Eagle-eyed in Glenveagh


GO WALK:On a blustery day in Donegal, ravens dash at a great bird of prey, writes JASPER WINN

INTER WALKING is good for birdwatching. Pushed to find food and with the countryside stark and bare, birds are more visible in the “hungry months”. This is especially true of Ireland’s largest raptor, the golden eagle.

Aquila chrysaetosbecame extinct in Ireland in the early 19th century, with only rare Scottish vagrants flying in Irish airspace until, in 2001, a programme of reintroduction was started in the 16,000 hectares of Glenveagh National Park.

Over the past decade Glenveagh eagles have spread across the northwest (identification of each season’s birds made easy by colour-coded wing tags), while breeding pairs have raised a handful of young Irish eagles. Eight birds still hold territory in the park and in winter their flights to hunt for hares and rabbits or soaring searches for deer carrion are squeezed into the fewer hours of daylight.

At the park entrance (free entry, open year round), I stopped at the visitor centre with its informative displays on the estate’s history, wildlife and geography, then took the minibus service the four kilometres to Glenveagh Castle. I started walking on the bridle path that runs from the gardens out along the shore of Lough Veagh, before it becomes the Upper Glen Way that climbs up to the pass at the valley’s end, and the R254 road, seven miles from the castle.

It was a blustery day and stopping to watch a troupe of long-tailed tits flicking among the bare branches of oak, hazel and birch in Mullangore wood provided a welcome excuse to wait out a squall of rain. Then I walked on to where the lake ended on a dazzling quartzite sand beach.

I followed the well-made track as it wound uphill beside a stream, spying deer slots in the mud but here, where the glen became more exposed, there was little sign of actual wildlife. Despite searching the hillsides with binoculars, there was no sign of eagles or of the park’s large red deer herd or resident peregrine falcons.

By the Stalking Hut and its protective stand of trees, I sheltered and again fruitlessly scanned the landscape for life. I imagined Glenveagh’s wildlife with its collective feet up in some cosy spot out of the wind-blown rain.

Apart from a pair of ravens.

As I continued up the glen, rain pattering against my coat, I heard deep guttural “pruk pruk” calls and spotted a pair of ravens sweeping over the brow of the hill before swirling down in a quick dash at a dark shape hunched on a knob of rock. The shape suddenly increased in size four-fold as the bullied eagle unfolded its wings and flapped into the air. It contour flew just below the skyline, gliding close to the ground.

The ravens flew off, towards the waters of Astelleen waterfall tumbling down from the Derryveagh mountains. The eagle landed on another ledge and folded its wings. The huge bird had flown for just a few moments, conjured up by the ravens as if out of nowhere, and now its drab juvenile plumage and immobility so camouflaged it against the winter vegetation that it had disappeared again.

I turned back down hill and returned to the castle, arriving just before dusk, still with time to visit the tea-room and take a tour of the castle rooms. I had been lucky, but even if I hadn’t seen an eagle, I could still agree with one visitor to Glenveagh who said: “I don’t need to see an eagle, I just want to see where eagles live.”

The Upper Glen Walk

Start and finish:Glenveagh Castle in Glenveagh National Park, 24km northwest of Letterkenny. Take N56 through Kilmacrennan, then R255 Gweedore road.

Distance and time:10-14 kms, 3-4 hours.

Suitability:Reasonably fit walkers, with winter clothing.

Map:OSI 1;50 000 Discovery series, sheet No 6, plus walk guides from the Visitor Centre.

Accommodation and refreshments:Glenveagh Castle is open all winter, visitor centre restaurant open June-September. glenveaghnationalpark.ie, goldeneagle.ie.