Highland Diary

Getting close to Golden Eagles


Getting close enough to reliably get pictures of wild Golden Eagles is something that requires more than a little effort on the part of the photographer. Chance encounters out on the open hill are unpredictable and usually distant. More often than not you end up with a view of a bird against the sky gaining height and soaring out of sight over the top of the nearest hill.

Last autumn I was approached by another wildlife photographer who was working on a project photographing Golden Eagles. I agreed to assist him in his quest. I took him to see a number of eyries where I had photographed birds in the past. He was keen to leave a remote camera set up fairly close to an eyrie. None of my sites were really that suitable. A camera position would have either been too distant to trigger a remote sensor or so close as to be too intrusive on the eyrie. It was a question of waiting to see which eyries would be chosen by the birds in early spring. Most pairs have a number of alternatives some of which are not accessible to photography, added to that some birds fail to get into condition to breed successfully every year. In the end locally only one site was suitable, a pair of eagles that I had worked with in 2015 were using an eyrie high in an ancient Scots Pine, situated in a remote glen, for the third successive year. Camouflaging a hide thirty or so metres away in waist deep heather on the slope overlooking the eyrie didn’t involve any of the heroics usually involved in setting up a hide on a cliff nest.

I started my photography at the end of the first week in July by which time the eaglet was becoming more able to feed itself and the female was no longer roosting near the eyrie. In 2015 I had found that the early  morning light was best for photography. As the day progressed the nest went into heavy shadow contrasting with brightly lit hillside beyond. So as not to disturb the eagles when the light was at its best it was necessary for my wife to escort me to the hide in the late evening and for me sleep there overnight. No need for an alarm, the young eaglet was already shouting for his breakfast in the early dawn. This eaglet was undoubtedly the most vocal that I have ever known. Most call when an adult is approaching the eyrie and occasionally when an adult is sitting nearby. This eaglet called continuously whenever an adult was in view and even when it could see an adult was perched on the other side of the glen a mile away. Its calls reached a crescendo on the imminent arrival of one of the adults at the eyrie. At this stage their visits every two to four hours were usually brief. Prey would immediately be taken and mantled by the eaglet. The now redundant adult would have a brief look round before taking to the air once more. By mid-afternoon the light had usually deteriorated to such an extent that photography was no longer worthwhile. It was time to call my wife on the radio and get her to come and escort me from the hide.

Most Golden Eagles fledge in the last days of July. This bird still had not left the eyrie at the end of the first week of August well after it would have been capable of flight. It was well into the second week before the eaglet eventually flew from the eyrie and I was able to go and retrieve the hide without causing undue disturbance. As I packed my gear away into the car I could hear the young eagle calling out to its parents from somewhere in the pines nearly a mile away on the opposite side of the glen.