‘One haunting note, again and again’

Eagles, perhaps more than any other bird, spark our imaginations. These magnificent creatures encapsulate the majesty and wildness of Scottish nature. But change is afoot for the eagles of Scotland: golden eagles now share the skies with sea eagles after a successful reintroduction programme. In The Eagle’s Way, Jim Crumley draws upon his years of observing these spectacular birds to paint an intimate portrait of their lives and illustrate how they interact with each other and the Scottish landscape.

Extract from The Eagle’s Way
By Jim Crumley
Published by Saraband Books

THE GOLDEN EAGLE GLEN ends abruptly in a wide headwall, lightly wooded with mostly birch, craggy, bouldery, and bisected by a white-knuckled burn whose procession of ragged waterfalls echoes far down the relative tranquillity of the glen. The best way from the watcher’s rock to the watershed is to keep the burn’s company. It was here one late June evening, with breeze enough to deter the worst of the midges and the glen softened by shadow after a long day of sunshine, that I toyed with the idea of spending the brief hours of pale darkness up on the watershed to watch the sunrise on the eyrie crag and see what unfolded.

Then the ring ouzel started singing. The song is full of jazzy rhythms and a tendency to belt out one haunting note again and again, like Sweets Edison used to do (if you know your jazz, Sweets is best known for his muted trumpet wiles filling in the spaces on the best albums of Sinatra, Ella, Tony Bennett). On and on, mellifluous and fluent, chorus after chorus, the song flowed like mountain burns, and then I had the notion that I would like to sit where I could see the singer, but without the singer seeing me. So I crawled away from the rock, my chin in the heather, one slow yard at a time.

The ouzel was in a low, scrubby birch tree by the burn and mercifully with his back to me. I crawled into the lee of a smaller rock, put my back to it and simply sat there. If he turned round I would be in full view, but I was dressed in something like the shades of the rock and the land, and I was silent and still and these things always help. Then the fox showed up. It was trotting along its accustomed path, one-fox-wide, but as it neared the ouzel’s tree it slowed its pace then stopped. Then it sat. Then it put its head on one side. And if you were to ask me what I think it was doing, and if I thought you were not the kind of person easily given to ridicule, I would tell you that I think it was listening to the music, as I was myself. But now I was listening to the music while also watching the fox listening to the music while both of us were also watching the musician, who seemed to be oblivious to both of us. For three, perhaps four minutes, this situation prevailed, and a moment of my life was attended by the most enduring magic.

It all ended abruptly. The ouzel simply stopped singing of its own accord, and flew off into the deepening shadows of the burn. The fox scratched its nose with a forepaw, stood up, and wandered off. I sighed out loud, still under sorcery’s spell. The truth is that I don’t really know what the fox was doing, only that it seemed to be fascinated by the bird and the only fascinating thing the bird was doing was singing. Nothing in the fox’s behaviour suggested it was stalking the bird. And as far as I could see, it was doing exactly what I was doing, nothing more, nothing less.

I know this though. If you spend a lot of time in one place with one overriding purpose centred on one particular species (in this case, the eagle glen and the eagles), you also acquire an onlooker’s knowledge of at least some of the eagles’ neighbours and fellow-travellers, just because you are out there and for long periods you are quite still and the neighbours and the fellow-travellers go about their workaday business and you see at first hand how they get on with each other and how they treat you like a bit of the landscape.

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