(Today I present the transcription of a man I met recently met on my travels)
Turning up in the pub at the end of the day with a fresh bandage wrapped around a finger, arm or on the less fortunate days my head, it's a sure fire way to get asked some questions. After a while climbing accident, whilst technically accurate, doesn't cut it any more, so I learned to shrug and say 'Work'. Of course there's only so many times you can say that before you get asked the what exactly it is you do for a living. It turns out that like with most truly unbelievable things the best option is to go for the truth. Conservation. It's a broad word covering a lot of areas it also explains the climbing and the injuries, the worlds most endangered creatures are rarely it's most harmless, it explains all manner of cuts and bruises. As long as no-one ever looks under the bandages they'll never see the burns. Which is for the good, if you think poaching is a problem for people trying to restore the Golden Eagle population can you imagine how bad it would be if they got wind of a genuine phoenix population nestled in the highlands of Scotland.
It's one of only half a dozen or so nesting sites left in the world. I say left but we're fairly certain numbers have never been historically that high. The colony here is the seasonal home to over twenty breeding pairs, that makes it the largest colony in the world. Managing the population calls for a particular set of skills. It's not just enough to be an expert in the field of conservation, top of my class at Oxford, you've also got to combine the skill set of a ranger, guide, spy, paramedic and firefighter.
Some of that is self explanatory some of it might be a little harder to follow. Most conservation sites are set up specifically to make the work done there as easy as possible, unfortunately we don't have to option of building anything that would be permanent and therefore visible. The need for secrecy is of course paramount. If you think poachers are a problem for people who are trying to increase the world tiger population then you can imagine how bad it would be if they caught a whiff of the fact that we had a population of genuine mythical beasts. I think I can best explain the nature of my work by telling you something about the creatures I work with.
The Pheonix (aquila aviaduro) nests high in the cliff-faces of the scottish mountains. They make their nests by perching on the edge of the rock and letting out a concentrated stream of flame. The heats generated vary from bird to bird but all adults of breeding age can produce enough heat to melt rock and they use this to make a small hollow in the rock-face. After leaving the rock to cool they stuff the newly formed opening with collected twigs. These are then burnt to ash by another blast of flame, the birds are very good at regulating the temperature of the blast. On average this will be done a dozen times before the base of the hollow is filled with enough ash to form a soft base on which the eggs may rest. All of this work is done by the male, who arrives at the nesting site about a week before the females.
The females arrive after dark on the vernal equinox every year which has led some of us to hypothesise that phoenix largely navigates by the position of stars, sun and the moon as opposed to having an internal compass. As they arrive the males perch on the edge of the nests and shoot flame into the air. The females are looking for the most powerful flame, there then follows a brief scuffle as the females fight over the male with the largest flame with the winning female and the male taking flight together. They then engage in a mating ritual that is almost indescribable. The two birds take to the air and engage in something that is part aerobatics and part fireworks display. When this is done the male takes flight and disappears. All attempts at tracking where these magnificent creatures go during the rest of the year have resolutely failed, it's not that feasible to attach a tracking device to a creature that can simply burn it off. The females, now impregnated, return to the nests.
We don't get much of a chance to get close to the nests whilst the males are present due to the high temperatures and the much more aggressive nature of the male birds. Once they depart we go to work almost immediately. At first light after watching the whole mating display unfold we start abseiling down the cliff-face to the nests and check on the females. The eggs won't be laid until a few days later but we need to check in on the females to check that they haven't injured themselves during the mating process. The females are much more docile than the males and allow us to do this work, we also take substantial notes and photographs at this point. Without the ability to tag the birds this is the only way we have of comparing the birds from one mating season to another. We find that the females tend to return every two years, sometimes as long as three. For the next three days we will spend a lot of time monitoring the birds. As they will spend this time in the nests preparing to lay.
Each bird will lay a single egg approximately the size of a golf ball, the birds themselves are about the same size as a peregrine falcon. The eggs are almost completely round with a very slight point to it black in colour but with a metallic sheen to them, the birds leave them on their own whilst then go hunting. Whilst for most bird species this would be a death penalty for the unhatched young the phoenix egg is scalding to the touch. Strangely this isn't due to heat but rather due to the icy cold. The egg is cold as it's funnelling all available heat in the area into the heart of the egg. The eggs will not hatch until the Summer Solstice. This time is when we do most of our work studying the birds although we're working on a very incomplete level we do know that they are definitely nocturnal.
I could write pages and pages on the habits of the birds but this is supposed to a quick overview so I'll just jump ahead to hatching day. The birds hatch on the shortest night of the the year and each nest becomes a beacon of light. The entire cliff-face turns into a wonderful light-show from a distance. At this point we have to stop venturing too close to the nests for two weeks as the early stages of the birds lives are spent at an incredibly high temperature. After that time we feel safe to venture down the cliff again to catalogue the new birds. This is when most of the injuries to the team take place as we have no idea if we are approaching a docile female or an aggressive male.
(I'll be publishing the rest of these notes next weekend)