Eilean na h-Iolaire

That's Gaelic for 'Eagle Island'.  You may remember I wrote my last blog as I was sat in a guest house on the Isle of Skye, with great anticipation for what was to follow the next day in a quest to be in the presence of Golden Eagles.  A month on from then, my recollections are hopefully still sharp enough to record the moments and share with you.

First, the weather.  Skye has plenty of it.  As we were sat eating breakfast, the skylines were invisible and the rain was pouring.  My online weather radar showed the rain band clearing South Uist and, with the wind speed and direction, that meant not far away in time.  A glimmer of hope finally shone (literally) as we loaded the car, and went off to meet our guide who had 'worked the patch' to become familiar with the behaviours of an established pair of Golden Eagles. 

To get to where we needed to be - basically in their territory but nowhere near their eyrie locations - involved a wee bit of a climb.  Looking at the Ordnance Survey on my iPhone, the height of 'Ben Bump' (named changed - obviously - to protect the location) measured some 1,356 feet above sea level.  Parking the car next to the shore came with it the realisation we'd be climbing all of those 1,356 feet - at home and aroundabouts on the high ground, you're normally given a good head start in elevation!

So off we trogged, showers of rain occasionally blurring the horizon and landscape around us, but nothing too severe.  The sun was getting higher and more conspicuous each minute, and eventually became a warming ally that rendered the day positively Spring-like.

Sunbather - the cock bird warms himself in the morning rays

After about an hour, a small black cairn atop some rocks was clearly out of place.  Although some distance away, through binoculars it was clearly a perched Golden Eagle.  The shape wasn't quite right, and as we got a better view it was obvious that the bird was drying its wings in the sun's rays, banishing the damp of the overnight rain as quickly as possible.  It turned around, possibly finishing off the drying process but maybe in response to the sight of another bird - a partner or intruder.  It flew off down the crags and out of sight for a while, before suddenly re-appearing at great speed above us, and trying to avoid a pair of Ravens who were applying their own brand of aerial antagonism (most likely because of their nearby nesting attempt).

As the bird passed quite close, our guide was confident in identifying it as the male of the local pair and, as it circled back away down the slopes to our west, it turned and began one of the holiest of holies when it comes to eagle watching - skydancing.  Pulling great manoeuvres, mostly in the vertical, the male climbed and tumbled through the air and gave us a clear sign that the female must be somewhere nearby - he wouldn't be doing that for any other reason.  In the minute or so it lasted before those pesky Ravens bothered him once more, it was magic to see such a huge bird master flight in such a way - remembering, of course, not to just watch it through a camera viewfinder in order to get the scale and depth of the display.

 Not a Scottish phrase I use a lot, but appopriate in this case - "YA DANCER!"

And then he disappeared for a while, our three faces peering over the edge (it was about an 800 foot drop at this point) to make sure he wasn't hugging the rock face just below us on the summit, as Golden Eagles tend to do to make use of the airflow.  A Raven shot by - fifteen feet away and beyond the edge - causing me a slight outburst of Tourette's, but no eagle.  Not long after, we heard a noise back to the south, strong but nowhere near as deep as the two Ravens now 'cronking' with it - the terrier-like 'yap' of the Golden Eagle, as the male bird (having flown a different way to what we were expecting) tried to express his annoyance to his unruly neighbours.  Another Golden Eagle first for me.

Eventually he perched on a pinnacle of rock, which looked quite small to us but was probably some 150 feet above the sea.  Studying him through binoculars again, a dark shape flashed away from the other side of the rock face - the hen bird.  She'd finally revealed herself, and possibly off a ledge where they could be having their eyrie this year.

But she hadn't become airborne because of her mate; three Sea Eagles had entered her sovereign airspace and she wasn't happy with them there.  With the male falling away from the pinnacle behind her as wingman, two fully adult and one sub-adult (the white tail feathers edged with thick border of black) Sea Eagles were joined by the two 'Goldies' as they spiralled over the blue waters of the sea loch.  I'm lucky to see similar interactions between the two species on my trips near home, and sometimes as many birds as this, but the light coming down onto the eagles from above coupled with the stunning blue water backdrop to this aerial ballet was something to savour.

The Sea Eagles eventually lumbered away east like Russian Air Force bombers duly chastised by RAF fighters, and the Golden Eagle pair alighted onto the rock pinnacle.  The hen settled first, the male landing soon after and slightly below her.  Then, all of a sudden, my third of three wishes from the previous night (read my blog!) was granted by the eagle genie - they mated.

The eagle has landed and er...OOOH! MATRON! (with apologies to Kenneth Williams)

The hen leant forward, facing down the rock as the cock bird landed on her back and slightly off centreline in order to avoid her long tail feathers.  We couldn't believe our luck to see this - a first for me, and of course it only occurs on a few occasionss around this particular time of the year.  I shall enter no comments here as to how long copulation lasted...

The birds parted but remained close, looking around their surroundings and occasionally preening for some time.  Predictably, the anthropomorphic/schoolboy-esque comments of 'needing a cigarette' and 'having a cuppa' passed amongst the three of us as we watched the post-coital moments.

The pause in activity allowed us to 'chimp' (the amusing verb given to those who review their photographs in the screen on the back of a digital SLR camera, giving the impression of monkeys grooming each other), looking at the photos so far and especially of the glimpse of the usually private world we'd just seen.

The hen clearly then decided that - for us and our photography - the best was yet to come.  She flew away from the pinnacle, lazily following the shoreline at first before turning in over the heather footslopes and slowly, yet perceptibly, gaining height.  The murmuring chants of three guys willing her higher and higher, closer and closer gathered, interspersed with looks over the shoulder to see if one of the few clouds that remained was going to plant itself between the bird and the sun just at the wrong moment.  The race was on, would she get high enough and near enough in time - a photo (or ten) would be taken no matter what, but to have a view and an image with the sunlight striking her golden mane would be the photo of the day/year/lifetime...click, click, click!

Magic - pure and simple.

I will it leave it there for this month - I had hoped that by now I could impart news of our local Ospreys having returned, but no luck so far.  I shall hit 'save' and 'post' now to make this blog live, then go out to the garden and look at our nearest nest.  I'm prepared for the irony!

****Update at 1740hrs, 31 March***** Sure enough, went straight out to the garden and one beautiful Osprey was sat atop the nest.  Good job it was far enough away not to hear any laughter...

Happy birding


A9Birds is a birdwatching and wildlife photography company based in Moray, covering the local area including Strathspey, the Moray Firth and Inverness-shire.  Please see our website for details of what we can offer you, including fine canvas prints of some of our images which make ideal gifts.  Also, why not keep up to date with our sightings and photos on our Facebook page.  All photos on this page are copyright Mike Crutch/A9Birds.


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