The Unofficial National Bird of Scotland - The Golden Eagle
So, yes, there is no official National Bird of Scotland. The Golden Eagle is one of the most impressive birds in Scotland, its might dominating the skies for those lucky enough to see it, but alas, as yet, it has not attained official National Bird status, but that does not diminish the joy of trying to spot one.
In April 2017 my wife, Laura and I walked the Glen Affric Trail from the vibrant city of Inverness to the peaceful village of Glenelg. Essentially this was a Scottish coast to coast adventure, having traditionally picked up our pebbles from the Moray Firth in the northeast and skimmed them it into the sea whilst looking out across Kyle Rhea to the cloud-shrouded peaks on Skye. It was a spectacular walk, with views reserved only for those who walk the trail, hiking through Scotland’s native Caledonian pine forest, across heather clad moors, the path winding beneath sky scraping peaks. But, for all the splendid scenery, when I am office bound and need a ‘natural fix’ I tap into my ‘natural memory bank’ and bring forth images of the wildlife we saw...the birds…the birds of prey…and, in particular, the eagle!
I am a very lucky man, as I live in Scotland, which is fortunately also the preferred home of many birds of prey, or raptors, call them what you will. Think hawks and falcons, those dashing denizens of the sky. The fish targeting, depth charging ospreys. The wing cantered, ground quartering harriers. The soaring, broad winged buzzards, and acrobatic tail twisting kites. We have all of these. But the pièce de résistance? The eagles!
Oh, yes, we have eagles in Scotland and not just one species, but two. One is the sea eagle, or white-tailed eagle, or even the white-tailed sea eagle! A veritable flying bedstead, huge broad wings that you CANNOT miss as it soars along coastal ridges or sits out in full view on a rock in the middle of an island bay! Reintroduced into Scotland since the 1970’s after being persecuted to extinction in the 1800’s, this is our largest bird of prey, and indeed the fourth largest in the world. My top tip to see one of these gigantic raptors is to head to the Isle of Mull, where special viewing areas have been created for tremendous views. There have also been introductions in Fife and Angus, so keep your eyes peeled when exploring the east coast also.
The true top avian predator of the mountain regions is the golden eagle, the would-be National Bird of Scotland, a huge bird and when you have seen one you will not forget it in a hurry. Folks who have crossed the border into Scotland and are driving on the major artery roads to the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh will often cry out ‘Eagle!!’ as they whizz past a brooding sentinel sitting atop a fence post.
Starting out on the West Highland Way, the cry from intrepid walkers comes again, ‘Eagle!’, fingers pointed at a lazy soaring bird that is coasting along above the Glengoyne distillery. Well, the chances are that these are actually buzzards, the ‘tourist eagle’ of the unkind. A fine bird of prey in its own right and increasing its range across the whole of the UK. But the cries come because people want to see what should rightly be the National Bird of Scotland, they want to be members of this unique Scottish wildlife experience. And indeed, you can, but you may have to work for it!
So, where does one have to go to get the best golden eagle sighting? Well, these are birds of the mountains. Hang on, Scotland is full of mountains! Okay, let’s drill down a bit to assist. Imagine that you are on the West Highland Way with the Highlands ahead of you as you walk northward. When you have explored the wonderful forests of Inversnaid, the ‘bonny banks of Loch Lomond’ to your left, scan the ridges to your right and you may be rewarded with a view of our special bird as it breaks the skyline. In my experience, golden eagles do not often give themselves away by soaring above you as you gaze up in wonder. They often keep to the slopes and ridges, always on the lookout for an unwary mountain hare, or carrion from a deceased stag. They are also fast! Indeed, the second fastest bird in the world when they are in full speed stoop.
If you do have the opportunity to get off the beaten track and head further up into the Highland areas, be it in the regions of Torridon in the north west, Kintyre in the west or Cairngorm in the north east you once again in for a good chance to view the bird. Let’s head across to the islands of Skye and Mull and beyond to the Outer Hebrides. Here, the populations are relatively healthy, and you have a fantastic chance of viewing if you scan the mountain areas. Every time I pop across to the Isle of Arran, I see golden eagles in the north of the island. If you can tear your eyes away from the loafing common seals, or roadside red deer, look skyward towards the peaks and wait. Nothing yet? Keep walking onward and look again! When you see it, you will know! Imagine a buzzard on steroids, huge outstretched wings over two metres wide that dwarf those of a buzzard.
So, back to my original story. When my wife and I were walking on the final stretch of the Glen Affric Trail, ascending through the valley out of Sheil Bridge, Laura shouted ‘Eagle!’ and as my eyes followed her frantically pointing fingers, I saw the never-ending wings stretched wide and huge dark streamlined body as it passed over our heads flying between the ridges on either side. It was one of those extremely special wildlife moments, reserved for us alone. Laura swore that the bird was watching us, so that we were part of its existence! You too can have one these special experiences, so get out there into the wilds of Scotland and look skyward!