Week ending February 15th   Leave a comment

This week should perhaps be called Wild West Coast rather than Wild Crail because I have retreated to Skye. There are many reasons to come to Skye but one of the main ones for me is the eagles – one of the highest densities of golden eagles in Scotland and now plenty of white-tailed (or sea) eagles too. I will have to be fantastically lucky to ever see a golden eagle around Crail. It’s not impossible, young birds wander down as far as the Midlands during the winter, but I won’t put any money on it. Sea eagles however are Crail birds even now. The pair at Tentsmuir bred successfully again last year and there are now 3-4 pairs breeding on the eastern side of the country. That said, I haven’t seen one around Crail for a couple of years. Although the reintroduction into Fife is looking like a success it might be another 20 years before they are reliable daily birds around Crail. You need to come to the inner Hebrides for that. So here I am at Elgol, overlooking the Cullins, Rhum and in the distance Ardnamurchan and Mull. The epicentre of sea-eagles in Scotland, with supporting cast of golden eagles over the hills behind me.

A buzzard being mobbed by a carrion crow - crows are usually the best size comparison to identify a distant bird of prey.  Unless it's a jackdaw of course...

A buzzard being mobbed by a carrion crow – crows are usually the best size comparison to identify a distant bird of prey. Unless it’s a jackdaw of course…

The first day I was here this week I walked out of the cottage where I am staying and saw a large bird of prey over the next door hill. There are buzzards everywhere on Skye and I could hear a couple mewing away so I just glanced at it. Then a relatively much smaller bird of prey sailed down to join it – wings in a V, a long tail and a white rump: a hen harrier mobbing the now clearly obviously very large bird of prey – a golden eagle. The buzzard mewing then became clear – there were two buzzards a little way above the eagle keeping pace with it and “escorting it off the premises” just like the hen harrier. Again both buzzards looked small next to the eagle. I was grateful for the size comparison, although I am fairly confident at splitting a buzzard from a golden eagle, it was great to have it all laid out for me.

It is very, very hard to judge size in birds of prey at any kind of distance. We only know how big things are because we know what they are. An unknown bird of prey might be small and close or far away and massive. Unless it flies behind a known landmark or in my case a hen harrier that you can identify independently then an estimate of size is of no use for identification. It always makes my heart sink when I am asked to identify an unknown bird and I’m told – “oh no it can’t be that, it was much too big”. Unless this statement is backed up with something like – “it was much larger than the swan it was flying beside” – then it is bound to be inaccurate. You have to be able to identify the bird the mystery bird was flying next to, and if you have a mystery bird then you probably can’t reliably identify its companion. All most unsatisfactory. A large bird of prey seen around Crail can of course be a sea eagle, although it’s more likely to be a buzzard that can also look huge as they glide in front of a car or sit on a roadside fence post, or even a female sparrowhawk as it swoops past closely. My best tips for judging how big things are without something to reference against are the size of the head relative to the body (larger birds have proportionately smaller heads) and the wing beat frequency (larger birds have slower deeper wingbeats). Wind speed and species with tiny heads (like pigeons and honey buzzards) can mess these rules up of course but I like birding because of these exceptions and difficulties. It can be exasperating when you start birding though. If you stick to the rule – never use size to identify a bird unless it is right next to something you are absolutely sure you know what it is – then you won’t ever go wrong.

I am on a size theme this week because eagles are just so big and every time I see one – even thousands of eagles down the line – I am still knocked out about how big they are. On Friday looking out to sea from Elgol I saw what I initially thought was a gull with an odd wingbeat. Through my binoculars it was clearly a sea eagle, just pulling up from the waves after catching a fish, and then flying as fast as it could back to Skye to escape two great black-backed gulls intent on stealing its prey. Now great black-backed gulls themselves are huge – over 1.5 meter wing spans and capable of swallowing a puffin whole. They looked puny compared to the white-tailed eagle. A body like a barrel, two barn doors for wings and an almost comically huge bill (although have a google at the closely related Steller’s sea eagle for a really ridiculously huge bill on an eagle). This eagle was really working hard to outpace the gulls which followed for a couple of kilometres before it disappeared over a headland. Even this giant bird was soon lost in the landscape of the mountains and lochs. Skye is a place of landscape superlatives and both eagles fit right in to the scale of the place.

An adult white-tailed eagle on the West coast

An adult white-tailed eagle on the West coast

To contrast with this – I walked in the Cullins for a few hours on Saturday and didn’t see a single living thing that wasn’t a plant or a human. No birds at all. Winter, inland amongst the deforested and trashed heather landscape of Skye is not for anything that can move to somewhere else. A stark beauty of landscape for sure, but skeletal and lifeless. Crail might not have the eagles but it is a lot gentler and alive in February.

Posted February 15, 2015 by wildcrail in Sightings

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