The White Tailed Eagles of Skye

The White Tailed Eagles of Skye
The MV Brigadoon prepares for departure in Portree harbour

The MV Brigadoon prepares for departure in Portree harbour

Anyone who is a birder must at some point want to tick off our largest bird of prey – the White Tailed Eagle, Haliaeetus albicilla (Sea Eagle or Erne), and the Isle of Skye is one of the best places to do this. Boat trips can be taken from Portree out to the sea cliffs where the eagles nest, and there is also a good chance of seeing golden eagle too.

Successfully reintroduced into the UK after being wiped out by gamekeepers and land owners, this enormous bird is now a common sight in some areas of Western Scotland and they are slowly gaining ground in the East. The last known sea eagle in Britain was shot in 1918 in Shetland, but they had been recorded as nesting as far south as the Isle of Wight in 1780. So instead of being a regular sight around our coastline, they are now isolated to a few localised areas.

An ambitious plan to reintroduce them started in 1968 when chicks were brought over from Norway. In 2004 there was a recorded 31 pairs so they are still extremely rare in the UK, but with patience, hard work and a little luck this magnificent bird could be seen on a regular occurrence.

We had taken a quick trip to Skye in March 2012 as the weather forecast was absolutely perfect (unlike this year), the only other time we had visited Skye it had rained. A lot. The MV Brigadoon had been highly recommended to us by some other photographer friends as there are some local shenanigans that occur from another company offering the same trip.

The boat leaves from Portree harbour, and I would advise telephoning them for weather and sailing information. They will also fill you in on where to meet the skipper. We had been warned that the other boat will try and poach you if they see you hanging around so make sure you get the skippers name and check you are actually boarding the Brigadoon!

A small raft of Common Eiders, Somateria mollissima in Portree Harbour, Isle of Skye

A small raft of Common Eiders, Somateria mollissima in Portree Harbour, Isle of Skye

Keep your eye out for black guillemot, Cepphus grylle and common eider, Somateria mollissima in the harbour. The boat journey lasts for around 2 hours depending on conditions and skipper Pete is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable

Look out for delightful Black Guillemots, Cepphus grylle in Portree harbour, Isle of Skye

Look out for delightful Black Guillemots, Cepphus grylle in Portree harbour, Isle of Skye

The aim of the trip is to find the resident pair which nest on the local cliffs, the skipper will then throw a fish into the sea to try and get the birds to fly down and grab the fish. This is all carefully monitored by the RSPB with strict regulations as to how close the boats can approach the cliffs. We did observe the other boat breaking these rules to get a closer view of the eagles which is why I strongly urge you to go with a responsible company that has respect for the wildlife.

It takes about 30 minutes to reach the cliffs and then its down to the mercy of wildlife as to whether you can find the birds, and even if you find them they may not fly for you. We were warned when boarding that as the weather was unbelievably calm, then there might not be enough wind for them to take off. That doesn’t happen very often in Scotland!

We had taken a morning sailing and as it was extremely early in the season we were fortunate enough to be the only people on the boat. We were then the sole benefits of the skippers knowledge for the next 2 hours. It seemed that Peter has an immense wealth of information on not only the wildlife but also the local history, geology, culture, and photography.

Common or European Shag, Phalacrocorax aristotelis in fine breeding plumage. Isle of Skye, Scotland.

Common or European Shag, Phalacrocorax aristotelis in fine breeding plumage. Isle of Skye, Scotland.

Unfortunately, the weather did prove to be against us, we had a very distant spotting of an eagle on its nest but other than a beautifully lit shag, Phalacrocorax aristotelis, and some guillemots, Uria aalge we failed to see anything of blood rushing excitement. (Despite this I would happily recommend the trip just to get a different view of the islands and coastline).

So I did what any other wildlife obsessed photographer did, I booked us on the next trip. And we got lucky!

Peter took us on a slightly different route this trip so we got to see a golden eagle, albeit a distant one, soaring high above the cliffs. We then went to check on the sea eagles and boy did we get a show.

The other boat was already there and threw a fish as we arrived. Fortunately this put us in the perfect position regarding the light and I managed to grab a succession of shots as the eagle came in for its fish. You then get to see just how big they actually are. Sometimes referred to as the “flying barn door”, the bird has a wingspan of almost 2.5 metres and can be up to 1 metre long.

The White Tailed Eagle, Haliaeetus albicilla, catching a fish. Isle of Skye, Scotland

The White Tailed Eagle, Haliaeetus albicilla, catching a fish. Isle of Skye, Scotland

Peter, then threw a fish for the other bird and this one flew too, but the light wasn’t as good this time so my best shot was as it flew back to shore to eat its catch. Interestingly when this bird caught the fish it couldn’t get the lift to get back up in the air so it floated for a couple of minutes and the  used its wings to propel itself to shore. After a couple of minutes of very concerned viewing it managed to get airborne again.

All in all this was one of the best wildlife viewings  and trips that I have ever had, and that is comparing it to Bengal tigers, orca and grizzly bears. It was a privilege to see and share a moment with this magnificent bird and I only hope that this will become a more common sight around the UK.

The White Tailed Eagle, Haliaeetus albicilla, flies off to eat its catch on the shore. Isle of Skye, Scotland

The White Tailed Eagle, Haliaeetus albicilla, flies off to eat its catch on the shore. Isle of Skye, Scotland

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