I was 8 years old when I saw my first eagle. We were holidaying on Arran and it rained every day for a fortnight. But it didn’t matter that Scotland was wet, I had gone with a firm belief that I would find gold in the mountains and despite the conditions, serendipity soared over us as we stopped along The String to watch a heron – a bird we saw regularly at home. A pair of golden eagles, marshalled by a small squadron of gulls, drifting north to south. A moment etched forever.
Three years later I saw my first white-tailed eagle. Another fluke as we peered over a cliff edge on Staffa looking for puffins, disturbing an eagle that was on a ledge below. A vast sweep of wing and shudder of awe. Even the great black-backed gulls seemed cowed.
Mull became our family’s favoured holiday destination, and as a result I could get my eagle fix with reasonable regularity. But once the journey to the west coast became a road too long for my parents to comfortably travel, and personal finances checked any plans of my own, the eagles floated only in my dreams.
December 2011 was my last sighting, on a day of inspiration with the Idle Traveller, but the decade since has passed without a glimpse. The longest drought of my life and Dorset, as lovely as it is, an unlikely location in which to break it. Until…
I was initially uncertain about the Isle of Wight white-tailed eagle reintroduction programme. The prospect was exciting, and the habitat suitable, but I had been watching with interest the bulge in eagle numbers along the north-west coast of mainland Europe and thought a natural re-colonisation on this side of the Channel almost inevitable. Young birds were drifting across to southern England every winter and I couldn’t help but think that they would be more universally welcomed should they wing their own way. Any reintroduction programme of any species is met with opposition, often with valid concern, but sometimes because the project is championed by the wrong sort of people. The world of wildlife conservation is ever more tribal, with no place for nuance or compromise. And my doubts, when aired, were argued down by Islanders who spoke from their own camp. Public opinion was very much in favour with more than 85% of respondents to a public consultation supporting the project.
Who was I to argue? And let’s be honest, I didn’t really want to argue. The 8 year-old me was bubbling at the prospect and if I have learnt one thing in the past forty years, it is that happiness is easiest found from remembering my mind as a child. But how would I feel when I did see one of the Wight birds? Given the provenance, the fact it would have been laid as an egg in a nest many hundreds of miles away (quite likely on the Isle of Mull). It wouldn’t officially ‘count’ and were I compiling a list then it would have an asterisk beside it. Might the moment be dampened?
As it turned out, no. Not in the slightest.
I was fishing on a local lake. Catching tench that seemed happy to feed in the light and heat of a high summer afternoon. My peripheral vision remains sharp when I’m watching a float, sitting beside water can offer plenty in the course of a day. And to my right, briefly, I registered a large bird being mobbed by several far smaller. They vanished behind the twin alders on the northern bank before I could properly focus, and my rational mind rapidly processed what my eyes had seen. A buzzard, being mobbed by a small group of martins or swallows. Except the smaller birds looked more like crows and the buzzard looked rather more like an eagle…..
As they emerged to the right of the alders I was on my feet and expectant, binoculars at the ready. And sure enough, there was a white-tailed eagle being harried by a squadron of angry corvids. For about 20 seconds I started and stilted and struggled for comprehension. I took no photos but grabbed a few blurred video frames on my phone and then chased down the meadow in a futile attempt to get further views.
The spike of adrenaline was followed by a gush of emotion. I felt close to tears, wonderfully overwhelmed. Those vast wings on a slow beat, the almost absurd enormity. And the surprise. I have seen all manner of raptors while fishing that lake, including hen harrier and osprey, but that moment was so completely unexpected. And while I still hanker for the mountains and the sight of a goldie shadowing a distant ridge, I feel recharged. For the time being, at least.