The scenery of Skye is unrivalled in the UK. Classic mountain and seascapes provide the backcloth for soaring Eagles. For those patient enough to sit and watch on still, sunny days, it may be possible to watch several pairs of Golden Eagles interact at the margins of their territories. Now, it might also be possible to observe White-tailed Eagles in the same thermals.
The history of both species on the island, like elsewhere in the Highlands, is a sad reflection on the intolerance of man, of a culture which encouraged death and destruction to all 'hawks', carried on the back of the increasing interests in fieldsports and the growth of private estates during the Victorian era. It has taken over a century to reverse some of the imbalances created at the time and although vestiges of the ignorance, killing culture, and illegal persecution remain, we are fortunate that on the Island of Skye, few sporting estates remain, and the bad practices associated with them have largely disappeared. Unfortunately however, egg collecting, a real threat in Victorian times, remains a genuine problem. A salutary reminder of why we should all be extremely discreet about nest site locations so that information does not fall into the wrong hands . We are therefore extremely selective about the information used about either species on this site. Watching Eagles requires a great deal of patience but it is equally possible for the visitor to encounter birds whilst simply driving round the island.
Reading historical accounts of the Golden Eagle on Skye is pretty depressing and that it survived as a breeding resident is nothing short of miraculous. Even when Baxter & Rintoul wrote the 'Birds of Scotland' 50 years ago it was said 'never to have been an abundant bird on Skye'. Luckily the situation has improved and there is now a healthy population which for the last 30 years has been closely monitored by Ken Crane and Kate Nellist. Their studies have found that although the population is fairly stable, annual breeding success was around .50 young per breeding pair but is currently showing a slow decline. This gives an indication of the low breeding success of the species. A factor in this success is the level of human disturbance to nest sites, and it is absolutely critical to avoid any disturbance during the breeding season which lasts from March through until August. Ken and Kate have written a fascinating account of their work on Skye, entitled “Island Eagles” which is available from local bookshops.
One of the problems in breeding success for Golden Eagles is the availability of prey. Though on occasions twins may be hatched, because of sibling competition for food, the chances of both young birds surviving is very low. Consequently a collaborative project commenced in 2000 between Scotland and Ireland, 'The Irish Golden Eagle Reintroduction Project' which removes a small number of these surplus but at risk birds from their Scottish eyries, for eventual release in the wild to re-establish a breeding population in the mountains of the west of Ireland. The project is co-ordinated by Scottish Natural Heritage. There are currently a number of Eagles participating in this project, from all accounts doing well, a fine example of conservation collaboration along the celtic fringes and it was a Skye bird which provided the first Irish breeding record. Because twins are now rare on Skye, birds no longer go to the project.
Writing in the middle of the 19 th century, Gray said 'The Isle of Skye may be said to be the headquarters of this conspicuous Eagle on the west of Scotland, the entire coastline of that magnificent country offering many attractions to a bird of its habits - nearly all the bold headlands of Skye are frequented by at least one pair.' By the beginning of the 20 th century the situation had changed completely. Not only were the birds shot and poisoned, but those which did manage to breed were receiving the unrelenting attention of egg collectors. They last bred in Skye, and for that matter the whole of Scotland in 1916 and certainly by 1930 were thought to be extinct
Though a few birds were seen in subsequent years, probably wanderers from Scandinavia, a reintroduction programme commenced in 1968 in Fair Isle. Following some initial difficulties the project was resumed on Rum in 1975, and it was not surprising that within a few years wandering birds found their way to Skye. Two phases of birds have been introduced on the west coast, all from Norway, and a population of over 50 pairs has now been established throughout Scotland. The birds have also returned to breed on Skye and although population expansion has been slower than anticipated but there are now over 15 territories on the island. The project was initially managed through the RSPB, and involved attaching colour wing tags to birds but this practice has now ceased and colour rings are now fitted. Monitoring is now co-ordinated through Justin Grant of the Highland Raptor Study Group and we systematically pass any sightings on to Justin.
Boat trips are now well established at Portree Harbour and operate to a code of practice to avoid disturbance to the birds in their nesting territories. Fish are thrown to entice the adult birds to scavage and this can allow for fantastic views and photographic opportunities. We recommend MV Brigadoon as the most bird-friendly trip.