There is nothing more breath-taking than the sight of a bird of prey soaring over its natural environment. Especially in Scotland; its rugged landscape, from sea cliffs to rolling hills, providing the perfectly dramatic backdrop to the elegant flight of such a charismatic creature. With not even the merest suggestion of a flap, a bird of prey will take to the air on broad, outstretched wing, and glide for miles scouting for a potential meal. Once found, they will hover or wheel in great circles overhead before plummeting down to capture it in talons that could put fear even in the hearts of the bravest.
Once upon a time, these aerial acrobatics could be seen all over the British isles; sadly, the majority of raptor species are now restricted to specific areas. Some have even been extirpated in the past, declining thanks to a combination of intensive hunting and habitat loss. However, reintroduction efforts in the last few decades have seen the return of several species to the UK – in particular West Scotland. It was with this in mind that I set out on a mission to see some of these birds in the wild.
Having researched birds of prey for the past year of my PhD, it seems a little silly that I’ve not seen many of them. The focal species that my studies consist of are the hen harrier, white-tailed or sea eagle, golden eagle, red kite and the common buzzard. The latter is true to its name and I have seen numerous in my life time, but the other four have, as yet, eluded me. The west coast is famed for its sightings – in particular the small isles, which include Skye, Rum and Mull. My base was Canna, a beautiful island owned by the NTS. With a population size of just twelve, it is blissfully quiet and a haven for wildlife – in particular birds – with rugged, untouched landscapes and an abundance of sea cliffs boasting plenty of crags, nooks and inlets perfect for nesting seabirds. Indeed, the island is famous for these; puffins, shags, comorants, oyster catchers…the list goes on. I was very keen for a week of exploring and spotting!
We were assured by Canna’s ranger and its locals that both species of eagle stalked the tall cliffs at the islands skyline, and that there were even some nests. Thus we headed out to the tallest point: Compass Hill. From the top it boasts impressive views to the neighbouring isle of Rhum, which appears to glow almost pink at sunset, and the vast expanse of sea between. The route up consisted of glorious sunshine with barely a whisper of wind (rare weather in these parts), turning the sea into an azure blue pool of glass that sparkled in the bay. Only twenty minutes in, none other than a golden eagle swept over head and circled above the gorge we were currently climbing, easily distinguishable thanks to clear skies of forget-me-not blue. The golden eagle is perhaps one of Scotland’s most charismatic species – not so long ago, a petition was sent round to gather support to name it our national animal – and it’s easy to see why. A powerful, intelligent bird, it is identifiable from below due to broad, rectangular wings ended with clear white ‘fingers’. Russet brown plumage provides brilliant camouflage against the moorland backdrop. The number of breeding pairs is unknown on Canna, but we were lucky enough to see at least four individuals at various points around the island.
That same day, we were also graced by the presence of a Peregrine Falcon – a species I wasn’t expecting to see. It took us completely by surprise as we looked out over some knee-knockingly steep cliffs to the sea beyond, sweeping between the inlets. I’m unsure as to what the falcon would be feeding on here, although there are an abundance of Canna mice and rabbits further inland. Still, an amazing sight. In the bay itself a chorus line of eider ducks – my favourites – were waiting as we made our descent back down from the hill.
That would have made my week all by itself – nearly all wildlife spotters are used to exercising patience, not seeing their chosen species on the first day! Nevertheless, the following day was spent on the search for the ‘biggie’ – the magnificent sea eagle. This required a three hour hike to Tarbot on the other side of the island, which is no mean feat when almost the entire place is made up of marshy bog…
Eagles or no, it can’t be said the views from atop the hills and cliffs of Canna are anything short of stunning. But, our now ‘old’ friends – the golden eagles – once again were wheeling overhead. In fact, we spotted so many (around five that day) we almost missed it, until it flew right over us and we realised that was too huge of a bird to be a golden eagle…a sighting of a bright white tail confirmed it. A sea eagle! (or, perhaps more appropriately, a white-tailed eagle). It really was a magical moment, seeing a bird of that size take to the air. Better than that, he was joined by his other half, the pair of them gliding about the cliffs on wings that were almost too big to believe.
Incredibly enough, all that was left to tick off my list were red kites. Knowing these didn’t live on Canna, the rest of the time was spent searching for puffins (we made the epic boggy trip out to the stack that housed them, but sadly they were all tucked up in their burrows – our luck had run out!), picking the abundance of wild garlic that grew behind the bay, and exploring the sea cliffs by kayak.
On the way home we stopped off at Tollie red kite reserve, just outside Inverness. This place is residence to several birds in a semi-wild setting; they are supplemented with food put out by dedicated volunteers, and allowed to come and go at their choosing whilst happy birders watch from the hides. We were lucky enough to arrive at feeding time and miraculously, the birds chose the feeding table nearest to us. I counted no less than seven red kites, and I have to say – for me, they are the most beautiful. Small, with pointed wings and a very distinguished forked tail, they are easily identifiable, and have a gorgeous auburn plumage that lends to their name. Their nicest trait, however, are the incredible aerial acrobatics they display; pirouetting, diving, looping and running circles around the gulls who had come to cash in on free food – all with impressive speed and accuracy. It was a sad moment when they decided enough was enough, and retreated back to the pines that bordered the area.
All in all, an amazing trip. I hardly expected to see one bird of prey, let alone four, and I feel incredibly lucky and humbled to have seen them all in a natural setting. Hopefully, one day, we’ll be seeing more birds of prey on the mainland. But first, we must mitigate the issues that become them, putting an end to the conservation conflict that seems to be associated with so many of these beautiful birds. And that is where my research comes in – now actually having seen them, I feel my passion has been spurred on that little bit more.