A tale of two birds

My favourite armchair is located adjacent to our east-facing lounge window, from where I can look out over the bay at Kilaulay just about thirty metres to my right and observe the coming and going of the tides, the constantly changing colours of the water and the sky, the view across the Eabhal on North Uist, up to the mountains of Harris (on a good day) and across to McLeod’s Tables and the Cuillins on Skye. As well as the ups and downs of the lives of the bird population – a variety of shore birds, largely, as well as a variety of farmland birds and our ever-present, and thriving, gang of starlings.

Treating myself to a morning on Twitter, as a result of an attack of the lurgy (a touch of Australian Flu, undoubtedly) getting on top of my other plans, I became aware at the edge of my vision of a large bird making steady, slightly laboured, progress southerly down the bay, level with my eyeline sitting down. Glancing up, and taking in the gull which was tracking it at a somewhat respectful distance, my first thought was ‘Oh, grey heron’, before I became aware of its reddish-brown colour… and then, as the chills ran down my spine and my eyes opened wider (probably my mouth also fell open, too, although I couldn’t comment), I became aware of the mightily powerful hooked beak at the front end, and then the white tail feathers at the back as it disappeared from my view, me looking backwards over my shoulder. Not a heron, then. We do get regular sightings both of buzzards and also hen harriers but this was clearly much, much bigger. White-tailed eagle, surely. Almost dropping the laptop as I leapt out of my seat, I dashed through the house to the bedroom, flinging open the window (and paying suitably scant attention to Aussie Flu) to get a better view… but nothing. It had gone. The rest of the local bird life continued without a great deal of bother – itself something of a marker since white-tails are largely, though not exclusively, birds of carrion rather than hunters of live prey. My look at it had probably totalled little more than a second, of which the first 0.25 was spent thinking it was a heron (and thus no time for photos, though my camera is usually on the ledge beside my binoculars, and my RSPB Handbook, specifically to help with bird ID).

Amateur birder that I am, I tried to recall exactly what I’d seen as well as the scene itself – recognising that sometimes my assessments and judgments are formed by what I have seen, and sometimes the reverse. But I’m fairly sure of what I saw: and, luckily for me, the Outer Hebrides birds website records an adult white-tail this morning at Baleshare, a little to the north of here as the eagle flies. So I’m taking that as confirmation.

It’s the first white-tail I’ve seen here in Ardivachar – though I know that there are white-tails and golden eagles further south on South Uist, with the hills and terrain being territorially more suited to both, although white-tails are also happy around farmland and, of course, the coast since fish is a major part of their diet. I’ve seen a white-tail before – both at a bird of prey demonstration (though static that day) and also from the little boat heading out of Portree harbour on Skye (though it was the ‘Lady B’ back in 2008), where the birds nest on the cliffs just to the south of the town. But that time – when a gull was also paying close attention – there was a very high chance of seeing one (and there was a bonus sighting not only of Sammy the Seal but harbour dolphins that day, too); this time, my sighting of this most majestic of birds – the UK’s largest bird of prey, with a massive 2m wing span – was in the absolute wild. Just for a second, or so.

A couple of hours later, I’m watching from the same spot (still hoping my white-tail would return) some oystercatchers and a few black-headed gulls, as well as starlings and redwings, poking about for worms on the grassy strip between the end of our garden and the shoreline, the tide being in retreat. It’s unusual to see shore birds do this except at this time of year and I don’t know whether it’s because food supplies are scarce at this time or whether they are looking for extra nutrients ahead of the breeding season. Probably the former. Noticing that one of our little population of redwings – a thrush-like migratory bird and winter visitor from northern Europe which is unusual in that it tends to move around rather than migrate to and from a particular spot – was scattering around the top of the picnic table, I popped out with a little extra help (some berry-flavoured suet) when I noticed one of its brothers lying on the thin strip of concrete path that runs around the house; quite dead, and recently so. Given its location, it must have fallen dead from a perch on the roof or chimney, perhaps succumbing to the winter cold (although it looked in good condition); or, alternatively, it might have been driven, sparked by fear and panic, into the window, a fate of many birds which break their necks on contact with the glass (although there was no tell-tale mark on the glass itself).

What to do? It had no BTO ring, so there was nothing formal to report, leaving the two choices of scooping it up and putting it in the dustbin; or returning it to the ground, perhaps a little softer than the unforgiving concrete on which I had found it. Of course, I chose the latter, placing it on the croft land outside the house where the energies that had given it such vitality in life could, in death, give nourishment to something else in the complex food chain. Nature is self-sustaining (when not interfered with by humans, that is) and a noble death for any animal is perhaps that it may then subsequently play it role and take its place in nourishing what comes after it. Including humans too, I might venture.

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Amazing what can crop up in your photos…

Thursday last week was a beautiful day on the islands: calm, with winds dropping to the single digits mph from the 40/50+ they’d been for much of the previous seven days and with cloudless, spring-like blue skies.

In short, a good day for travelling – and good timing, too; as we’d long planned a trip off-island via the Lochmaddy-Uig ferry.

Seeing the colour of the skies – and the Cuillin ridge on Sky, visible from our house for the first time in weeks of mist and low cloud cover – I made sure my camera (a simple Canon compact) was with me in the front of the car and, coming off the ferry (a first time for me on the MV Hebridean Isles, I started snapping away through the windscreen as we came down through Skye and especially as the Cuillin Ridge came into view. On my second effort, I was aware of two lapwings that rose from the left, startled, across the road and my field of view just as I pressed the shutter release (I know: they probably don’t still call them that). I thought little of it – lapwings are easily disturbed – and, on checking that my view of the total width of the Black Cuillins had indeed been photobombed by a lapwing, nearly deleted it immediately. It’s not, in any case, a great photo (enhancing (as I have done below) via software easily available over the internet improves somewhat the original over-exposure of the ridge and restores a little of the blue sky, although I’ve lost quite a bit in straightening the horizon line). Further down the road, once I’d got my focusing sorted out, I have much better snaps – although that is all they are, given the circumstances – albeit of the Red Cuillins, not the Black ones.

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And yet, and yet. Look a bit closer. What’s the bird in the middle of the photo? One of the disturbed lapwings is clear enough, in the foreground, but that bird top centre, a little further distant. Is that ‘fingers’ visible on the end of its brown, and very broad, right wing, or a simple blur of movement as the bird changes direction? Is that an interesting-looking tail arrangement, or a mistake in the colours given the limits of the photograph being taken? Something in any way potentially predatory, looking to cut off the lapwing’s exit right? Zooming close in on the bird in question, gives me this, inevitably poor quality, blurred shot:

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Clearly it is a raptor which has raised the lapwings – and a major one, judging by what seems to be a fearsome hooter. Look at the power in those shoulders. My first thought was a white-tailed eagle (which I have seen, memorably, on Skye before, in a boat trip out of Portree harbour a little way south into the Sound of Raasay). The wings are not big or broad enough for a white-tailed, however – but it is most certainly a golden eagle: most specifically, a juvenile one: the white tail tipped with black feathers gives it away. My first, confirmed, sighting of a goldie, too: and in what dramatic circumstances – the bird seems to be clearly arching in towards the second, slower of the two lapwing(s) although whether they or something else is the target of the hunt is uncertain. I (and the passengers in the other drivers in the convoy of cars coming down Skye from Uig) seem to have been an unwitting, uninvited witness to a strike by one of the UK nature’s finest, and perhaps most feared, killing machines.

Or is it my sighting? Yes, it is absolutely a golden eagle (unless anyone with better knowledge can correct me!). But does a picture of one – a moment in and out of time – really count as a sighting? Especially one in which the bird in question features as a mistake, and from the safe, sealed environment of the inside of a car? What makes my picture of the young goldie any different from one I’ve seen in a book or on the RSPB website? Yes, I took the picture – but I didn’t mean actually to take a picture of a golden eagle. And – to confess the key point in my philosophical ramble – I can’t recall whether I actually saw it live: I’ve only seen it on my photo. Yes, dear reader, I took a picture of a golden eagle without actually seeing one. What happened after its swoop – the key part in its hunger chase – I didn’t catch: my attention was all on the lapwing(s) with the cheek to photobomb my shot of the Cuillin Ridge, which quickly went out of sight on the moorland to the right and behind as the car continued to roll forwards. Does an image of a bird, unseen in the original, really count as a sighting in these circumstances? The lapwing is a striking and exotic enough bird but not only is it a bit commonplace (red listed it may be but, in the Hebrides, they’re really two-a-penny), in these particular circumstances, sighting a lapwing is the very definition of anti-climax.

I think my quest for a confirmed golden eagle sighting might well have to continue – even if I could scarcely have got closer this time. But it does demonstrate the importance of paying attention; seeing the full picture and not losing focus in the frustrations of a moment apparently lost but which, when afforded the opportunity of such hindsight, had the makings of something much, much better.