Photographing Golden Eagles on Mull

For the last few years I have tried to set myself a wildlife photography objective for each holiday we go on. It is just enough to give me a focus and more often than not I am able to achieve the objective. On past holidays I have targeted Pine Martin, Otter, White Tailed Eagle and Short-Eared Owl for example. When we went to Mull – Eagle Island – a couple of weeks back I set myself the goal of photographing Golden Eagle, a bird which I have often seen but rarely within close photographical range.

I gave my chances of success a big boost by booking a day with Philip Price of Loch Visions Wildlife Photography. I had a positive impression of Loch Visions before the day because Philip had kindly moved my booking not once but twice because of Covid disruption.

After meeting at the ferry (I was already on the Island but Philip wasn’t) we drove to a favoured location of Philip’s which required a decent drive, some of which was off road. We then set off on a walk for about 20 minutes burdened down not just with our photography gear and lunch but also two large beanbags to sit on that Philip had brought with him – no slumming it here. The weather at this stage was not very promising as it was thick cloud with visibility restricted to about 30 meters.

As we climbed onto our target ridge Philip told me to get ready with my camera as it was possible we could see the eagle at any point from now on. I don’t think either of us expected much but as we stepped over a small skyline Philip made out an eagle’s outline through the mist.

Golden Eagle through mist

I fired off several shots not hoping for much because of the heavy fog. I was delighted with the result above after heavy processing with the dehaze filter in Adobe Lightroom.

The eagle knew we were there and kept looking directly at us but we stood still and didn’t approach further otherwise it was sure to fly away. After about 15 minutes the Eagle decided to move on by itself.

We continued to the spot Philip had planned and settled down for the day. Philip’s photography ethos where possible is to set up for a whole day in one remote, off-road location and be patient. This is a completely different mindset compared with many wildlife and photography guides where you move from one place to another by car to see as much as you can in the day. The location Philip had chosen was excellent and one I will definitely go back to. Out of respect for Philip and the birds I won’t share it here. But finding out about this location was the first clear benefit of booking a local knowledgeable guide.

For the next few hours we chatted and waited for the cloud to clear. This time was not wasted as Philip talked me through his photography top tips, many of which will help me improve my photography significantly. Learn to shoot in manual, it will take a bit of time to get used to but will be worth it. Manually fix Shutter Speed with Aperture with Auto ISO unless a sunny day and the light is changing in which case fix ISO on a representative area of grass or rock manually. These tips were really helpful and my second benefit from booking Philip.

As the cloud began to clear we started to see some Gulls, Rock Doves (genuinely wild birds unlike Feral Pigeons) and Hooded Crows through the mist. I tried to put into practice what Philip had shared and capture some bird in flight shots but the I kept failing to focus. After a very frustrating half hour Philip had a break thru as he diagnosed a problem with my lens. Some swapping with his kit proved beyond a doubt that there was a problem which was stopping me from focusing in certain conditions. (Later when I got home and did some research online I upgraded both my camera and lens’ firmware which helped). This was a real win for me as I had largely given up on birds in flight photography and blamed my own skill level. It was relieving to know the problem was not me but my kit (third benefit).

Working carefully not to trigger the autofocus problem I managed to get some passable shots of Rock Dove, Hooded Crow (one with Slow Worm) and Common Gull. I might now be ready if the eagle flew past.

A farmer came onto the hill to move some of his sheep and we watched through the clearing fog. Then suddenly the eagle took off from a hidden part of the nearby ridge, close to the farmer, and flew away. I fired off some shots but none of them were great when I looked back later, partly because I wasn’t quick enough, partly because the fog was still heavy and partly because the bird was flying away. It was lovely to see it again though. Philip concluded based on size that this was the female of the pair (slightly larger than the male).

We settled down for a few more hours. By now the sky was clear and we had a delightful view of the coastline and bay below. This really was an exceptional spot.

We also started to see some other birds of prey, namely Buzzard and Kestrel. Whilst not my target for the day it was great to put into practice the lessons Philip had shared with me. I captured what is probably my best ever photo of a Buzzard and Kestrel in flight. This confirmed my photography skills were improving under Philip’s tutorage (benefit 4).

Common Buzzard
Kestrel

By 3pm we had been on the hill for about 6 hours and Philip had to leave to catch the ferry. He encouraged me to stay for a couple more hours in the hope the eagle would return, which I was more than happy to do. I had started to settle into the slower rhythm of Philip’s approach and enjoy the mindful downtime as well as the location. I was learning patience which is perhaps the hardest lesson of all (benefit 5). Even without another sighting of the eagle and a close-up photo, Philip had been excellent value for money and I thanked him for his time.

Over the next 90 minutes I didn’t see anything apart from a couple of distant Kestrels and an RAF helicopter flyby. But I was enjoying this alone time in nature. Then about 4.30pm I started to be aware that lots of gulls and hoodies were mobbing a bird out of sight over the distant ridge. This carried on for at least 10 minutes which gave me the impression this must be a sizeable bird being mobbed – our eagle perhaps? Then joy of joys I saw the Golden Eagle rise above the ridge and give me some good but distant views. The two Kestrels were particularly aggressive in mobbing the Eagle as it moved through their territory.

I believe there are 4 different species of bird in the photo below – the Golden Eagle is one but can you name the other three?

4 species – can you name them?

With all the focusing practice during the day I was aware that my last battery was running low but I was still hoping to get closer shots. The Eagle continued to approach along the ridge at one point briefly landing.

My last battery died. I was disappointed as the eagle was close now but also happy in a way to be able to put my camera down and enjoy this magnificent bird with no photography agenda. I watched instead through my binoculars.

It was thrilling to see this bird get closer and closer until I became acutely aware that she was staring directly at me and now completely filled the view of my 8.5 magnification lens. I lowered my binoculars and looked out at this magnificent bird about 10m from me. Corny but true to say… we shared a moment.

Now I am not a big cryer but as the bird circled back around where I sat I actually choked up. Not because my camera was lying useless at my feet (although this would have been the photographic opportunity of a lifetime) but because this was such a pure encounter with such a wonderful bird in such a spectacular location, and I just couldn’t believe how blessed I was to experience it.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day with Philip and would strongly recommend a booking with Loch Visions. It was great to experience a wonderful location, patiently and improve my photographic knowledge and skills, whilst spending time with the spectacular Golden Eagle.

The three other species of bird in above photo were Hooded Crow, Kestrel and Curlew (left hand bird).


Over the rest of the week I did have other opportunities to photograph Golden Eagle and I share a few of the better shots here. That said I do hope one day to have another close-up opportunity with plenty of battery life left in my camera!

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