Ewan Craig, Visitor Experience Officer at RSPB Scotland Abernethy, has spent the last five weeks watching a pair of white-tailed eagles raising two chicks on a live camera feed. Generously funded by the European Regional Development Fund through NatureScot and expertly installed by Wildlife Windows and External Reality, the footage is being exclusively broadcast into the Loch Garten Nature Centre.
Eagles have a certain presence. They occupy a certain space in our culture, a certain place in our imagination. Magnificent. Awe-inspiring. Fearsome.
So it is such a privilege to get the intimate views of white-tailed eagles that we have been seeing on the nest camera broadcast to us here at Loch Garten. Recently returned to nest within the Cairngorms Connect partnership area after a long absence, we are able to witness these birds in a new light. Just as magnificent and awe-inspiring, but closer, more familiar.
When the two chicks hatched, those little balls of white fluff seemed impossibly tiny underneath their parents, Shona and Finn. How could these helpless little creatures ever transform into majestic behemoths of the sky? At first, they couldn’t even sit up straight, heads bobbing and weaving as they begged for food, flopping over into the nest as they overbalanced again and again.
In those days, it was beautiful to watch the care and tenderness displayed by Shona and Finn towards their new offspring. Moving around the nest so carefully, placing those giant feet and lethal talons down delicately, they fed the chicks with such patience and gentleness you could call it love.
Using their powerful beaks with precision, they tore off tiny pieces of meat to pass to their hungry young, beak to beak. When the chicks dropped food, floppy little bodies still learning the art of catching and swallowing, the parents picked up what they had dropped and tried again, over and over until the chick succeeded. Both mum and dad would take turns brooding, settling down on the nest to snuggle the chicks cosily under their softly feathered bodies, pulling grass and bracken around themselves to keep everybody warm and safe.
Now, after only five weeks, the young birds already look much less helpless. Well-fed on a diet of mountain hare and grouse, their crops bulge as they sit contentedly together on the nest. It is incredible how fast they have grown, and every day we come in it seems like we can see the difference from yesterday.
Today, their juvenile quill feathers are becoming more and more evident as they grow in beneath their white down. Their yellow feet seem almost comically oversized as they develop into the powerful talons of their parents, and their beaks are approaching similar proportions. They are quite capable now of moving around the nest, shuffling happily about when the mood takes them, usually when they are after food, which is often!
Luckily there is plenty to eat, and aside from a little bickering the siblings are getting along just fine, for now. Shona and Finn are both capable hunters, and the Cairngorms have sufficient supplies of prey for them to bring back to the nest. There is still a long way to go, but we hope we may see both of these chicks take wing as fully-fledged eagles.
Our chicks, hatched within the Cairngorms Connect area, may go on to reap the benefits of the work of the partnership. Together we are working on a landscape-scale scale to restore habitats across more than 60,000 hectares of land in the Cairngorms. Restoration of peatlands and montane woodlands will mean an even greater abundance and richness of food for eagles. We will see more of these magnificent birds here in the future, perhaps including this year’s chicks and their own offspring, soaring over a regenerating landscape bursting with life. The eagles need that landscape, and I think this landscape needs the eagles too, to feel more whole, more wild, and more alive.
And that is something that we need too. A landscape that supports eagles provides tangible benefits, supporting jobs, communities, and opportunities. Perhaps even more important are the other things it can give us: a connection to something greater than ourselves; a shared sense of meaning; hope. Watching an eagle high over a landscape made more whole, more wild and more alive is good for the soul.
To see live footage of Shona, Finn and the chicks, visit the Loch Garten Nature Centre on our Abernethy reserve.
Let hope the RSPB will put the pictures on the internet next year.
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