Thursday, 14 June 2018

THE SEA EAGLES RETURN

sea eagles are such impressive birds - c. Mike Read
 All good things come to those who wait … so they say, and I’ve wanted to return to Norway ever since I filmed sea eagles there for the BBC nearly forty years ago. So Sue and I were embarking on a trip down memory lane, to enjoy 2,500 nautical miles of beautiful mountainous coastline in a Hurtigruten ferry in the hope of seeing these legendary eagles once again.

Hurtigruten on the move in Norways' beautiful Lofoten Isles
The film I made all those years ago was for the ever popular David Attenborough series called “Wildlife on One” and would tell the inspiring story of the re-introduction of the white-tailed sea eagle to Scotland.

Although it had been a widespread breeder in the good old days, egg collecting and persecution had wiped it out and although attitudes to wildlife have improved dramatically in recent years, there was no guarantee that this attempt would be successful.

The plan was to capture young eagles from nests along the Norwegian coast, fly them over to Scotland, grow them on in cages on the remote Hebridian island of Rhum and when fit and strong, release them into the wild.

scenery to die for - every day
My task in 1980 was to show how the eagles survived in both summer and winter along the rugged coast of arctic Norway. We were based to the north of the Arctic Circle in Bodo, often described as ‘the sea eagle capital of the world’. It’s a title that proved to be well deserved.

I was assisted by Sigbjorn, a local Norwegian wildlife enthusiast. It’s a long time ago but I vividly remember his comment as we walked by the harbour and were confronted by two of the most gorgeous girls either of us had ever seen. Sigbjorn shook his head and said “sometimes a young man wishes he was blind”!

Anyway, back to the eagles. The eminent scientist and local eagle expert Harald Misund had located a suitably remote nest on an offshore island cliff edge that provided a safe home for a couple of hungry youngsters. Sigbjorn took me out there in a small boat every day for a week to film the youngsters being fed by mum. It seemed they grew larger by the hour.

cruising silently past eagle cliffs
otters love tucking into lumpsuckers and there's always lots of 'leftovers'
On one notable occasion it was late evening when I noticed an otter far below the cliff top eyrie and I wasn’t alone in seeing it. The chicks were dosing but Mum was alert and watching the otter intently, even more so when it dragged a large lumpsucker ashore. As I filmed the otter eating it I knew from my filming days with otters in Shetland what would happen next and so did the eagle. Lumsuckers are large fish and when it had eaten its’ fill, the otter left the remains and curled up beside it to sleep.

I quickly re-focused the camera on Mum, just in time to film her leap off the nest and plunge down the cliff with folded wings. Seconds later she swung her impressive talons forward, grabbed the fish from under the surprised otters’ nose and returned to the nest with her stolen prize.

The feast was enjoyed by all three eagles so I had a memorable sequence in the can … and just in time, for it was already midnight and Sigbjorn was due to collect me at one o’clock. One of the great advantages of summer in the arctic is the twenty-four hours of sunshine that allows very long days for filming.

north of the Arctic Circle it's the land of the midnight sun
However, this particular day was longer than planned. I’d already been in the cramped hide for fourteen hours, was out of food and water and keen to return to my bed. Sigbjorn didn’t show up at one o’clock or until past seven in the morning. He was apologetic and I was too much of a gentleman to ask if he’d actually caught up with one of those drop dead gorgeous girls we’d seen in Bodo, or maybe both!

what a beautiful backdrop to a weeks frost-bitten finger filming
Winter survival was an important part of the sea eagle story so I returned the following February to film them catching fish in the famous rapids near Bodo called Saltstraumen. This narrow neck of a long fjord sees millions of gallons pass through on every tide change and so fierce are the currents that they create deadly whirl-pools that fling fish up to the surface, rupturing their swim bladders.

Unable to dive again, they struggle on the surface and provide a perfect target for hungry eagles. They also provided me with a good opportunity to film some impressive swooping and squabbling but first I had to reach the island in the teeth of the treacherous tide-rip in  a small boat - and in the dark - to a driftwood hide before the eagles woke up.

strike force - c. Mike Read
It was a perfect spot for hungry birds and I counted as many as forty three eagles roosting in the surrounding trees, most of them youngsters. Aerial battles were numerous as they squabbled for fish but I had also baited the rocks in front of the hide with dead fish and this proved popular with them too, especially as I’d tied them down so they couldn’t be removed from in front of my lens! And the background for all this action were stunning, snow covered four thousand foot Alpine peaks.

the famous tide rip at Saltstrumen - my hide was near the tip of the island below
Despite suffering ice-covered fingers in the sub-zero air, the necessary hardship gave us a memorable sequence but we strived for even better. We hired a fishing boat to take us out into one of those classic Norwegian fjords called Mistfjorden, it’s deep blue waters reflecting snow covered peaks in the mirror calm.

No eagles were visible as our fisherman Yohanis started throwing a few dead fish out but it wasn’t long before these were spotted by far off hungry eyes. Leaving their lofty mountain perches, three eagles were soon circling the boat. They seemed suspicious of these free meals, keeping their distance until the pangs of hunger drew them ever closer to our camera.

I had to grab the film-camera when it started to swoop so no fishing pics from me
Sweeping down on their massive folded wings, they swung their outspread grappling-hook claws forward and with a rushing of air and a splash, lifted their prize clear of the water. Within minutes they were gone again, rising up the mountain cliffs with effortless grace to enjoy their meals in Arctic solitude. It was a stunning spectacle.

a successful catch - c. Mike Read
The Norwegians are admired for their concern for wildlife and conservation … we won’t mention whaling or salmon farming … but it wasn’t always so and they resented sea eagles catching their fish. Remote communities without guns devised a cunning alternative – capturing the eagles by hand! – and we were keen to re-create the technique.

This involved going by boat to the beautiful Lofoten Islands in the dead of winter when the eagles were desperate for food. We created a tomb in the mountainside rocks for this freezing cold cameraman to hide, then baited a stone with fish just in front of the camera. The narrow slot was just wide enough for the would be persecutor to thrust his gauntleted hand out and grab the eagle by the legs and having done so, an accomplice would leap out of the hide to control the wild stabbing of the birds axe-like beak.

It sounds unbelievable but the technique worked and many eagles died … and we proved it could still be done by filming an eagles feet just beyond the end of the lens as it feasted on the bait. I didn’t wring the bird’s neck of course though felt like doing so after waiting many hours in my icy tomb. By ‘eck it was cold.

Almost as memorable for a young man … I was one once … we’re the two beautiful girls we met on deck on the ferry back to Bodo. They seemed to be enjoying the blizzard if snow as much as Richard and I so I asked one of them if they’d like to join us for a pizza in the famous SAS bar in Bodo. She looked me straight in the eye and said “what’s your motive!” I obviously gave her the wrong answer as they never showed up … and even after all these years I still wonder what the correct answer was!

eagle country all around
The all important capturing of eagle chicks for the re-introduction to Scotland was in the hands of Norwegian sea eagle guru Harald Misund. He knew all the local nests and only selected sites where there were more than one chick, so it was with him that I climbed a steep hill to reach a large nest containing three eaglets. They eyed us with suspicion as we approached, then threatened us with their huge talons as the anxious adults circled above us, yelping loudly. Two eaglets were bundled carefully into sacks and carried quickly downhill then placed into boxes where the darkness soon settled them down. Within days, eight chicks had been selected for transport to Scotland with the RAF, supervised by long time friend, Roy Dennis.

Release pens had been built on Rhum, the birds’ development looked after by the dedicated care of John Love. 'Hacking' them to fitness was an intricate process but after several weeks they were fit and strong and familiar with their surroundings. Now they were ready for release and I was there with a high-speed camera to record that magic moment.

The chosen ‘first flight star’ sat relaxed on a large rock before the removal of it’s hood revealed those fierce all seeing yellow eyes. A quick glance around before those great wings unfolded and swept the eagle over my head and off into the freedom of wild Hebridean hills. It was a moving moment and a triumph for all concerned. After a hundred years, history had been created. Sea eagles had returned to Scotland.


Fifty years on, the vision of many has proved a resounding success for as I write, dozens of pairs are raising young in the glens along the west coast and further introductions have created a separate population in the east of Scotland with birds moving back and forth across the Central Highlands. It is always heartening to hear of success stories in wildlife conservation and this is one of the most notable.

focused on food - c. Mike Read
To see these great birds given a chance again, gliding above the mountains or sweeping over an estuary to catch a barnacle goose as we did on Islay last winter is to feel elated at the power of nature’s recovery.

Sue and I had always wanted to travel on the famous coastal steamer and we were pleased we did, for the ferry we were on called Nordnorge was really comfortable, with a great crew and excellent food and the beauty of the scenery is stunning. Hurtigruten claim it to be the most beautiful voyage in the world and now we’ve sailed those seas it’s easy to agree.

I’ve had the privilege of travelling the Alaskan coast and it’s mountains and glaciers, the Chilean fjords, even the Antarctic Peninsula and stunning as they all are, Hurtigruten takes the biscuit, a whole packet!

We spent years saving up our pennies because we planned to travel from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes in the far north, tucked in alongside the Russian border, then back again. On the way we would fulfil our long held ambition of visiting my old sea eagle haunts north of the Arctic Circle.

one of the fastest tide rips in the world
They always say you should never return to the scene of past triumphs and our recent trip on Hurtigruten partially proves the point. Jumping ship in Bodo, we joined a coach outing to the famous Saltstrumen. It was the most beautiful spring day, the tide still ripping crystal clear water through the narrows, eiders still diving enthusiastically for mussels but of the eagles there was no sign. Time had also seen the inexorable pressure of tourism change the area to an ‘attraction’ instead of the icy winter wilderness that I vividly remember.

I only saw one eagle on the way north to Bodo  and in spite of the Lofotens looking as beautiful as anywhere in the world, we didn’t see eagles there either. Mind you, our planned eagle safari on the way south was blown out by a gale and rain, so we were unlucky.
we only had a couple of days of dodgy weather

for days on end we glided through sun drenched calm seas - perfect
However, for eight days on the way north we were blessed with warm sunshine, calm seas and some of the best food you could ever wish for on a holiday - or anywhere else. 

'sunny side up' - the food was excellent - the staff charming
What’s more Jon Hennli the ship’s Hotel Manager entertained me with hunting, shooting and fishing stories so I learned a lot about the countries’ wildlife. I could have sat with him on deck all day swapping stories but he was running the ship and a tad busy!

friend John Hennli on the left with the skipper on Norways' independence day celebrations
greeted by singing school children
We made sure we booked our trip to be on the ship for Norway’s National Day of celebration and delightful it was too, greeted as we were at little towns by singing school children and a band at another, with lots of flag waving everywhere. It was a happy day, enjoyed by us tourists and even more by our crew.

the greeting by the band at Havoysund was impressive
the children could play well too
band, crew and passengers joined in the celebrations
We saw more than enough wildlife to keep a holidaymaker happy, including thirty-eight bird species, including seven sea eagles together on an islet alongside the impressive sea-bird island of Hornoya where the water below the cliffs was decorated by thousands of puffins.

the island of Hornoya just offshore - the most easterley point in Europe, level with Istanbul
Our sighting of 38 species isn’t many but they do represent true quality over quantity, proving that the familiar can be as exciting as the rare. Take for instance a day when dozens of pink-footed geese were migrating north to their breeding grounds in Svalbard, the last skein memorably lifting over the 3,000ft peaks of Lofoten at midnight.
 towering mountains in the Lofoten Islands

barnacle geese on the Hebridian Island of Islay, land of the famous malt whisky
Then there were family parties of barnacle geese grazing the tidal marshes on their way to their remote cliff-edge nests in Spitzbergen. I love wild geese because of the places they remind me of in their passing and where I’d enjoyed adventures with them in the past. These two transported me to those inspiring wildernesses in a wing beat.

the Arctic summer is short so barnacle geese have to lay their eggs before the snow has melted

On yet another benign windless day of calm blue sea and sunshine, seven harbour seals drifted past us at intervals, their languid breathing revealing their presence and identity. Far more exciting were the two long-tailed skuas that travelled alongside them. I hadn’t seen this species since 1985 when I was filming for the BBC in NE Greenland.

Our series was called “Kingdom of the Ice Bear” and my assistant Mike Read and I had arrived before the snow melt so we could film the story of the brief Arctic summer. Barnacle Geese were one of our stars and they’d just arrived to establish their rights to cliff-top nesting ledges, despite still being covered with snow. In the valley below them, a lemming had just emerged from its’ long winter sleep under the deep drifts, blinking at the sudden dazzling light.

a long-tailed skua ... such a special bird ... but not to a lemming
It was dozy and unaware of the danger as a long-tailed skua had spotted this potential meal and was sneaking up behind it, about to pounce. The lemming suddenly became alert, swivelled round, stood as tall as it’s little body would allow and in boxing mode, eyed it’s attacker and waved it’s paws at it, chattering aggressively. The skua decided there might be easier meals elsewhere, so the lemming survived and we gave a cheer of delight.

So in a few brief moments, wildlife beside the Hurtigruten ferry can transport you to foreign lands and memories of decades past. Perhaps being on the move keeps your mind alive.

the hole in the rock is purported to have been created by a Viking arrow - nice one
All this and the spectacular scenery was viewed from what we likened to ‘a magic surf-board’, gliding silently over the crystal blue waters. So would we agree with Hurtigruten’s claim that it is ‘the world’s most beautiful voyage’? Indeed we would …

it's difficult to imagine a more glorious journey
…and of the sea eagles return to Scotland? Well, my friend from Greenland Mike Read was on the island of Mull last week, [he supplied the eagle pics used in this blog] an island close to the eagles’ original release site and on one day alone he saw no less than sixteen eagles.

so wonderful to see these great birds back in Scotland - c. Mike Read
What’s more, the island can boast a total of twenty-one pairs of eagles and along with the rest of the islands impressive range of critters, wildlife tourism is worth £5 million pounds every year to the rural economy and that's on Mull alone. So the return of sea eagles from Norway to Scotland has proved a resounding success. Happy days!


Further reading :
 

John Love's book is a great read and well worth finding in a library, full of detail about this historic re-introduction and lovely illustrations too.

To join photographer Mike Read on his guided tours of Mull visit :
www.mikeread.co.uk
 

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