THERE are many magnificent sights to behold in the Scottish landscape but nothing comes closer to making the heart soar than seeing a golden eagle in full flight.
The recent BBC Winterwatch programme from the Cairngorms showed just how elusive these imperious birds are to capture on camera even with all the latest technology. I have been fortunate enough to have seen golden eagles on more than a few occasions.
The fact I am out on the hills on a weekly basis obviously tips the odds in my favour. I’ve seen these magnificent birds in Assynt, on the Cruachan peaks, in the Fisherfield Forest and in Torridon, and I was once trailed along part of the Rum Cuillin ridge by a curious sea eagle patrolling its territory.
Watching these huge birds effortlessly ride the thermals to rise miles into the sky in a matter of seconds is always a sight to behold.
My most memorable encounter was six years ago on An Sidhean, a mountain which sits tucked away above Loch Monar. It’s a long, lonely trek in on the path which initially follows the shoreline from the dam at the end of Glen Strathfarrar before heading north into even more remote terrain.
It was a grey, leaden day and the views from the summit were limited, but it was the descent that provided the highlight of the walk. As I crested a grassy bump at around 1000 feet, I was aware of a huge shape coming gliding in from the left. It was only around 50 feet away but moving directly across my eyeline.
It was massive, an avian jumbo jet, wings at full stretch and eyes fixed straight ahead as it continued on its silent traverse, a perfect example of power and grace in action. An occasional couple of lazy flaps of the tips of its wings was the only concession to anything that looked like effort.
There was no chance of taking a picture. One second it was there right in front of me, the next it had disappeared over the horizon. But to be so close to such an incredible creature in its natural habitat was a memory to last a lifetime.
Just last year, a friend and I had a bit of a feast of birds of prey while on the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glen Coe.
First we caught sight of what we thought was a merlin diving and swooping at high speed. (In one of those moments that could have been from an early Woody Allen film, we bumped into a friend who is a keen twitcher just a few hours later in the chip shop in Tyndrum. He confirmed it was, indeed, a merlin.)
Then about an hour further along the ridge, we saw a buzzard sail past. But the best was kept for last as we sat having a bite to eat at the summit cairn of Sgorr nam Fiannaidh, the final peak on the ridge.
From the edge of the little summit plateau came a golden eagle, wings fully expanded, undercarriage in full view, rising vertically into the air like a massive spaceship slowly revealing its full size. Hot on its tail came a second, the two playfully performing an aerial ballet for a limited audience.
Then they spotted us and made a sharp exit. They swirled off in the thermals, heading for the Mamores. The whole performance had lasted just seconds but we gave it a standing ovation.
(First published Daily Record, January 30, 2014)