It really had been the most extraordinary summer. We had been watching history unfold. Finally, after ten long years of waiting, the first pair of white-tailed eagles to nest in the wild in the UK had produced a chick. So much effort had been invested in this very important eaglet. It had been 70 years since white-tailed eagles had last nested here. This was the moment everyone had been working towards. Blondie and her mate had in fact hatched two chicks but one had died unexpectedly at four weeks old. That had been a huge blow for us. Now we were down to one. There was no room for error. We couldn't let anything go wrong. Please don't let anything go wrong.
We were still on 24 hour protection duties. The nest, the adults, the chick were never out of our sight. We camped nearby at night, listening out in the half darkness of the short June nights for any disturbance. Any crack of a branch or a call from Blondie to suggest something was wrong. Sometimes it was a deer or a sheep which had us straining our ears and eyes. Then the panic would pass. There were times when you wondered if you were losing your marbles. I made good friends with a very cheeky wood mouse who I shared my sandwich with. He repaid me by chewing a huge hole in my back pack to get at the remains of my rations which were meant to last me all night and half the next day. And I thought we were friends. I thought I meant something to him. Never again!
At night, we wouldn't realise that we were being eaten alive by clouds, swarms of midges - until morning came and the next person on duty would come to do their 36 hour shift and say 'what happened to your face?'. Back home in the mirror you could see one big, red puffy face where the midges had been working away, biting, all night long. You would pick off countless ticks from every part of your anatomy - always a joy. And then you would sleep, eat, dry out (a bit) and then head back to the observation tent for the next shift. We must have been mad. And so it had gone on for twelve long weeks - three long months - in the wettest, most miserable summer anyone could ever remember. But we were working to one goal, one aim. We wanted that first chick in living memory to take to the skies.
And so that dawn finally arrived. A quick check through the telescope and there he was. Flapping hard on the nest, jumping up and down. Can't be long now. Five minutes - literally five mintes later and another check. He was gone! We'd missed it. After being glued to that eyepiece for 90 wet, midge-infested, tick-ridden days since the hatch, we'd missed it. How could he do that to us! But he wouldn't have gone far, probably down onto the woodland floor. Yes there he was, sitting startled and wary on the ground wondering what to do next. But history had been made. The first chick of this historic reintroduction project which had started ten long years ago on the Isle of Rum had just 'flown' from his nest on the Isle of Mull. Surely it was time to celebrate? Hadn't we all deserved it? Well, not quite yet...
I hoped he would just sit and regain his confidence before trying anything else. Blondie and her mate were sitting nearby. What a moment it was for them too. Oh to know what was going on in their heads! But he wasn't done yet. He was a pioneer after all. As we watched, feeling very pleased with ourselves, he launched off again, straight out of the wood and away out over the loch. A bit wobbly but strong enough. Damn it! Out of sight. Too many trees in the way. He'll reappear in a minute. Two minutes passed but he didn't reappear. He must have reached the other side by now. Better go and check. We eased our way down the wet, grassy slope to a better vantage point and scanned the far shore. Keep scanning, he'll be there somewhere. Even Blondie and her mate were excited by this momentous flight. Both were out and calling loudly over the loch. Bit strange, I remember thinking.
Then came those awful, horrible, dread-inducing words which will live with me forever: "What's that in the loch? Do you get seals this far up?" Seals? What was he talking about. Seals? Where? "There - in the middle of the loch. Look, there!" The head of some creature kept appearing and disappearing in the waves. With a rising sense of complete and utter panic, the terrible truth dawned on me, not gradually but with one sickening gut-wrenching bolt of realisation. Our chick - the only chick - had ditched in the very centre of the huge loch. The chick we'd watched over day and night, fretted over through wind and rain was struggling and virtually submerged hundreds of metres out in the cold, grey waters. Running and stumbling down the steep rocky slope, we half fell down into the shallows at the loch edge. Through steamed up binoculars and out of breath, we searched for any sign of life. All that was visible and audible was Blondie and the male circling low over the water, calling out in desperation as they too searched and searched. Up and down, round in circles they went. But the loch was now still. The waves had eased. We were drained, shaking and in shock. This just cannot be happening. It just cannot be happening.
By now it was virtually dark. We had stood staring into the gathering dusk for what seemed like hours, unable to think or act. We had to go home. I had been due to 'phone into the RSPB office that evening to report on progress. Everyone was waiting, desperate to hear news of the fledging. I stood outside the village phone box unable to make that call. Although there were lights on in houses all around, with TV screens flickering, the occasional person's voice or a dog's bark, it was a very lonely and desolate place to be at that moment.
Tomorrow - the search resumes at dawn
Dave Sexton RSPB Scotland Mull Officer
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