Across western Scotland golden eagles generally inhabit the higher mountainous ground, whilst sea eagles are usually found in coastal areas. On Harris, both golden eagles and sea eagles can be encountered anywhere on the island. They can be quite difficult to tell apart and the most reliable way to identify them is to look at their flight silhouette.
Both golden eagles and sea eagles are sensitive to human disturbances and continue to suffer from human persecution through poisoning and egg collection. As a result both have been awarded special protection, which makes it illegal to disturb them at their nest sites.
Glen Meavaig on the Isle of Harris is home to a breeding pair of Golden Eagles that are resident in the glen throughout the year. The eagles can be seen on a daily basis and the North Harris Eagle Observatory is a great vantage point from which to view the pair’s activities and forms a part of the Outer Hebrides Bird of Prey Trail.
The breeding cycle of golden eagles lasts almost the whole year. From late winter golden eagles are already preparing for the breeding season. From January to March they are often spotted in display flight; at this time they are selecting a nest site and either bringing fresh materials to an old nest or building a new eyrie.
In late March, two eggs are usually laid and incubated for 45 days. This is a challenging time for the pair, as the female covers the eggs most of the time and the male relieves her a few times per day to allow her to feed.
In early May the eggs hatch and for the first few weeks the chicks are unable to regulate their own temperature. During this time the pair take turns to look after the young, while the other searches for food. This is a crucial period as the eagles often struggle to find food and shelter their young. Although both eggs often hatch, usually only one will survive unless an abundance of food is available. In late July the young leave the nests at around ten weeks old; at this stage they are the same size as their parents and often weigh more.
In the autumn, after leaving the nests, the young are still dependent on their parents for several months. They perfect their skill in flight and learn to become fierce predators, while remaining in their parents’ territory. Some leave the area in October, however others will stay until they are turfed out at the start of the next breeding season.
In addition to the golden eagles, Glen Meavaig is also home to a wide variety of other wildlife. In spring and summer there is an influx of summer migrants, such as the golden plover, greenshank and snipe. Red-throated divers frequent the nearby Loch Scourst to feed and the small merlin falcon breeds on the surrounding moorland.
In the late summer, salmon and sea trout migrate from the sea up to their spawning grounds at the head of the river system.
In the autumn red deer can be seen and sea eagles move up the river system to feed on the salmon. Whooper swans, snow buntings and woodcock arrive from the north and replace the departing summer migrants.
There are also a number of hardy, year-round residents that are capable of withstanding the hostile winter climate, including the raven, red grouse and mountain hare.
Past the observatory, the track continues to Loch Vishimid, inland to a hydro power station and finally to the remote and deserted village of Kinlochresort.
The 62,000 acres of North Harris make up one of the largest community owned estates in Scotland. The North Harris Trust which, among other things, aims to enhance the area’s wonderful cultural and natural heritage, offers guided walks through the Golden Eagle territory.
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- Information signs at the North Harris Eagle Observatory
- The Outer Hebrides Guidebook third edition by Charles Tait