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Sea eagles

Today I saw something I’ve waited 26 years to see. I left behind the books and drove an hour west. It was supposed to snow again this morning, but I think I must have spent too much time in Scotland since I thought because the temp was above freezing (by 2 degrees), and it wasn’t raining, I had myself a fine day.

Hemayel with me and feeling nervous about my husband at sea off the coast of North Africa, after an extremely productive weekend, I knew I had to get out. Oot an aboot, as the Scots say. Or, as my previous posts will explain, into the muckle furth.

My destination: a nature reserve 10 miles from the place where 19 Norwegian white-tailed (sea) eagles were released this past summer. This is part of a five-year reintroduction project for the East Coast of Scotland. These 19 bring the total to 64 sea eagles released in Fife.

Here’s what happened: I read a book. No big surprise there, but I read the book when Daniel was a baby and the story has never let me go. It was about how the last native pair of sea eagles bred on the Isle of Skye in 1916, and then the species was extinct in the British Isles. But in the 70s an eagle made its way across the North Sea, able to survive the trek for the first time ever, thanks to modern oil rigs providing resting places in the middle of the sea. And in 1975, the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) started bringing sea eagles to Mull and Skye. Now these great birds breed and thrive on the west coast of Scotland, but it would take decades before they could return to the eastern lowlands.

So over the next few years, another 20 chicks a year will be brought to East Scotland from Norway and released, until the total population reaches around 100. Each chick is fitted with radio tags so that they can be tracked for up to five years. That’s the age of eagles who breed.

Did you know that sea eagles are monogamous?

Anyway, I had read on the RSPB bird blog (yes, there is such a thing) that the young eagles had taken to roosting on Castle Island in Loch Leven. Although the 65 roam all along the eastern coast, this seemed a better place than most to chance a sighting.

By the way, little piece of Scottish history here: the castle on Castle Island was built around 1300 and is the same castle where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned and forced to abdicate before her dramatic escape a year later. Anyway . . .

So I walked along the loch (which means arm of the sea) and visited the blinds where I saw Whooper swans and Mute swans. My hiking boots squished through flooded farmland as I watched the mist lift and fall on hills darkened by winter heather. And I thought about Hemayel and my brother and my friend and my other friend’s father and his three children who will bury their grandfather on Thursday and the wind cut my cheeks, but I felt good. Then, as I headed back toward the car park, I heard them.

They sounded like puppies yelping. No way. The man at the visitor’s center had said the eagles weren’t around. I looked up into the layers of gray: gray water into gray sky, and saw two huge birds flying together, swooping down to the shoreline, then reeling up and splitting off. They seemed as big as herons, with their wingspan that can get up to eight feet. One landed and I returned to the nearest blind, my eyes glued to the spot. But I saw nothing more. An elderly man entered the wooden blind with a telescope.

“The white-tailed eagles, did I see them?” I asked. He grinned, “They roost on the island and love to attack the ducks along the beach. It’s two young ones who arrived in August, a large female and a small male. He has a blue badge.”

I saw them, I saw them. All my life I’ve wanted to see sea eagles. I was already determined to go to Skye later in the spring. But now I’ve seen them within an hour of my St Monans. I looked him up on the bird blog and the small male is named Norbett. This is what the view out of my door looks like at sunset. Maybe Norbett will visit me.

And now with my head and heart full of eagles, I remember Eric Liddel, the Flying Scotsman who ran the West Sands beach of St Andrews (where my desk at the library looks out upon) to train for the 1924 Olympics. There he won gold in an event not his own, after refusing to race on the sabbath. Afterwards he left for China as a missionary and died in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in 1945. In 2008 the Chinese authorities revealed that when given the opportunity to leave the camp, he gave his place instead to a pregnant woman. His family had never known.

This is what I think: Eric wrote of death and young men like Hemayel and actually, for all of us, “Where does the power come from to see the race to its end? It comes from within. ‘They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint.'”

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