We were on a quest to find a Golden Eagle (or two), so we drove west from our lodging in Tongue (pronounced like the mouth part) to a valley dominated by a 3000 foot peak called Ben Hope (“Ben” in Scotland refers to a peak). For once, we had a beautiful sunny day for a drive down a long narrow glacial valley with high peaks on both sides and mixed moorland and stunted birch forest on the valley floor.
The road paralleled a river near Ben Hope.
Groves of stunted birch trees were interspersed with the bracken and heather of the moorland. Wind and prolonged periods of cold weather make this a challenging environment for trees.
Mixed forest and moorland dominate this landscape now, but as recently as 5000 years ago, northern Scotland was a vast forest of Scots pine, known as the Caledonian forest. A wetter climate allowed deciduous trees to invade and a mixed forest of oak, birch, aspen, juniper developed, only to give way to the heather, bracken, and grass mixture as the land was cleared for human use. Gradually the forest is now returning (with replanting) in this area.
Imagine seeing the huge long wings of an eagle gliding over the tops of the ridges…
And eventually after more than an hour of waiting, craning necks to the sky of both sides of the valley, we did spot a lone Golden Eagle gliding from the ridge top across from us, across the valley to the ridge top in back of us…where it landed.
It landed somewhere high in the rocks above us.
We eventually found the bird perched high on the cliff face, and then a second eagle, most likely a mate, as well as a another intruder, with whom there was a short-lasting aerial scuffle, all taking place at great distance. But the spotting scope view was exhilarating enough, along with the stunning scenery in Golden Eagle valley to satisfy everyone.
Golden Eagles are at the very top of the food chain in northern Scotland, and may prey on a variety of birds and mammals as they roam over a huge home range of as much as 70 square miles. With a wing length of 6 to 8 feet and a body weight of 8 to 11 pounds, they are an impressive sight.