Ronan Dugan is a research assistant at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science and is one of 6 full time fieldworkers on the RSPB/SNH National Golden Eagle Survey 2015. The six-month survey of golden eagles, which started in January, is co-funded by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the RSPB. Surveys will be carried out by licensed surveyors from the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science in collaboration with those from the Scottish Raptor Study Group.
First Impressions of eagle surveying on the Isle of Lewis
Isle of Lewis. Late January. The cold grey clouds form a low ceiling over the peatlands. The lower flanks of the mountains of North Harris are just visible and painted a dirty white with wet windblown snow. The many small lochans that cover this landscape would be better placed on the Arctic tundra.
The wind is relentless; part vandal, part thief, smashing the ice as it passes through the landscape and trying to take winters’ grip on the land away. The rain and hail travel across the land in waves, just like the water of the north Atlantic a few miles away. You can see the squalls approaching, one after another. They are armed and loaded, ready to do battle with the land. But still the golden eagles will fly.
Slowly I walk across the peatlands, dodging the lochans and bogs. My distance is probably double to what the eagle would fly. The walking is far from easy. Tussocks and the energy sapping soft ground slow my progress. The cold northerly wind numbs my face and the brief hail showers force me to stop and turn my back to the elements of the north Atlantic. Perhaps I should have packed my ski goggles. Maybe I should have swapped my camera for an extra layer of warm clothing?
However, for now I am well equipped with my wax-proof jacket - gore-tex doesn’t last in these conditions. I continue on towards a hill where I suspect an eagle might fly. It’s a lone hill protruding out of the peatlands with crags on the northern side. Ideal for golden eagles.
From a distance of about two kilometres and in between the showers I watch this hill and sure enough I am rewarded with views of a pair of golden eagles. They are hanging in the wind some 200ft above the northern side of the hill. They are an adult pair. This is exactly where I expected them to be.
In the winter when there’s no strong thermals (hot air rising) the eagles and other raptors will select the side of the hill where there is an updraft. In this case the wind is from the north so they were above the northern face. Occasionally they dropped below the hill but soon reappeared. I didn’t see them flap their wings once. They were able to hang above that hill effortlessly and watch out over their territory.
The sky behind the eagles is darkening. A squall is approaching. I expect the eagles to take shelter on the crags but instead they fly north west, one after another. They drop low to the ground but I’m able to follow them in my telescope. They quarter the ground, rising and falling but only occasionally flapping their wings. The squalls suddenly hits and I am forced to take shelter and lose sight of the eagles. I think to myself that they must have flown straight through that squall. Perhaps they were hunting together as eagles can often ambush prey more easily in poor weather.
I head home content with what I have seen and with the wind on my back. I will return to this area in a few months and hope to find a nest site on the northern side of the hill. Cold and tired and on my walk home across the bogs I keep thinking about the eagles. Did they catch something? Did they find a sheltered crag or are they still soaring above their territory? I am in envy at their ease to cope with the weather. They must be used to it, or very hungry.
Once more I turn to the now distant hill and the eagles are soaring above it again in the late afternoon sun. From dawn to dusk on these short winter days the eagles seem to fly. They are relentless, just like the wind that helps them fly.
For more information: http://www.rspb.org.uk/news/390553-golden-eagle-numbers-to-be-revealed-by-fourth-national-survey
Scottish Natural Heritage (http://www.snh.gov.uk/) & Scottish Raptor Study Group (http://www.scottishraptorstudygroup.org/)