Golden moments

So as you hopefully know conservation of birds of prey is at the forefront of what Raptor Aid is all about. When I’m not working with captive birds of prey educating as many people as possible about their conservation I’m monitoring and observing birds of prey in the wild. I have been very lucky to see birds of prey in a range of habitats around the world but nothing beats Britain for me and this year I have the opportunity to fulfil a childhood dream of monitoring Golden Eagles.

The Golden Eagle is now restricted to Scotland as a breeding bird in the UK and the remote hills of the Scottish Highlands is where I was destined for on my first proper trip to observe and monitor this incredible species. Last year I was lucky to be put in touch with a gentleman with years of experience studying our native birds of prey in order to help me in my quest of watching Golden eagles, after several emails/phone calls and a licence to monitor the species I was on my way to begin the 2016 eagle season.

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The Golden eagle breeding season starts relatively early with clear bright sunny days in December and January seeing birds renewing pair bonds displaying high over previous years breeding territories and beginning to refurbish nest sites also known as eyrie’s. Part of this display can include incredible looping sky diving from the male to show off his aerial prowess to his female or if unattached a new prospecting female. I have seen videos of Golden eagles doing this and also watched countless Common Buzzards perform sky diving routines. My first visit at the beginning of March was to find out if the birds from previous years were back on territory and showing all the signs that they are looking to use that site again, but just because you don’t see anything it doesn’t always mean a territory is unoccupied so I needed some luck on my side.

After a long drive up to the Highlands of Scotland I got some kip in the back of my van with Teddy the dog as a hot water bottle cause it was bloody freezing. In the morning I met my friend to discuss the territories I would be looking at, as we poured over the ordinance survey map I was amazed to hear that one of the sites has been used since at least the 1940’s! My first stroke of luck was the weather, a stunning sunny clear blue sky day lay ahead perfect for spotting a displaying eagle. By 10 am I was off to my first eagle territory and after a hearty (if not heart stopping) Scottish fry up I was ready for a day on the hill.

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After an hours drive I wound up a narrow single track road to the grassy lay-by I required, I got my bag sorted and with the dog raring to go we hit the hill. Now I’m not the best user of the English language so I won’t bother trying to describe the scenery in as many descriptive words as I can find on Google but it was quite simply stunning. I had been told I needed to get height and sneak in to a point of the hill where I could sit and observe, if I got to close or stood out to much the eagle(s) would easily spot me and just slip away without me even knowing! I had to pause several times to get my breath and I took advantage of this break to scan the horizon and there it was a Golden Eagle high above the furthest ridge. Now how can I tell its a Golden Eagle and not say a Common Buzzard? well as I watched the bird it was so far away above a massive ridge line but it still looked like a bloody big bird, but size can be deceiving. Another thing to look at is how the bird holds its wings when soaring, this bird seemed to hold its big broad wings relatively flat which didn’t look like how I’ve observed countless buzzards.

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The bird swept from right to left and back up the ridge line sometimes moving in front of the ridge and back up again then its display began and my heart nearly jumped out my chest. This huge bird just folded up and fell towards the ridge line and before dipping into the darkness pulled up vertically to the sky and proceeded to do this over and over again but was it to attract a new mate or show off to his current mate. As the male slipped out of view I moved up the steep bank and found a nice rock to sit on and my question was answered because as soon as I settled and set my binoculars on the ridge line two eagles circled up together and into view. Both birds were some way off but never the less in the right place and doing the right things, the pair parted company and the larger  (female) of the two bird moved down into the valley where a previous nest site was used. I got some great views of the bird skimming across the rocks perching every now and then before vanishing against the black cliff face.

Eagle ridge valley

The next time I picked the two birds up they were both in the valley together, moving across and landing on the opposite rock face in the sun. A pair of Golden eagles sat opposite me in all their glory and for the second time my heart nearly jumped out of my chest. The birds lifted themselves and were off again but it wasn’t going to stop there as the female swept left and then began to quarter the opposite hill side looking for a meal. Unsuccessful in her attempts she rose above the hillside and moved off into the distance. I had a couple of other views of the birds one including a brief scuffle with a neighbouring Peregrine falcon but I decided after 3 hours to slip back off the hill and follow the burn back to the my van with a spring in my step. I’ll be honest I couldn’t believe my luck but more importantly the birds were on territory and oblivious or so it seemed to my observations.

back to road

I carried on to check another territory but no eagles were spotted at this one, this is what raptor monitoring is all about but as I have said even a day you might consider as uneventful can turn up a little gem if you wait, this gem came in the shape  of a stunning female Hen Harrier sailing in and out of view as the sun set. What a day!!!

The next step is to drive back up to Highlands in April to see if any of the birds observed or even the birds not observed are using a nest and incubating eggs. What a treat!

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There are plenty of other exciting things happening, I have got big plans for nest boxes and a nest box scheme, new Raptor ID courses to be announced this week and a blog on Little owl nest boxes when I get round to finishing it, I also want to tidy up and add some new stuff to the website! Thanks for reading!

J x