Highland Diary

Photographing Golden Eagles

  • December 24, 2015

Golden Eagle Summer

At the start of the year photographing Golden Eagles at an eyrie wasn’t on my to-do list but when I located an eyrie in a big ‘granny’ native pine it was an opportunity that I could not pass by. The nest was in a tree (or one close to it) that last had an eagle eyrie in it in the mid-1980s. As far as I am aware the eagles had not tried to nest in the pinewood in the intervening years. Perhaps the late spring snows had pushed the birds down into the glen from a high corrie where there are a couple of traditional rock eyries.
Given the exceptionally cold weather in May and June I did not start photography until late June. By which time the eaglet was robust enough to withstand the rigors of the unusually cold Scottish summer and was able to feed itself. The female was spending most of her time on guard duty in trees nearby, only visiting the eyrie periodically, either to refurbish the nest with green pine branches or to remove old prey remains and pellets cast up by the eaglet. Once she came in with a bedraggled pipit which the chick promptly swallowed whole. On another occasion she made a half-hearted effort to feed the eaglet, which by that time was standing nearly as tall as she was. The male was the main provider. He brought in prey up to three times a day. Red grouse were most the frequent by far; other birds included Ptarmigan and Common Snipe. On one occasion there were the remains of a Badger cub on the nest. One hot sunny afternoon when the shimmer from heat haze was making photography all but impossible the male dumped a headless mammal at the back of the nest. The identity of the prey item had me stumped. Back home I was able to enlarge a few of the fuzzy record pictures on the computer. The mystery creature had a smooth haired pale tan coloured belly and I could just make out cloven hoofs on legs that were proportionally far too short for it to be a deer calf. I could only conclude that the eagles were preying on the local wild boar. I was seeing the belly of a piglet presented towards the camera but could see nothing of the give-away hum-bug striped back.
By the end of July I was sure that the female was no longer roosting on or near the eyrie. In near darkness I would watch her fly in to roost in old pines much higher up the hill out of sight of the eyrie. It was then possible to reach the hide in darkness unseen by either the adults or young bird on the eyrie. That way I was able to work from my hide right up until the time that eaglet fledged without the risk of spooking it out of the eyrie prematurely, as appearing so close to the nest in broad daylight might easily have done. The only downside to this strategy was my having to spend up to twenty hours at a time in a hide with barely enough room to sit up in or to stretch out to sleep. Getting to see the young eagle make its maiden flight made hardship worthwhile, something that I doubt that I will get to see again.