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There are few words to describe just how special it is to hear the wind whistling through the wings of a diving White-tailed Eagle. Actually to capture the moment on camera is a dream for many photographers and birders. When this stunning Eagle is encountered at close quarters the true size of the bird is mind blowing. However, it is the piercing yellow eye that always captures my imagination. It is easy to understand the source of the Gaelic name Iolaire suile na grein: ‘the eagle with the sunlit eye’.
Best Lens: 300mmBest time of year: Apr-SeptBest time: EveningsFitness level: EasyDistance: 0 miles (boat)What you need to know:
Site and photography guide
Fortunately there are now opportunities to witness and photograph one of the best wildlife experiences in the world on UK shores. The White-tailed Eagle became extinct in the 19th century, but following reintroduction programs from 1975 onwards there are now over 100 of these apex predators in the British Isles, with the main strongholds on the Scottish west coast. With the continued growth in White-tailed Eagle numbers (‘numbers soaring’ is the standard paper pun!), ecotourism has become a valuable source of income to the Scottish Highlands and Islands, and a range of options is available to witness these majestic raptors.
Know the law
White-tailed Eagle is a Schedule 1 species, and it is therefore an offence to disturb them intentionally or recklessly at, on, or near an ‘active’ nest. There is a sorry track record of disturbance by photographers on Mull, including prosecution against two photographers who disturbed a nesting pair. Please also note there are clear indicators in several places where it is not permitted to stop. The law applies to everyone (not just photographers). Please also refer to the webzine article on photographing Schedule 1 birds.
Seeing White Tailed Eagles in action
While it is possible to encounter White-tailed Eagles along the Scottish west coast (and now more easily on the east coast following the Fife reintroduction), there are several locations that are more reliable. These prime locations (though not Mull) are referred to in Gordon Hamnett’s excellent guide listed below. We have witnessed a range of behaviours by watching from viewpoints, but nothing beats the experience of being up close and personal to the two-metre wingspan of a wild Sea Eagle. There are a few recommended boat operators to use to watch White-tailed Eagles as they hunt for fish.
Mull Charters , Mull: Operating from Ulva Ferry, Mull Charters run two White-tailed Eagle trips per day in the Ulva Ferry/Loch Na Keal area. Lady Jayne is a Lochin 33 fully insured and coded by the MCA for category 2 (day or night) and carries equipment above the MCA requirement. The trips accommodate up to 12 passengers plus crew. In our experience the eagles witnessed from Mull Charters are more reliable and strike closer, more consistently than any other wild eagles — but these are wild birds after all, so nothing is guaranteed. What makes the experience even more personal is the enthusiastic approach of the boat’s operators Martin and Judith Keivers. When the eagle approaches the boat and dives for the fish the feverish anticipation on the boat is matched by the excitement of the skipper and his crew, as if it is their first time too. Mull Charters operate to a strict code of conduct, which has been endorsed by the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage. A toilet is fitted for convenience and tea and coffee is served between the action. In addition to the operators’ enthusiasm and genuine passion for White-tailed Eagle welfare, the main reason to choose Mull Charters is that if the eagle comes it is likely he will visit and dive for fish up to three times and all within 30 feet of the boat! Not only that, but the skipper also has an excellent record of spotting birds and mammals from the shore and boat, including Great Northern Diver, Red-throated Diver, Golden Eagle, Hen Harrier, Peregrine Falcon, Great Skua, Sabine’s Gull, Common and Bottle-nosed Dolphin, Minke Whale, Basking Shark, Otter, and Grey and Common Seal.
The trip costs £35 in 2012 and lasts for approximately 3 hours.
Getting the perfect shot
Prepare for action For most observers, the highlight of watching any apex predator is ‘the strike’; the moment at which the eagle switches from gently gliding into a diving bullet of feathers culminating in a splash and the snatch of the prey item from the surface of the water. Capturing the whole sequence as images from start to finish can take several trips or can be achieved by a lucky few in just one trip — with perfect photographic technique or just lots of luck! While no two dives are identical (and that’s the exciting part!) there is a sequence that the eagle completes and the ability to anticipate the next move can be critical in getting the desired image or witnessing the key moment.
Get the setup right
One of the most common (and perhaps surprising) comments we hear on the boat is the exclamation “it’s just too close!” — you do not need a large, arm-breaking prime lens to photograph these birds. Due to the speed of the action, proximity of the eagles and movement of the boat, it is normally a hindrance to use a lens that cannot be handheld — so what is the perfect setup?
Every eagle interaction is different and exciting, with no two dives being the same. However, in our experience the following setups are the most effective.
With a 1.6× or 1.5× crop sensor body:
300mm f2.8 or f4
70–200mm or similar
100–400mm or similar
With a 1.3× crop sensor body:
300mm f2.8 or f4 or 70–200mm with a 1.4× converter
100–400mm or similar
With a 1× crop sensor body:
300mm f2.8 or f4
200 — 400 f4