Thanks to volunteer Phil for his report and photos
In 2010 on an annual holiday to the Scottish Highlands I was walking with friends near the coast of Wester Ross when we saw a very large bird of prey drifting into to land in a conifer tree. The bird was head on in silhouette and left a powerful impression on my memory. We wondered what this could be, with discussion centring on golden eagle and osprey, but without more detail it was difficult to be sure. We’d seen golden eagles before in the Highlands, but never osprey so were not familiar with this species. A few hundred yards further along the path we were closer to the tree where the bird had perched, and I was able to zoom in and take this photo.
On examining the photo after the holiday, I realised that this was no osprey and no golden eagle either. The dominant feature to be seen is a large yellow beak and this can only be an adult sea eagle. We knew these had been reported in in the general area, but maybe at the time couldn’t bring ourselves to believe that we could have seen such a rare bird. Since then, I have seen ospreys several times and, although large, they are nowhere near as big as a sea eagle and don’t really have the same head on profile that sticks in my memory to this day. I have now seen sea eagles several times on the West Coast of Scotland, most notably on the Isle of Mull, a stronghold for the species, and Mallaig opposite the South end of Skye where I saw a group of 4 circling over the harbour.
The story of the sea eagle is a typical one of persecution by humans which probably dates back to the Middle Ages. This ended with the last bird in Britain being shot in 1918. Originally eagles had been known in various places around the coasts of Britain and there was once a good population along the South Coast. Here the last recorded pair was on the Isle of Wight in the late 18th century.
Persecution might never have occurred if the birds had stuck to fishing but they are perfectly happy hunting on land as well and will take animals, including young livestock and birds, thus potentially running into conflict with humans. They will also feed on carrion. Because of this I now prefer to use their other name of white-tailed eagle referring to one of their more distinctive features which can be clearly seen in this photo taken on the Isle of Mull.
Understanding the requirement for a more mixed diet was key to a number of reintroduction projects in Britain, Early attempts on the west coast of Scotland failed, but a more successful programme took place on Isle of Rum in the 1970s, where the larger extent of the island provided more land feeding opportunities, for example on red deer carrion. The introduced birds were juveniles taken from Norway, which has the largest population in the world. Further successful reintroduction programmes started in Wester Ross in 1995 and Fife in 2007. This has helped a gradual spread around the Scottish coasts and in 2018 white tailed eagles were confirmed to be breeding in Orkney. This is a welcome return for a bird which, based on archaeological evidence, is thought to have played an important part in the lives and deaths of Neolithic Orcadians.
In 2019 another reintroduction project started with the aim of re-establishing a population along the South Coast and giving an opportunity to link up with populations in France and the Netherlands. This project is being run by Roy Dennis Foundation (RDF) in conjunction with Forestry England on the Isle of Wight where it is hoped they will breed in the local woodland. For each of 5 years 6 juvenile birds taken from the Scottish population are being released. Breeding is not expected until 2024 when the first birds should reach maturity. In the meantime the young birds have been wandering far and wide, as they tend to do in the first 2 years of life before returning to their release site. As they are all GPS tracked there is a lot of information on the RDF blog about where they have been.
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Until very recently, apart from ospreys which sometimes use river valleys such as the Arun running past Pulborough Brooks as a flyway to aid their migrations, seeing eagles of any kind in Sussex would be unthinkable. And yet curiously my Birds of Sussex book tells me that there was a white-tailed eagle recorded at Amberley Wildbrooks, just 2 miles from Pulborough Brooks in December 2010. There was no clue as to its origin, but I could speculate that it was a wandering juvenile from France, which is not so far away.
In March this year I started to pick up reports of white-tailed eagles on the Sussex Ornithological Society (SOS) recent sightings pages from various parts of East and West Sussex. Most interesting were several from Amberley Wildbrooks once again. These birds were presumed to be coming from the Isle of Wight reintroduction and suddenly it seemed just possible that I could encounter one at Pulborough Brooks.
In recent weeks I have been doing regular lapwing surveys at Amberley Wildbrooks and so, as well as looking for signs of lapwing nests, have been keeping an eye out for “flying barn doors”. This is a commonly used nickname for the white-tailed eagle which has a wingspan of around 8ft and very broad wings. After a few weeks of drawing a blank I was walking back to Amberley village on 16th April when I spotted a very large bird perched on a fence post about 300 yards away. It was divebombed several times by a red kite, but stayed put looking entirely unconcerned. Surely this was the eagle I had been hoping to see. Fortunately, with permission to go off piste for the survey I was able to approach to within about 100 yards, closer than I’ve ever been before to one of these magnificent birds and managed to take this photo.
This gives an impression of the sheer size of the bird and its powerful beak. Notice the yellow developing at the base of the beak which will in time turn fully yellow as in my first photo.
I’m not entirely sure why this bird seems to have taken a liking to Amberley but with a large deer population it is possible that it is finding good feeding opportunities on carrion, something that will probably have caused consternation for the red kites which may well frequent the area for the same reason. The RDF blog suggests that for the first few months of their lives white tailed eagles will tend to survive on carrion before they have perfected their hunting and fishing skills.
So I have now achieved the unthinkable and seen a genuine wild white-tailed eagle in Sussex. But the story does not end there as on the 19th and 20th what is presumably the same bird was reported at Pulborough Brooks. I wasn’t around to see it but hopefully my time will come, and just as my first sighting in Scotland proved to be an unforgettable moment, I’m sure my first West Sussex sighting will prove to be equally memorable and hopefully not the only one.
PS Any readers taking a look at the Roy Dennis Foundation blog should bear in mind that the bird we are seeing is most likely a male named G408. As yet there is not much information about him recorded there as it seems he has been the most sedentary of the 2020 releases. However there are a lot of reports on the SOS recent sightings page over several weeks now, including ones that mention more than one bird. At time of writing there is a report from the Lewes area on 23rd April but I had another brief sighting at Amberley on 23rd which also suggests there may be more than one bird in Sussex now. One possibility is that there is another wandering juvenile from the European population in the area. Maybe the RDF blog will reveal more in due course..
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