Searching for Orkney's sea eagles
A pair of sea eagles have returned to Orkney for the first time since 2016 and hopes are high that they could produce the first chicks born here for nearly 150 years. We travelled to the island of Hoy with local wildlife cameraman Raymond Besant to try and catch a glimpse of them.
Raymond Besant is used to early starts.
As a wildlife photographer and cameraman, he’s spent nights in hides on hills, coastlines and cliffs, rising with the sun to capture footage of all kinds of species.
So, a spot of early morning island hopping in the spring sunshine won’t phase him. He’s back on home ground in Orkney and we joined him en-route to the island of Hoy on the search for some very special residents.
A pair of white-tailed eagles have made the crags in the remote Rackwick valley their home for the next few months as they attempt to breed the first chicks in Orkney since 1873. Sightings of the UK’s largest bird of prey have now been recorded here for the past five years, with failed nesting attempts made in in 2015 and 2016.
“Sea eagles are birds that have been historically linked to Orkney and it would be great if we could see birds that are fully fledged here flying above our hills once again,” said Raymond. “This time it looks like one of the birds has returned with a new mate, so hopefully it will be third time lucky in terms of breeding attempts.”
Raymond has come prepared. He has his Sony FS7 camera that allows slow motion capture and a long telephoto lens, plus the standard issue waterproofs, hat, jacket and sun-cream – who knows what the Orkney weather will throw at you. We drive off the ferry at Lyness and head north through the hills, with sparkling views of blue seas and clear skies over Scapa Flow to accompany us.
Our destination is the small car-park at the Dwarfie Stane, a rock-cut tomb in the middle of the desolate moorland, thought to date back five thousand years. Here we meet Lee Shields, the RSPB warden for Hoy, at her small ‘Eaglewatch’ set-up, which will be in place throughout the spring to help visitors catch a glimpse of these beautiful birds.
Soon Raymond has his kit ready, with lens and binoculars firmly trained on the sea eagle eyrie, high up in the hills. He knows what he’s looking for, having contributed to programmes for the BBC Natural History Unit and BBC Scotland, including ‘Highlands – Scotland’s Wild Heart’ and numerous features for ‘Springwatch’ and ‘Autumnwatch’.
“I’ve always been interested in wildlife and growing up in Orkney allowed me to indulge that passion, primarily through birdwatching to begin with,” said Raymond. “Then I became interested in photography and started taking photos of the birds I was seeing. That eventually led to a career in wildlife filming.”
As we experienced on Hoy moorland, patience is key to the success – and sanity – of any wildlife photographer. Hours can pass without any movement whatsoever, which makes it all the more vital that you’re ready for any opportunity that comes.
Luckily, we didn’t have to wait too long. The sea eagles left their eyrie on a number of occasions, sometimes alone, sometimes together, to glide through the valley. They are a truly magnificent sight, with their two-metre wingspan and distinctive white tail feathers. It was a privilege to see their effortless swoops over the stark scenery.
As we watched the sea eagles, Raymond was hard at work, keeping his lens trained on them as they flew overhead and returned to their nest. Despite travelling around the world capturing footage of all kinds of incredible animals, Orkney is still his dream location. “Filming exotic species like lions and elephants is exciting, but we’ve got fantastic wildlife here on our doorstep,” he said.
“Just this past week I’ve seen orcas, hen-harriers and now these sea eagles, just fantastic species.”
As we packed up the kit and began to load the car for the trip back to the ferry terminal, it was that point that really stayed with us. Planet Earth and other fantastic nature programmes shouldn’t just make you wish you were there, seeing all those weird and wonderful animals. They should encourage you to explore what’s around you in the first instance. For Raymond, there is no place better to do that than these islands.
“Orkney is just a fantastic place to see wildlife. It has such a diverse range of habitats – you can walk on the beach and see wading birds, head up on the cliffs to watch puffins and guillemots and look out at the sea to spot minke whales or orcas.
There is such a diversity of wildlife in Orkney.”
Staff and volunteers from RSPB Scotland plan to run ‘Eaglewatch’ at the Dwarfie Stane car-park every day throughout the spring. Join them between 11am and 3pm when they will offer advice on how to spot the sea eagles and will also point out other local wildlife attractions.
Find out more by following RSPB Orkney on Facebook.
The Orkney Nature Festival is held between the 14th and 20th of May. Tickets are still available for some events – find out more via the official website.