Monday, 14 June 2010

Scotland: Isle Of Skye

Before heading over to the Outer Hebrides, we had decided to stop off for a couple of nights on the Isle Of Skye, mainly because we'd heard such promising tales about the boat trips from Portree, and how close the white-tailed eagles fly past them. The drive from Aviemore over to Skye left me open-mouthed in terms of the scenery. Just breathtaking. Unfortunately, Skye brought two expenses to me that weren't too pleasing.

Firstly, on the way to the island, a car took up more than his fair share of the road coming the other way and forced me off the side of the road and down into a monster of a pothole, damaging an alloy and sending shockwaves through the car, and then later during the trip, a huge logging truck flung a golf-ball sized stone through my windscreen. I'd only had this screen for about 10 months!
Anyway, car incidents aside (and we won't mention Rob's BMW disasters!!) Skye lived up to expectations. The scenery was stunning, and we frequently stopped to take photos. Portree was as I'd seen it on the tv; a small harbour with beautiful views and a decent village behind it.

We had pre-booked 4 trips over the 2 days on the Stardust boat trip and they didn't disappoint. The first on the afternoon when we arrived was quite calm, but it rained and everyone bar me hid in the wheelhouse. I was fully waterproofed up and sat like Billy No Mates out in the rain. Was quite refreshing actually. The rain eased by the time we reached the cliff face where the eagles nest and after a few minutes and several descriptions of where it was later, I eventually spotted the nest, at the foot of a tree.

Even at that distance you could see how large the eagle was. Then the act began. Inject a fish full of air, wave it around for the eagle to see, and lob it over the side. Then hope. Both that the eagle would come down, and that one of the greedy gulls wouldn't wolf it down before the eagle got the chance to perform.

We were lucky in that we had 4 trips and the eagle came down each time. I'll try to describe it, as it's an incredible, mesmeric sight.


Firstly there's a buzz of excitement on the boat as someone spots that the eagle has took off or is headed our way. Even when they're flying at the top of the cliffs, compared to black-backed gulls, the white-tailed eagles look immense. After circling briefly, the descent begins, and wings back, huge legs dangling, this monster of a bird swoops down towards you. The feet on this bird look like human hands in yellow gloves and they pick up the fish just as easily. With minimum splash, the eagle rushes past the side of the boat (at one point close enough to feel the breeze off its wings), grabs the fish and powerfully flies off to the cliff again. Even when the skipper threw over a huge ling (like a 3 foot long eel) the bird simply picked it up and flew away.


Watching and admiring them is one thing, and that in itself made the trip worthwhile, but we were there for photos, and when the boat is full of people, and bobbing around on the water like a cork at times, photographing something flying past isn't easy. Holding down the shutter for a burst of shots resulted in pics of sky, sea, sky, someone's head, boat, sea, part of a blurred eagle, sky and so on. The eagle is past you within 10 seconds and away in no time at all, leaving you chimping your shots and moaning at your inability to track flying birds.

I really could have done with a 70-200mm F2.8 lens, as Ian and Rob both had, as I found my 100-400 a little slow to focus, gave too slow a shutter speed and was in some instances, too much lens for the bird. Still, I had a go and some pics came out okay, and a little time spent adjusting levels etc in my graphics packages yielded some reasonable results, which I'm quite pleased with.


The remainder of the time on Skye was spent tootling around the lanes, hoping to see anything of interest. North of Portree is an expanse of high ground where we spotted a pair of short-eared owls quartering the fields, but at a distance, and on another trip, we found a narrow winding road leading up and over the main mountains on the island. Terrific views from the top, and the others had a great view of a golden eagle as it lazily soared from the mountainside. I was looking at a hairpin at the time, hoping my windscreen wouldn't crack from another pothole...

It was up here that I got my first decent views (and images) of a hooded crow. Another new species (sub species perhaps?) which look so much more interesting than the normal black crows. And despite my dodgy eye sight, I managed to spot a golden eagle sat eating something atop of one of the rocky towers in the distance. Too far for pics, though Rob hurried over closer to try, not knowing it had flown off as he wandered over!

Both evenings were spent at the bar / restaurant of the hotel Eilean Larmain overlooking the Sound of Sleat, which was idyllic. Food and beer were great too. I'd like to stay longer on the isle next time - seemed to be a lot of interest on it, amazing scenery, decent restaurants and bars to visit, and still connected to the mainland, so fuel wasn't so dear.

2 comments:

Max Silverman said...

Super stuff again Pete.The eagles look scary chaps.Great shots.

Jessica said...

Hi,

Would you like to receive news releases and review copies of Princeton University Press's forthcoming birding and natural history books? Please contact me at jgood@brynmawr.edu for more information.

Best,
Jessica