There are not too many locals who can say they have seen the Philippine Eagle, one of the rarest birds in the world, in its native habitat.
But for Carrick resident George McGrand it was an amazing experience.
George has worked in conservation on several continents during his career, and admits to having fallen in love with the Philippines, where he spent 14 years.
He was engaged in social and economic development projects related to conservation, during which he worked closely with local communities.
He was in the Mount Hamiguitan region, which now has Unesco World Heritage status owing to the unique wildlife, flora and fauna which are found there.
While there, efforts were made to catch a sighting of the elusive and rare Philippine Eagle.
The Philippine Eagle is also known as the Monkey-Eating Eagle and is one of the rarest and most powerful birds in the world.
“We spent 11 days out in the rainforest looking for them without success,” George recalls.
“We came out into a rise of land which was also a natural clearing, and by that time I had given up hope of seeing any. But then, an eagle appeared less than 400 metres away, flying over the tops of the trees. It was fabulous and a very exciting few moments,” he enthuses.
The Eagles are majestic and magnificent birds, and can average between three and four feet in length with distinctive brown and white plumage.
The sighting is just one of a wealth of experiences which George has enjoyed in a lifetime spent working with nature and conservation.
A native of Belfast, he grew up playing near the River Lagan, appreciating the natural world all around him as a boy of seven.
“There was a lapwing breeding area, water hens, ducks, and other birds as well as mammals. There were lots of red squirrels then and I saw my first otter on the Lagan,” he reflects.
George was an avid reader of Ladybird nature books, which helped to cultivate an enduring love and interest in wildlife and birdlife, which was cultivated by others whom he met in his professional career.
When he was 17 years old he went to Loughry Agricultural College at Cookstown and progressed to his first job at Seskinore Forest Park in 1983, which was managed as a traditional estate with grazing lands, rare breeds, a pheasant shoot and other activities. Based there, George travelled all over Tyrone and Fermanagh as an officer of the Wildlife Branch of the Forestry Service, and also had to try and manage increasing populations of grey squirrels as well as rabbits and deer.
He was soon to travel beyond Fermanagh and Tyrone, taking a three year national diploma in Wildlife and Habitat Management at Hampshire Agricultural College and then a placement in Dumfriesshire in Scotland.
He returned to Ulster, where he took up a position based at Belvoir Park Forest in Belfast and also other locations such as Randalstown forest. But in 1995 he moved to a private consultancy firm and headed off to Africa to work on environmental forestry projects as part of development aid work which was ongoing in Zimbabwe. He lectured on environmental agriculture and development and found it rewarding and enjoyable.
He does recall that there were a few things to get used to, including the African heat, and greater awareness of one’s environment. One day he was standing by a river and suddenly realised that the ‘log’ just in front of him had opened its mouth to display a fine set of teeth.
“We were just above Victoria Falls and I was standing talking to a colleague by the river. I genuinely thought it was a log until it opened its mouth and started to move towards us. It was quite a close thing, crocodiles can move very fast,” he says.
Back in Northern Ireland, George has worked at the Gobbins in Islandmagee as a tour guide, where his knowledge about birdlife has been very clear to anyone lucky enough to be on his tours.
He says that there is a variety of bird life along the Islandmagee coast, including Fulmars, Guillemots, Razor Bills, Gannets, Puffins, Oyster Catchers, Rock Pippets, Cormorants – and the list goes on.
Each species offers different interest at different times of the year, but Spring begins to see much more activity and George is always on the lookout for not only birds but also mammals; “It’s amazing to think that there are bottle nosed dolphins, porpoises and minke whales all within 40 minutes of Belfast,” he says.
“Islandmagee is the only place on mainland Northern Ireland where you can see breeding puffins, it’s a very important breeding site for these birds,”
“People sometimes just see the birds and don’t think about their lifestyles. I find it absolutely amazing that the Arctic Tern, for example, flies all the way from the Antarctic north and stops here on its way to the Arctic, returning in the same year,”
“Did you know it has the largest migratory patterns in the animal world?” he asks.
Generally, however, George has many more answers than questions. If there is anything he does not know about birdlife and animals, not too many other people will know either.
In addition to the wild birds, George is also a ‘pigeon man’ and has his own loft at home.
Given his experiences in other parts of the world, I pose a final question to him. What are his favourite birds?
I expect the Philippine Eagle to be high on the list.
“I really like Goldfinches and Bullfinches, they are lovely wee birds. I really like them and the common birds, probably because I have so many happy memories of growing up and seeing them from that time onwards,” he says as he danders off, binoculars at the ready…