Professional wildlife and travel writer, photographer, birdwatcher and long-term friend of Wildfoot Travel, Mike Unwin has always had a passion for eagles. Here he explains how it all started and how it lead to the creation of his latest book The Empire of the Eagle .
My first ever eagle was a golden: I was seven years old, on holiday in the Scottish Highlands, and my father spotted the bird cresting a ridge high above our picnic site. A mobbing buzzard, just half its size, provided instant scale. Unfazed by its tormentor, the huge bird continued its long, gliding trajectory, as though on an invisible zip-line to the horizon, leaving the buzzard circling aimlessly over our heads.
I was hooked. As a fledgling birdwatcher, a ‘goldie’ was as glamorous as a Siberian tiger. And since that day, I’ve been lucky enough to see eagles in many parts of the world. Deep in a Panama rainforest, I have watched a mighty harpy eagle visit its nest in a towering almendro tree. On the Zambezi river, I have canoed past snorting hippos while African fish eagles yodelled overhead.
In Mongolia’s Altai mountains, I have felt the power of a golden eagle’s talons when a traditional Berkutchy eagle hunter placed his bird on my leather-gloved wrist. And two years ago, on a Wildfoot cruise to the Russian Far East, I watched Steller’s sea eagles, the largest species of all, soaring against the smoking backdrop of Kamchatka’s volcano skyline.
There’s something irresistibly alluring about eagles: the predatory power, the imperious glare, the easy magnificence in flight. Indeed, few wild creatures have made more of an impression on the human imagination. Eagles are, in a way, the avian equivalent of big cats, elevated to emblems of pride, power and freedom worldwide – from the Roman legions to the US air force.
For the traveller, meanwhile, eagles mean exciting places. These birds’ basic needs – unspoilt wilderness, with plentiful prey and few human threats – mean that if you’re watching one, you’re generally somewhere pretty impressive. And each new sighting brings the same thrill: that sense of being in the presence of a top predator; a bird that holds life and death in its unflinching gaze and can exit our world with just a beat of its wings. The birds seem the very embodiment of the wilds they inhabit.
Such thoughts and inspirations lie behind my new book, the Empire of the Eagle, which I put together with top wildlife photographer David Tipling. A photographic celebration of the world’s 68 species of eagle, it aims to illustrate their sheer variety – from desert-dweller to mountain-rider, and snake-eater to fish-catcher – and to open a window onto the lives of these fascinating birds.
The book also spells out the many conservation threats that eagles face. Sadly, despite their iconic status, these birds don’t inspire everybody. Like predators of all kinds, many still find themselves heavily persecuted for their alleged attacks on livestock – or running out of space as their hunting grounds are developed and their forests disappear. Today many of the world’s 68 species are under threat.
So, all the more reason, then, to visit eagle country. With luck, your presence there may help convince its custodians of just why these birds are so important. Either way, I wish you the same stirring memories of fabulous places that these wonderful birds have given me.
Mike Unwin’s book, the Empire of the Eagle, was published in November by Yale University Press. It covers every one of the world’s 68 eagle species, with stunning images taken and curated by top UK bird photographer David Tipling.
Yale Books is pleased to offer Wildfoot Travel subscribers the opportunity to buy The Empire of the Eagle by Mike Unwin and David Tipling at £24 (rrp £30) with free p&p within the UK. Please find the book at www.yalebooks.co.uk and use your exclusive Wildfoot offer code EAGLE at checkout.
Offer is valid from 14/12/2018 to 28/2/19 and is for UK orders only.
Here is a small selection of images from the book.
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