My brother Phil had just come back from Mull and had told of a golden eagle eyrie very close to the single road that runs through Glen More. He’d also been lucky enough to see it take a live lamb off the hillside in front of the eyrie and return it to the then small eaglet sitting tight and out of sight in what had become known as the ‘smiling rock’, due to the shape of the crag under which the eyrie lay.
He’d spent hours watching as the adult birds brought in prey, an experience not often possible without much hiking and local knowledge, as these are birds that shun human presence and are most often seen high over ridges patrolling their territory. To see an eagle take a live lamb is extraordinary and a sight not often witnessed, if at all, even by seasoned eagle watchers.
I decided to take a trip up and see if the nesting season had been kind to the eagles. Phil had gone up at the end of May early June; I was travelling up in mid July. With egg laying occurring March/April and incubation about six weeks, Phil would have been seeing the first days of activity after hatching. He never saw the eaglet (only one had been seen whilst he was there by others staking out the eyrie); it would have been deep in the eyrie at this time. I would be hoping to see an eaglet possibly around eight weeks old, all a guesstimate but something of that age.
Fledging occurs between 70 and 80 days so if the eaglet had survived it would be due to leave the nest in about 4 weeks or so. I should be able to see it, as at this time a little wing stretching would hopefully be evident.
I arrived on my first morning at around 8.00am and after some time located the eyrie. Phil had sent images of it which made it a lot easier. I had thought that other folk would be around but not until gone one in the afternoon was I joined by another couple. For the first three hours not a sight or sound of anything. Had it failed? Should I have expected anything? At eight weeks old how often do the adult birds bring in food? Should I be seeing any wing flapping and stretching from the eaglet? How would the pretty lousy weather (very heavy showers and continual low cloud) affect the feeding? How often does an eight week old eaglet need feeding? So many questions and no answers. All I could do was to give it time.
At about eleven I heard an odd rather high pitched yelp which seemed to be coming from around the eyrie. With the scope trained on the ‘smiling rock’ and the camera poised I wondered if the sound was the eaglet. I’d heard that the eagle has a call that doesn’t reflect the grandeur of the bird itself. If this was the eaglet then I’d have to agree.
Then over the ridge and coming high in from the north over Cruach Choireadail, my first sighting of a golden eagle. It steadily climbed for a minute or so and then folded it’s wings back and dived towards the right of the eyrie now approaching from the south. It came into the eyrie at a good speed before braking by spreading out it’s vast wings, which in an adult female can be over two metres in full span. Five seconds on the edge of the ‘smiling rock’ and it was off, this time heading west then north towards Ben More.
A few questions answered then. It had not failed, there was at least one eaglet, (I still hadn’t seen any though) and this adult bird had brought something small to to eyrie; it had been worth the wait.
No more sightings till 4.00pm, an eight hour vigil with occasional visitors who put up scopes, gave it half an hour and left. During this time, however, the young eaglet would occasionally let out a few derisory yelps putting me on alert for another pass. I still hadn’t seen anything in the eyrie though. A few minutes later edging towards the front of the ‘smiling rock’ and tucked in tightly to the left hand corner I had it in the scope, tentatively looking out over the hills towards Loch Buie, very dark brown with a hint of russet and it’s beak prominent with yellow top and bottom, with the tip still dark. Tucked well in it only showed occasionally but it was the sign of the second pass of the day.
A repeat of the first approach but this time the adult bird had brought in a small bird, it’s feet trailing behind the powerful talons of the eagle. It stayed a little longer before leaving, again towards the west but this time alighting on a small out jutting rock on the cliff face and staying there for over an hour. All wonderful views in the scope but even for the 500mm and a 1.4 converter a long way off!
So two passes in eight hours and the weather deteriorating further, I decided to move on. I’d always stop, often for two or three hours at a time on the days I was passing through Glen More. How can you not when an eyrie is this close to the road?
My closest encounter came on one such evening. Another low cloud day, (I only saw the top of Ben More once in the week I was there) and passing back through the Glen at about 8.30pm I pulled over in the small parking place near the ‘smiling rock.’ The 5oomm was on the passenger seat of the van and the tripod in the back. I got out to set things up and was aware of a huge black shape not twenty yards above me. With the Lumix always at hand I quickly got what I could before the adult bird lifted and moved towards the west.
Hoping for a return to the eyrie I waited with anticipation. No such luck this time but a very special moment totally alone in the Glen with only a few red deer hinds that had come down to the road for company.
No blue skies and dreach days made it difficult for decent backgrounds but silhouetting the birds and playing with shape rather than feather detail seemed the way to go and gave a sense of the atmosphere of the Glen and the power of the eagle.
When the adult birds flew in front of the hill there was a chance to work ‘normally’ and begin to retain some detail against a better background, therefore giving a sense of location and environmental context to the eagles. All in all it was a great experience to spend time with such evocative birds and well worth the trip up north. Thanks Phil!