Monday 29 March 2021

Sky Dances With Hen Harriers And A Golden Couple

March arrived like a lamb, and it appears to be sticking with tradition, going out like a lion with gales and heavy rain. In fact, the last few days have seen hail, sleet and even snow falling here.

The weather might not seem very spring-like, but the wildlife is definitely showing signs of it. Our walks along the forestry tracks, once remarkably silent are now accompanied by bird song. I heard goldcrest, chaffinch, robin and even crossbills calling earlier.

But one of the sights I had hoped to see during spring was that of hen harriers sky-dancing. This is where the male and female court in some spectacular displays in the air, with the male soaring high, then diving down in steep swoops, before rising again, to repeat the "dance".

A male caught my attention as he hunted beside the road I was driving along. With his grey and black plumage, and flash of white on the base of his tail, he's hard to miss, but annoyingly flew away over the hills before I could park up for a shot. But knowing he was around encouraged me to spend some time in that area, and that resulted in some incredible views of two pairs dancing.

Initially I watched from the car, and at a distance too far off for anything worthwhile on the camera. But returning the following day, I walked into the hills, and tucked myself away behind a large rock, and waited.

It wasn't the sight of the male that alerted me, but their call. I knew one was around, and scanned the slopes with my bins.

A male and female, and they were flying close together.

As the male flew over her, she flipped over, like harriers do when they do their food pass, but not quite touching talons. Amazing to watch, and close enough for my long lens to capture.

She dropped down low, and he headed up the hill, gaining height, before angling back down, zipping back to meet her in the air.

Being so close to each other, allowed me to see the physical size difference between the genders. She is considerably larger.

The dance continued, with the female doing the chasing.

When they separated, he soared to the top of the hills and circled for a while, before she headed back into the sheltered area below, and again he dropped in to meet her.

I stayed there for hours, and enjoyed numerous sightings of the harriers, only realising later on, when a male and female flew over, followed immediately by another male, that I had been watching at least two pairs.

Rather than me waffling on about the sight, I'll let the pictures do the talking...

Wonderful to observe such behaviour and to be able to capture some of it with the camera.

I have to say, I thought this encounter would serve me well for this latest blog entry, but having had a taste of the action from the harriers, I of course, tried several times more to see the same thing. I even scaled one of the nearby hills to see if I could get a different angle, but instead, I got blown off my feet in gales, and saw almost nothing.

I say "almost", as I did see another raptor in the distance. A golden eagle, and when the harriers failed to show on yet another visit, I saw that there was a pair of golden eagles hunting over some moorland. Annoyingly, given the lack of people on Mull at the moment, when I tried to race to a spot where I could be close enough for a decent image of them hunting low over the ground, three cars materialised out of nowhere, and I had to wait, by which time the eagles had moved on.

But I tried again, on another day, and after watching several white-tailed eagles soar over the hills, I spotted the pair of golden eagles circling high, and they started to head in my direction. My imagination, for what might be a magical encounter, is pretty creative, so you can guess how I felt when one of the eagles read my mind, folded back its wings, and went into a stooping dive, right down towards me.

It was a very breezy day, and the wind was blowing right up the hillside towards them, allowing them to use it, to simply hang in the air. But a flick of those enormous wings, and they accelerated away, higher and out of sight over the ridge.

I was buzzing, and wondered if they'd return. Moments later, one appeared high in the sky again, quickly joined by the other, and together, as if choreographed by some wonderful force, they began to descend down the hillside once more.

Initially I tried to keep both in shot, but when they drifted too far apart, I focused on the closer one, and watched as it slowly approached, before lowering its landing gear, and vanishing behind the ridge.

I wondered if the other one would join it, and perhaps give me the chance of more shots of them together?

It did, but then one popped out into view again, scouring the side of the hill for movement, with no sign of its partner. I didn't mind too much, I mean, how can you, when there's a golden eagle flying around in front of you?

But then suddenly there were two again, albeit that bit far apart to get both in some sort of focus. Which to focus on? I favoured the closer one, until it dropped from view.

Again they separated, and I wondered if the moment had passed, but they appeared over the ridge, this time much lower down, and much closer together. My heart was racing.

I had no problem getting both in the same shot, and they got so close to one another, it appeared as though their wings had touched (they hadn't!).

For a few moments, I had a pair of majestic golden eagles, hanging in the breeze, and in the same shot. If a certain lager company did wildlife sights, this was probably one of the best I've ever had.

After they inevitably parted, I had some fabulous views of them individually, as they drifted this way and that, along the hillside.

The light was changeable, with the strong breeze and clouds, some rather ominous-looking, coming and going.

Bright sunshine one moment, gloomy the next. But I didn't mind. I was just trying to control the stupid grin behind the camera.

They were scanning every square centimetre of the hillside, craning their necks to look for any signs of prey below, sometimes almost going into a hover, but with those massive wings, they didn't need to do anything more than open them up to the wind to gain lift.

After one last pass of the hillside, together and separately, the eagles must have sensed that the weather was about to take a turn for the worse, and they soared off high into the sky, effortlessly, and drifted away along the ridge.

I waited for the rain, sleet and hail to pass over, but the skies remained grey, and the eagles didn't return. It was a shame that they failed to find anything to eat, but they look so healthy, I can't imagine it would be long before they did find a meal somewhere.

I think it's safe to say that I'm enjoying living on Mull, and can't wait to share some of its treasures with clients coming to join me here, when allowed to do so.