By Harry Martin
High winds and heavy rain; the tail end of Storm Doris. Not the ideal weather forecast you want to see when you’re planning an eagle photography workshop. A glimmer of hope started to present itself however, and with some enthusiastic customers in the form of Paul & Mike, we agreed it was worthy of our effort to get out onto one of Skye’s beautiful ridge lines in search of Scotland’s most iconic bird of prey - the golden eagle.
I was woken early in the morning ahead of meeting my customers by the sound of 60mph gusts outside my bedroom window. I groaned internally, but reassured myself that the forecast said it was going to brighten up and the winds would subside. Sure enough by the time I’d gotten up and out the cloud was promising to lift, so with cameras slung over shoulders the three of us set off like the proverbial musketeers on our search for the king of the skies.
It wasn’t long before I spotted our first eagle of the day perched on a distant crag. By spending so much time observing them in their environment, and where they habitually spend time preening, feeding and roosting, it becomes easy to tell whether they’re in one of their regular spots or not. The first hurdle of the day had been cleared at least, seeing an eagle. Now it was a game of rabbit and eagle, waiting to see whether it would become active, and if we’d see the other half of the resident pair.
A couple of brief rain showers kept us on our toes, it is Skye after all, but true to its nature, the weather would change and the rain would stop as quickly as it had begun. From our vantage point on the ridge we had the perfect place to sit and watch the rain pass over the incredible landscape abound us.
We didn’t have to wait long before we got a bit of action from the eagles, with one of the pair being mobbed insistently by the resident ravens, even managing to evoke a mewling cry from the eagle - not a sound you hear very often. Golden eagles as a general rule are relatively silent birds, with cries usually being given by the chicks when demanding food, or by adult birds in cases such as this - basically when they’re hungry or pissed off. White-tailed eagles on the other hand are far more vocal, and you can often hear their cries echoing around the cliffs and coastlines.
Once the eagle had shaken his pursuers he began a series of elaborate dives and swoops. Folding his wings against his body, plummeting towards the ground at over 200mph before unfurling that impressive 2 metre wingspan and rising back up. This sky dance is often displayed by the male bird as part of courtship, but it is also a territorial display. Given the time of year, it seems far more likely this sky dance was part of a courtship display as the new breeding season was imminent. Watching a golden eagle diving and rising through the air is an incredible sight, for their size they’re amazingly agile birds and it gives you a real sense of their speed, power and beauty.
Brief glimpses and teasing views of both the male and female eagles continued, as they pirouetted through the sky, disappearing for 20 minutes at a time before tearing a hole in the air as they came swooping past. Eventually we saw the female land on a distant crag, with the male not far behind. We assumed he’d land just next to her, but he opted for a slightly different approach, sweeping his wings back and landing straight on top of her. A moment passed before something registered and I realised we were watching golden eagles mating in the wild. A phenomenally rare event to witness, not least because it only lasts a few seconds. I’d been lucky enough to witness it happening a few years ago on Skye, and was quite convinced I’d never see it again. My customers and I watched in awe, as the male finished his business before hopping off a few feet away, looking very pleased with himself. It's a feeling I can relate to myself, although I aim for at least 30 seconds before jumping off!
Jubilation and smiles around, we couldn’t believe what we’d just seen, and managed to photograph. Though distant, being the proud owner of an image showing golden eagles mating is something to shout about (image above © Paul Carpenter).
The eagles post-coital peace was rudely interrupted by the appearance of the resident pair of white-tailed eagles who share part of the golden eagle’s territory. Both “goldies" jumped into the air, and we enjoyed watching 4 eagles swirling round together for quite some time. Eventually the sea eagles settled down at the bottom of the cliffs atop some rocks, the female landing first… and then joined by the male in the same fashion as the golden eagles had an hour ago. The raucous calls of the sea eagles drifted up as we watched the pair mating below us - we couldn’t believe our luck. Not only had we witnessed golden eagles mating, but now we were watching the largest bird of prey in Britain going at it. The chances of seeing both, within an hour of each other, are too silly to calculate. Clearly, love was in the air - literally.
It just goes to show that with patience, perseverance and some local knowledge we were treated to an incredible show of varied eagle behaviour. I spend a lot of time observing Skye’s eagles but I’d never had a day quite like this. We all ended the day with a small amount of disbelief, but feeling incredibly privileged to have been able to sit and watch these magnificent birds all day.
It’s a bold statement to make, but the more time I spend on Skye with the golden and white-tailed eagles, the more I believe it may possibly be the best place in Britain to see, and photograph them. We have an amazing density of both species, and it’s possible to see them from any of the public roads on the island as you drive around (much to your own hazard as you stare upwards). If you’re interested in coming along on one of my eagle workshops then get in touch. You can see them all year round, but there are defined peaks in activity at the start and end of the breeding season (February/March and September/October/November).