In search of the birds of my dreams: Roger Berthoud glimpses golden eagles and an osprey, but not peregrine falcons, in the Highlands

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The Independent Travel
IT WAS a decade or four since I had had a bird-watching holiday, but suddenly the urge was upon me again. Thus it was that, thanks to an advertisement spotted in the magazine of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and a convincing brochure, I found myself a few weeks later leaving London at 5am for the long drive (570 miles) to a field centre near Inverness. It was set up in 1977 by Sir John Lister-Kaye, an English baronet married to a Scot, in the Victorian Gothic part of Aigas House, which continued to be home to his large family. 'You'll do it in 10 hours,' this ebullient conservationist - he is chairman of the Highlands and Islands division of Scottish Natural Heritage - author and farmer had told me when I rang for advice. Ignoring his recommendations, I took the scenic route, well worth it one way, via Glencoe and along lochs Lomond and Ness, and clocked in around 4pm.

Sir John had indicated that the only other visitors would probably be a party of 17 elderly Americans. That gave me pause, I admit. And there they all were, receiving their briefing-cum-welcome as, road-lagged, I tottered in. My apprehensions were unjustified. Most of my predominantly female companions for the next week were retired teachers, social workers and librarians, some widowed, some divorced, others - like me - more interested in birds than their spouses were. They were quiet, considerate, friendly and knowledgeable.

Aigas House proved an ideal focal point. Finely sited on a sloping garden full of magnificent exotic trees, it looks over fields to the River Beauly, with woodland beyond and behind. The Scottish baronial addition, bristling with battlements, turrets, false balconies and a plethora of pretentious embellishments, was where we collectively ate, relaxed and received our briefings in front of a large-scale map of the environs. Excellent breakfasts and dinners were consumed at a single long table in the lofty hall, with wardens, staff and sometimes Sir John serving and clearing up. We made our own packed lunches. For accommodation there were timber lodges in the grounds, and two rooms in the house.

I had come to the Highlands hoping to plug three large ornithological gaps: I had never seen a golden eagle, an osprey or a peregrine falcon. It was mildly irritating to be told by two New Yorkers that peregrines had been introduced to the Big Apple to reduce the pigeon population (why not to London?), and could be observed swooping on to their prey from the top of skyscrapers.

The programme started on day one with an entertaining talk from Sir John about the history of the area, followed in the afternoon by a gentle walk over moorland. On day two, we had a trip to Glenaffric, a remnant of the great pine forest that had once covered much of the Highlands. This is one of the few habitats of the crested tit. I scored a minor triumph by being first to spot one of these little fellows as we waited hopefully under a huge pine that they were known to frequent.

On day three, I opted out of a visit to the castle at Cawdor and set off on my own by car, armed with an impressive birder's telescope and instructions as to where I might find peregrine and osprey. I felt a double burden; from the telescope, which I felt I had to justify, and from the inevitable questions I would face on my return about what I had seen.

For peregrine, I tried a lay-by just down the road that offered a view of a pine-topped and seemingly inaccessible cliff where a pair had built their nest. Sickeningly, the eggs had been robbed a week or so back. The bereft falcons were said to revisit their eyrie but remained insensitive to my desire to see them. A similar lack of imagination was shown by the osprey alleged to fish in Loch Ussie, a dozen miles or so north. As for the whooper swans and blackthroated divers reckoned to frequent Loch Gowan some 25 miles to the west, any chance of seeing them with naked eye or telescope was wiped out by a thick mist of rain.

So it was with a nil return - save for sighting a dipper at Rogie Falls on the way back - that I arrived again at Aigas House. As an antidote, I called in at the Dewar's malt whisky distillery at Muir of Ord, for a tour and tasting. The distillery's output has been used for blending, but is to be marketed as a malt this autumn. And very good it was. Back at headquarters, everyone was very tactful but could not hide how much they had enjoyed Cawdor. There was still time that evening to visit Glen Reelig, a prodigiously deep cleft in which imported American firs soar as high as in a rainforest, towards the light. The botanists had a field day: the air was full of their often surprisingly erotic vocabulary: if it was not the uninspiring little lesser twayblade orchid, it was creeping ladies tresses, maidenhair spleenwort, betula pubescens (downy birch) or even phallus impudicus, the stinkhorn finger.

On day four, my luck changed. The Americans were spending most of it in Inverness, a town of meagre charms. One of the wardens had recommended me to find its main sewage outlet into Beauly Firth: just follow your nose through the Longman industrial estate, he said. At least one local looked at me as if I were mad when I asked for directions. Eventually, I spotted a sign saying 'Pipe', climbed over a bank with binoculars in hand, and there was a splendid selection of oystercatchers, curlew, shelduck, a heron and a cloud of assorted gulls hovering and swooping at the pipe's noisome orifice.

There were, I was told, dolphins to be seen in the firth, but they were not likely to be around for a few hours, a man with a fine brogue told me at the Dolphin Cafe, by Kessock bridge. But my luck was still in. Training my glasses on the middle of the estuary, a school of dolphins obligingly materialised, leaping playfully in the prescribed manner.

We were to see more dolphins next day when visiting Cromarty, a picturesque fishing town with its own firth. Day five also included one of the Big Ones. Before heading up the Black Isle (named for the colour of its fertile soil), we were to do a trawl at low tide of the north shore of Beauly Firth. As we approached, there was a cry of 'Osprey' from the front of the minibus. One of these magnificent fish-catching eagles had been spotted quite near and low.

But by the time I had scrambled out, it had vanished.

I could not believe I had come so near to one of my main targets, yet missed it. All was not lost, however. Ten minutes later, we detected it hovering over the firth at a great height and considerable distance away: a memorable enough spectacle, but rather like seeing a famously desirable actress 100 yards away and against the light.

If one element of humour is the gap between expectations and reality, my first encounter with a golden eagle was not unamusing. It came on our last full day, on which we headed up Strathconon for a walk in the hills. A pair were thought to be nesting near the top of a crag. My vision was one of these noble creatures soaring over the valley, or, even better, dropping from the skies like a stone, as in Tennyson's verse, on to a hapless rabbit, bearing it aloft to an eyrie.

On our five- mile walk, no eagle soared or swooped, but we did enjoy the company of a few golden plover, beautiful birds that I had long wished to see: another 'life first', in birder's parlance. Before returning, we stopped at a point where two women had their binoculars trained on the mountainside, and set up our telescope. There, on a branch of a silver birch, we could indistinctly make out not just one but two golden eagles. Nearby was their eyrie, in which a substantial eaglet lurched about.

These were, alas, eagles with little sense of what was expected of them. We hung around for an hour or so, taking it in turn to scrutinise them through the telescope. But they continued to sit there obstinately, like elderly lovers digesting a heavy meal side by side on a sofa. An image of sedentary contentment is not what amateur ornithologists look for when spotting their first golden eagle. A tick could be placed against the species, but it felt like cheating.

And what of that remarkable example of the species homo conservans, our host Sir John Lister-Kaye? Suffice it to say that he opened my eyes both to Scottish social history and to the hideous depredations of man on the environment of his adoptive land. A man of strong views, he nurtures a deep contempt for the 'Balmorality' culture introduced to Scotland by Queen Victoria, which he blames for the perpetuation of the moors as a 'wet desert', and for the devastating overgrazing of the hills by far too many deer and sheep. He is kinder about the Forestry Commission only because it has begun to see the light.

Sir John is fighting back. The week I was there, he launched - with the help of the Prince of Wales - a scheme to redeem 1.5 million of the 12 million acres of heather by regenerating native birch woods in appropriate sites. He is a tireless proselytiser: 10,000 children have spent time at Aigas. I returned home feeling mentally as well as physically refreshed.

Further information: Costs at Aigas House range from pounds 22 per night B & B to pounds 399 all in for a week with one or more expeditions (mainly bird-watching and wildlife) per day. Aigas House and Field Centre, Aigas, Beauly, Inverness IV4 7AD (0463 782443).

(Photograph omitted)

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