Adventures with golden eagles

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Here are some things I learned about golden eagles yesterday. They range from west USA to far flung Asia. Scotland has around 450 pairs, the second largest breeding population in Europe – the largest is Sweden or Finland, one of the Scandinavian countries. (If you think of it, under 1000 birds living in Scotland: not that many, is it! And some game keepers still poison them! Gr…)

Their toes have uneven talon lengths, all the better to skewer their prey and kill it pretty much instantly; a particularly large prey such as deer, foxes or wolves may take a nit more killing. Yes, they can kill wolves! Golden eagles attack feet first, grabbing the prey with just one talon in case they miss or the prey attempts to fight back – the second is used for the coup de grace, if you like. And those taloned feet can grip with a pressure of … I’ve forgotten the value quoted, but it’s a lot, a lot more than the jaws of a powerful dog.

They are fast despite their size. They have been seen to catch a falcon in flight. But they don’t always hit their target: a hare can, in fact, dodge quicker than an eagle and (they showed a film of this) leap above the flying eagle. By the time the eagle has done a 180 turn the little beast is long gone.

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In Europe and the US most birds are carried on the left arm (which makes sense if you are right handed), but mostly on the right arm in Asia. What else? Females are larger than males. They take several years to reach sexual maturity. In the wild they can live for 20 or more years (longer in captivity). Overhead power lines are particularly hazardous (I knew that already). And many more snippets of information.

After the lecture a group of eager photographers followed two handlers and their birds (called Cuddles – yes! – and HeShe – because they got the sex of that bird mixed up when it was young). And for the rest of the morning we got up very close to these two magnificent birds of prey, taking (in my case) around 250 photos.

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After lunch we traipsed back down to the field in order to take some “action” shots – photos of the eagles pursuing a lure across the grass. The lure was a dead rabbit – eagles can only be tricked into chasing an artificial one once. Then they’ll just ignore it. But first, the handlers had to ensure that there were no dogs running around. The last thing they wanted was a law suit because Cuddles had swooped down on Rover and ripped out its guts.

Besides the two golden eagles, a tawny eagle from India was also flown. This is a smaller bird, not quite as fast and not as vicious once it caught the lure – the larger birds shredded the rabbit in seconds. Photographing this activity was a challenge and of the 300-plus action photos many were blurred or I snapped just the tail or whatever. It was fun, though.

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And then … and then: I got to hold a golden eagle! Keep your arm straight, I was told, otherwise it will move up your arm and perch on your shoulder. I took a look at its three-inch talons and kept my arm perfectly horizontal. Let me tell you this: you need a strong arm to hold one for any length of time.

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After all this excitement we had a quick look around the aviary where other birds of prey were kept. All but two owls were in cages. I did manage to take a photo of the female golden eagle and its cousin, a black African eagle. Then it was time to drive home.

I haven’t been out and about much specifically to take photographs. I really must do more – and maybe repeat the Golden Eagle Day at Rosliston Forestry Centre in Derbyshire.

Besides the photos included here, many more can be found on my Facebook page. All photos are © Peter Coleborn 2015

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