After the great eagle success on Mull – see previous post for our ‘Close encounters of the big bird kind’ – it was difficult to see how Harris, in the Outer Hebrides, could be as good. It was bound to rain all week, and we’d be stuck inside playing endless games of ‘pairs’ or, worse, I’d have to devise a home-made set of Battleships.
But from day one, things were looking good.
For a start, the beaches were to die for.
And there was almost nobody else on them – just us, and one mysterious stranger…
But would we see much wildlife? Eagles? Otters? Dolphins? Well, the initial signs were good – the heather was in full bloom.
But while it may be very pretty, heather doesn’t have a set of talons deadlier than a set of Bowie knives and it can’t pluck a single mackerel from the sea without getting its feet wet. It’s a fairly passive entity, really, and as such, it doesn’t hold much fascination for young boys.
So, we arranged to go for a walk with Matt Watts, a ranger for the North Harris Trust in the beautiful, edge-of-the-world village – well, barely a village, if we’re being honest – of Huisinish.
Matt soon found us something I’d been searching for all week but not had any luck with.
Yes, an otter spraint – like an eagle pellet, something naturalists love to sniff to show people just how strange they are. And to see who or what did it. In this case, if it smells a bit fishy, then it’s been left by an otter. This one was a bit old, so it didn’t smell much, but you can also pull one apart to see fish bones and scales.
But while Matt was explaining to the assembled throng what the Western Isles’ unique habitat of machair (pronounced ‘macker’, more or less) is, Sam found something even more intriguing.
Yes, the jawbone of a rabbit! Mr McGregor had finally got his revenge.
Indeed, the machair was littered with dead animals – perfect food for a golden eagle, you’d think, but they were eerily absent, though this particular carcass and been well-scavenged.
Still, who needs eagles when you’ve got rocks to play on and your brother to muck about with – actually, the sudden delight with which Sam and Mungo were playing together was starting to worry me. They actually seemed to enjoy each other’s company.
Strange days indeed (as John Lennon once sang).
But where were those eagles? I mean, cloudless blue skies, so just imagine the vortex of thermals for them to flier higher and higher on, lifting them up where they belong (as Joe Cocker once sang). Actually, Matt had told me something worrying earlier that week – eagles don’t like it when it’s too hot. They sit around on the mountain crags, complaining about the heat and, instead of soaring into the sky in search of a tasty mountain hare or red grouse, they go for a lie down. And the weather was totally gorgeous. Endless, cloudless blue skies. Hopeless.
All was not lost, however. Robin Reid, who works for the RSPB on Harris and is – like Dave Sexton – an eagle man through and through, had told me of one place where we were guaranteed success. Cast-iron certainty, or our money back. A place called Bhoga Glas, or Bowglas in English, about 10km north of Tarbert on the road to Stornoway. You can see them from the carpark, he promised – perfect for my family, I said.
Better still, it was blustery, rainy sort of afternoon the day we went – thank god, the sun had finally gone in after shining incessantly for four days. Honestly, where’s a good, honest overcast day when you need it?
We set off, full of enthusiasm.
Replete with vigour and vim. Nothing could stop our brave eagle hunters.
For a while, nothing happened (but still they were not disheartened), and then we heard the iconic cronks of ravens passing overhead – always a good sign (they love to mob golden eagles). Then something much larger appeared, swooping round in elegant circles, silent as the grave. “Golden eagle,” I shrieked.
Great excitement all round. And don’t imagine for a minute that just because Mungo had my binoculars back to front that he couldn’t see the eagle. Nothing could be further from the truth – he could see it alright, he just couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about when the bird we were hollering about was the size of an earwig.
Anyway, the sightings (for there were many more to follow, though whether we saw a total of two or three separate birds was hotly debated) definitely cheered our raptor warriors. Or was it the chocolate biscuits they were being drip-fed? Whatever, they were in remarkably good spirits, considering there were no trains or Lego Chima within range.
Anyway, I didn’t get any pictures of the eagle. I didn’t have a proper telephoto lens with me, and it’s difficult to hold a camera steady when you’re being ram-raided by a small boy doing an imitation of the Big Billy Goat Gruff, so here’s one I picked up from flickr.
Well, that was about it for the holiday. There was just time for some posing down on the beach.
And for me to get my picture of the beautiful harebells in the sheep field we walked through on the way to the beach every day.
And that was it – it was goodbye to Harris as we took the ferry from Stornoway to Ullapool. But, much to my surprise, it seemed we had won our battle to interest our children in wildlife. Sam had kept a running tally of the number of ravens he had both seen and heard, and all the indications were that they’d both enjoyed watching eagles and otters. So much so that Sam couldn’t stop looking out for them.