map of the Willow Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus), with indigo blue showing year-round residency ranges.]

WillowPtarmigan.RangeMap-wikipedia


   Range Map for Willow Ptarmigans  (Wikipedia)

In fact, the Willow Ptarmigan is Alaska’s official state bird, specifically the winter-white-dominated Lagopus lagopus alascensis variety.

WillowPtarmigan-Alaska-variety.Wikipedia

Willow Ptarmigan (Alaska variety) in winter white   [Wikipedia/public domain]

The reddish-brown plumage of the RED CROUSE is well-suited for residing in the heather fields of Scotland. Of course, despite its helpful camouflage, the Red Grouse is a resident well known to Scottish Highland hunters!

“As the rail network opened up the Highlands in the late 19th century, so it because possible for many more people to come from the south to join shooting parties on moors specifically managed for red grouse.  . . . The long-term decline in grouse numbers  [especially Scotland’s RED GROUSE (Lagopus lagopus scotica), a Scottish variety of Willow Ptarmigan, a/k/a “Moorfowl”,  a ground-fowl accustomed to heather-moor habitat] began in the 1930s – way before birds of prey began to recover [in Scotland, from] egg collectors and keepers [i.e., wildlife-regulating game wardens].  This, in part, is related to the loss of high-quality moorland to [agricultural] grass as sheep densities have increased.”

[Quoting Niall Benvie, “Red Grouse”, in SCOTLAND’S WILDLIFE (National Trust of Scotland, via Aurum Press, 2004), page 28.]

RedGrouse-heather-moorland.ScottishNaturalHeritage

RED GROUSE in Scottish heather moorland   (Scottish Nature Heritage)

Of course, the Red Grouse is wild, so it is fair game – pardon the pun – to be photographed by nature photographers, such as Niall Benvie, Scottish author of THE ART OF NATURE PHOTOGRAPHY (and other similar books). Once Mr. Benvie was preparing to photograph a strolling Red Grouse, as he recalls:

 “I once met such a bird [i.e., a Red Grouse] in a quiet glen near [my] home.  As I edged my car closer [preparing my camera to take a photograph of the grouse], I was grateful that, for once, my subject [i.e., the Red Grouse who was approaching] wasn’t camera-shy.  I glanced in the rearview mirror only to see, to my dismay, a woman walking up the narrow road behind me.  As she passed the car I withdrew my camera and prepared to leave [ — assuming that her approach would frighten off the grouse, thus spoiling my opportunity to photograph the avian pedestrian].”

[Quoting Niall Benvie, “Red Grouse”, in SCOTLAND’S WILDLIFE (National Trust of Scotland, via Aurum Press, 2004), page 28.]

RedGrouse-on-Scottish-roadway.ScottishGamekeepersAssocn

RED GROUSE on Scottish roadway   (Scottish Gamekeepers Association photograph)

Of course, as a wildlife photographer, Niall Benvie is bothered by human intrusions into the “wild” world of this tranquil ground-fowl. If the Red Grouse doesn’t bother humans, why should humans interfere with the Red Grouse’s habitat in the Highlands?  Yet this perspective has its flaws, as the following anecdotal report (from Niall Benvie) illustrates.

“But the grouse, rather than [squawking] loudly and whirring off over the moor, began walking up the road to meet her. He [i.e., the Red Grouse] pecked furiously at her [shoe]-laces, and she bent down, picked him up and held him in her arms!  She was the local keeper’s wife [i.e., game warden’s wife], and [she] knew this first year bird well [and obviously the bird knew well that he could trust her to pick him up caringly].

[Quoting Niall Benvie, “Red Grouse”, in SCOTLAND’S WILDLIFE (National Trust of Scotland, via Aurum Press, 2004), page 28.]

RedGrouse-Northumberland.HawsenBurn-wikipedia
RED GROUSE in Northumberland field   (Hawsen Burn photograph)

Although that one-year-old Red Grouse was “wild”, it obviously remembered some kind of kindness form the game warden’s wife.

So much for condemning the meddling “interference” of kind-hearted humans!


 

Woodcocks: Devouring Worms, Dwelling in Wet Woods

EURASIAN WOODCOCK: Forest Fowl that Look Like Wading Shorebirds

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

eurasianwoodcock-eire-postage

Thou makest darkness, and it is night, wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth.   (Psalm 104:20)

Earthworms, known in some places as “night crawlers”, are a favorite meal for woodland Woodcocks, such as the Eurasian Woodcock.

woodcock-slurping-earthworm.wikipedia

Woodcock eating Earthworm (Wikipedia)

The Eurasian Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola, like the American Woodcock (its American cousin, Scolopax minor), is not a flashy or flamboyant bird, like a Peacock, Turquoise-browed Motmot, or Lilac-breasted Roller.  Rather, the Eurasian Woodcock prudently prefers to keep a low “behind-the-scenes” profile.

eurasianwoodcock.iucn-glynsellors

Called “Waldschnepfe” (“wood snipe”) in German, this bird loves “wet woods” and other moist areas dominated by trees, unlike similar-looking wading shorebirds (like sandpipers and phalaropes).  With its woodland-blending cryptic camouflage plumage, it is easily by-passed by busy woodland hikers in mixed hardwood-evergreen forests — and, more importantly, by potential predators.  Its hidden-in-plain-view plumage mixes a mottled mosaic of greys and brown, with wavy bars and patches of reddish-brown russet, buff-beige, and dark-chocolate browns, woven in here and there.

A reedy whistle and a grunt as a dark shape hastens through the gloaming is all that most of us normally see of a woodcock. Males [perform courtship display flights] around dawn and dusk throughout the breeding season … [and females sometimes join males, in open areas near woodland edges, after responsive flights.]

The rest of their lives, however, are conducted in the obscurity of night, usually in deep cover where they can feast undisturbed on earthworms and other invertebrates.  Even if you were to chance upon an incubating female during the day, the bird’s camouflage amongst leaf litter is so effective that you would most likely walk past by unawares.

[Quoting Niall Benvie, SCOTLAND’S WILDLIFE (National Trust of Scotland: Aurum Press, 2004), page 56, with emphasis added.]

eurasianwoodcock-probing-snow-ouiseauxbirds.com-johnanderson

Guided by its far-back-and-high-set eyes (which have 360O monocular vision), its long thin bill, like that of sandpipers and snipes and phalaropes(its water-wading cousins), is used for probing and picking edible material from or under wet surfaces, such as wet sands, muddy meadows, and moist thicket soil.  And the Woodcock’s bill is routinely successful at frequently finding food, mostly earthworms but also bugs (and their grub-formed larvae), snails, and seeds.

The Woodcock is a hidden yet hungry hunter!

Woodcock also love damp forests where they can use their sensitive, almost rubber-like bill to probe the soft ground for earthworms, for which they have a voracious appetite —  research with captive birds has shown that they can eat their own body weight (about 300 grams) in earthworms each day[!].  It is therefore likely that very dry summers, such as that of 2003, have a negative impact on the [Woodcock] population.

[Quoting Niall Benvie, SCOTLAND’S WILDLIFE (National Trust of Scotland: Aurum Press, 2004), page 56.]

eurasianwoodcock-finland-postage

Eurasian Woodcocks are migratory birds, with about 9/10 of them breeding in the cool wet woodlands of Scandinavia, Finland, and Russia, later migrating to overwinter in milder regions all over Europe (as far as the Mediterranean Sea, and sometimes even farther southward) and the Indian Subcontinent.

eurasianwoodcock-snow-ouiseauxbirds.com-johnanderson

However, some Woodcocks are year-round residents of some of Europe’s mild-climate countries, such as the British Isles, and in southern (and western) Europe, as well as in some of the mild-climate islands of the Atlantic Ocean, including Britain’s Channel Islands and Spain’s Canary Islands, as well as Portugal’s Azores and Madeira.

eurasianwoodcock-portugueseazores-postage

Because the Eurasian Woodcock’s migratory range — and, to a smaller extent, its year-round residential range, — is so far-reaching, it is no surprise that many countries have honored the worm-devouring, woods-dwelling Woodcock with postage stamps.

eurasianwoodcock-yugoslavia-postage

eurasianwoodcock-alderney-postage

eurasianwoodcock-eire-postage

eurasianwoodcock-belgium-postage

eurasianwoodcock-malta-postage

eurasianwoodcock-portugalazores-postage

eurasianwoodcock-bulgaria-postage

eurasianwoodcock-poland-postageeurasianwoodcock-german-postage

eurasianwoodcock-bulgaria-thin-postage


 

 

Atlantic Puffins on the Isle of Mull, Scotland

Atlantic Puffins by Bill Boothe, MD in the Isle of Mull Scotland

These Atlantic Puffin’s photo was taken by Bill Boothe, MD, in the Isle of Mull, Scotland. Dr. Boothe is a long time friend of Dr. James Johnson. It would have been nice to have been there also.

This puffin (Atlantic Puffin) has a black crown and back, pale grey cheek patches and white underparts. Its broad, boldly marked red and black beak and orange legs contrast with its plumage. It moults while at sea in the winter and some of the bright-colored facial characteristics are lost, with color returning again during the spring. The external appearance of the adult male and female are identical though the male is usually slightly larger. The juvenile has similar plumage but its cheek patches are dark grey. The juvenile does not have brightly colored head ornamentation, its bill is narrower and is dark-grey with a yellowish-brown tip, and its legs and feet are also dark. Puffins from northern populations are typically larger than in the south and it is generally considered that these populations are different subspecies.

Puffin Beaks – Breeding L and non-breeding R – 1905 PubDom Drawing

Spending the autumn and winter in the open ocean of the cold northern seas, the Atlantic puffin returns to coastal areas at the start of the breeding season in late spring. It nests in clifftop colonies, digging a burrow in which a single white egg is laid. The chick mostly feeds on whole fish and grows rapidly. After about six weeks it is fully fledged and makes its way at night to the sea. It swims away from the shore and does not return to land for several years. [Wikipedia with editing]

This photo was take in Mull, Scotland. “Mull (Scottish Gaelic: Muile, pronounced [ˈmulʲə]) is the second largest island of the Inner Hebrides (after Skye), off the west coast of Scotland in the council area of Argyll and Bute.

Argyll and Bute UK relief location map

With an area of 875.35 square kilometres (337.97 sq mi) Mull is the fourth largest Scottish island and the fourth largest island surrounding Great Britain (excluding Ireland). In the 2011 census the usual resident population of Mull was 2,800; a slight increase on the 2001 figure of 2,667; in the summer this is supplemented by many tourists. Much of the population lives in Tobermory, the only burgh on the island until 1973, and its capital.”

Lighter side verses: [yet very true]

“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;” (1 Corinthians 13:4 NKJV)

“We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.” (1 Corinthians 8:1 NKJV)