Thursday, 5 November 2015

Any day you see an Eagle is a good day.....

 One of the joys of getting outdoors in Scotland is the ever-present chance of a really special wildlife encounter, and autumn is one of the best times of all to watch wildlife.  The Red Deer rut is in full swing, the skies are full of the sight and sound of huge skeins of geese, arctic migrants are beginning to arrive, Red Squirrels are at their most active and visible - and it's all set against a stunningly colourful backdrop.

But just occasionally there comes a wildlife experience which transcends "special" and becomes truly memorable......

As October turned to November the north east of Scotland enjoyed a run of perfect "blue sky" days when much of the rest of the UK was shrouded with fog.  I'd settled on a walk in Angus which would take in woodland as well as some higher ground while the trees still had such great colour.  Not a day for rushing, I took my time and enjoyed being out on a warm sunny morning.

I walked above the woodland and out of the glen onto higher ground and as I turned to take in the view, a movement across a steep hillside caught my eye..........

.........which became a huge shape; unmistakably an Eagle.  I had only my compact camera, and the bird was much closer than it appears in this image.  It was moving quite slowly and deliberately, almost at stalling speed and I was treated to a great view.  Any day you see an Eagle is a good day......

...and any day you see two Eagles is especially good!  

The first bird was joined by a second, both banking around in lazy arcs on a thermal.  But something wasn't right; here in this absolutely typical Golden Eagle habitat, these birds looked like White Tailed Eagles  (Haliaeetus albicilla)- and what's more they were behaving like White Tailed Eagles too.  Where Golden Eagles fly pretty directly away from humans, White Tailed Eagles are less wary, at least on the coast.  These two must have been aware of me in open ground almost below them, yet they continued to circle close overhead.

This was a really great sight - and if a close view of  two White Tailed Eagles is especially good......

...then a close view of three White Tailed Eagles is off the scale!

The third individual was visibly larger, almost certainly an adult female and I could clearly make out the short tails, huge wings held in a flat angle and the pale heads as the great birds banked around.  They were interacting with each other quite frequently, but not in an aggressive way and at one point I heard a distinct "Kyow" call as two birds briefly made talon-to-talon contact.

There are only about 400 White Tailed Eagles in Scotland, and right above my head were three of them behaving perfectly naturally.  They remained in view for about 15 minutes before drifting away beyond a high ridge, leaving me elated at this very memorable encounter.

Back home, I scrutinised the images, still hardly believing what I'd seen; three Golden Eagles would have been very special, but three White Tailed Eagles over an eastern Highland moor was beyond any expectation.  Once I was pretty sure of my identification, I contacted the experts at Scottish Natural Heritage and RSPB Scotland, receiving confirmation that these were White Tailed Eagles, together with some fascinating background information about the possible provenance of the individuals I'd seen.

Hunted to extinction in the 18th and 19th century, the White Tailed (or Sea) Eagle has been reintroduced to Scotland starting in 1975 with a ten year programme of releases on Rum, then a five year programme based in Wester Ross from 1993 - 1998 and finally a programme from 2007-2012 when birds were released on the east coast in Fife.   A milestone was reached in 2015: 40 years after the release programme was started and 30 years since the first successful nest the Scottish population reached 100 breeding pairs.  There will be about a further 200 immature birds, as they don't start breeding until they are about 4-5 years old.  This reintroduction has been a huge conservation success, though not without setbacks. Aside from natural mortality and nest failure there are still a few who see these birds as a threat to farming and land management interests and sadly persecution does still occur.

The usual habitat for the birds is coastal cliffs, but they do use high hill ground and it may be that they are utilising a food resource in the gralloch (entrails) left on the hill following deer stalking.  I can only hope that these huge birds will once again be a regular sight in eastern skies -  and give many other folk the memorable experience I'd been granted.


  1. I certainly understand your joy in this. And I also understand the regret that you only had your smaller camera with you. It's wonderful how something so simple as sighting an eagle can make us happy.

  2. Hi Dan, in countries like the US, Canada where there are more eagles and in Norway where there's a large population of White Tailed Eagles the rarity factor wouldn't be quite so remarkable - but they really are great birds!

    Kind regards

  3. A special moment. Always a joy to see rare wildlife you don't expect. Red Kites are spotted more often now as well spreading across Scotland and pine martens may yet invade Aberdeen suburbs, tucking into grey squirrels.

    1. Let's hope so Bob! There are Kites over Aberdeenshire now too, another redress of the balance

      Kind Regards