Golden eagles are notoriously elusive, and that's what makes them a thrilling UK wildlife sighting. Here, expert Mike Unwin reveals the best Scottish sites for spotting one in the sky...
There is no more stirring sight for the UK wildlife lover than a soaring golden eagle. To catch a glimpse of this magnificent raptor, you must visit the Scottish Highlands, where some 500 pairs now breed.
Nest sites are kept secret – eagles have suffered centuries of persecution – and you should be prepared for a hike, as golden eagles inhabit remote terrain and wander vast distances. Nonetheless, some locations often turn up trumps.
Early spring, when the birds are displaying, is a good time to go searching. Wait for good weather and hit the hills, never taking your eyes off the ridges.
One warning: beware confusing the golden eagle with the white-tailed eagle (or sea eagle).
This even larger species was reintroduced in the 1970s and now breeds in small numbers around the coast. Though less numerous than the golden eagle, it is more obvious.
Known as ‘eagle island’, the Inner Hebridean island of Mull has recently developed a major tourist industry around its breeding sea eagles, with dedicated tours and watch-points.
What is less well-known, however, is that the hills inland – notably around Ben More – also hold a thriving breeding population of golden eagles.
Occasionally you may see the two species soaring together – in which case, you can identify the golden by its relatively smaller head, longer tail and more elegant profile. Don’t go by the tail alone, as juvenile goldies also have a splash of white.
The mountainous coastline of Wester Ross in the north-west highlands offers unbeatable scenic backdrops for a golden eagle sighting.
You might have to work for it, though. This is wild, rugged country and the birds hold enormous breeding territories – 200km2 or more.
Hikes into the mountains behind Gairloch and Gruinard Bay have often proved productive for me, while Bienn Eighe National Nature Reserve is also a top spot.
Listen for the calls of crows or ravens, which are quick to protest at the sight of an eagle and will mob it in mid-air.
The Cairngorms National Park is prime golden eagle country, with the raptors hunting ptarmigan birds and mountain hares high on the tundra-like mountain plateau. Today, the park holds upwards of 50 breeding territories.
Spring sees the eagle perform conspicuous displays above the skyline. In winter, the birds may descend a little lower and can be seen boldly against the white, snowy backdrop.
Just north of the park, between Aviemore and Inverness, the Findhorn Valley is also a hot spot.
The rugged outposts of the Outer Hebrides are home to around one fifth of Scotland’s golden eagles.
These birds are genetically distinct from those on the mainland and Inner Hebrides, and with no competition from foxes or other large predators, they occur in arguably the highest densities in Europe.
The hills of South Uist, Lewis and Harris are all especially good – with nowhere offering more reliable sightings than the North Harris Eagle Observatory.
Best known for its malt whiskys and wintering wild geese, the island of Islay is one of the southernmost outposts of the golden eagle. The best spot for sightings is around the Oa Peninsula on the island’s southern tip.
Here, an RSPB reserve protects several rare raptors, including hen harriers and peregrines, and the eagles are often seen soaring along the sea cliffs.
Don’t confuse them with buzzards, known locally as ‘tourist eagles’. Eagles are nearly twice the size, with longer, more ‘fingered’ wings.
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