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Trollopes Bird Notes

January 2021

Click for Trollope's October 2020 notes

The eagle has landed and it’s come to Kent

I was surprised to learn that in 2019, six White-tailed Eagles had been released on the Isle of Wight as part of a reintroduction program. I thought that the wild coastline in Scotland would be a much preferred habitat and indeed the first introduction program took place on the island of Rhum off the west coast.

Swift
White Tailed Eagle
(Image by jggrz from Pixabay)

Given good views, the white-tailed Eagle is relatively easily identified. Its broad wings are so enormous it is often referred to as a ‘barn door’. The adults have white tails but the recently released birds will not have a fully white tail until they reach breeding age. Their main diet is fish, but waterfowl and mammals are often taken depending on availability. Unlike Ospreys, which plunge dive to catch fish, the White-tailed Eagle flies low and drops its feet into the water to grasp its prey. They are, however, great scavengers and will feed on anything the sea washes up.

I remember seeing my first White-tailed Eagle on Mull at close quarters while it was roosting on a tree. It is truly an impressive bird at close range and after one glance at that huge yellow beak, it was easy to imagine it ripping into its prey.

The last known breeding attempt in the UK was in 1916 on the island of Skye. The extermination of the eagle was Government encouraged as it was seen (probably incorrectly) as a competitor to the fishing and sheep farming industries. The extermination along the south coast was much earlier (no records after 1780), with the Isle of Wight being one of the last known breeding locations.

White-tailed Eagles do not breed until about five years old and then it can sometimes take a few attempts until they successfully fledge any young. While they are maturing, they are known to wander off on extensive journeys, and as the released birds have satellite tags, it has been possible to follow in some detail their explorations. One bird with a ring G274 took off and flew to Sussex, crossing the Kent/Sussex border on 1 April, when he flew over this parish. They fly at high altitudes (typically at 2,000ft), so it would have taken a sharp-eyed observer to pick this up.

Having left the Isle of Wight that morning and crossed into Kent at four in the afternoon, he eventually roosted in Elham Park Woods, near Stelling Minnis, having journeyed 103 kilometres during the day. Next morning, G274 set off for Dover and landed on the beach, probably consuming a meal of fish or wildfowl before following the coast up to Ramsgate, cutting inland just north of Canterbury and eventually roosting in woods six kilometres south of Faversham.

The next day, he flew almost on a direct line back to the Isle of Wight, for a three-night round trip of 524 kilometres, where he was seen catching grey mullet and cuttlefish in the Solent, as well as catching rabbits on the downs. He began his next foray on 20 June, spending the first night in woods near Spithurst. The next day, he landed at Birling Gap and roosted in Jarvis Wood, was seen a day later at Rye Harbour and tracked over Hemsted Forest before settling in Eastwell Woods, near Ashford. He then made his way back home, travelling 490 kilometres in six days.

The other three released birds also made extensive trips, some much further afield than this one. G318 journeyed to Weston-super-Mare and made a second trip to Yorkshire; G393 summered in the North York Moors, while G324 made the longest journey and spent most of the summer in the Lammermuir Hills in Southern Scotland. I thought she might stay there but she came back to the Isle of Wight on 9 September.

White-tailed Eagles weigh up to six kilos, with the females being some 25% larger and heavier than males. They can lift their own weight in prey and have been known to take lambs, but since their introduction some 30 years ago, there have been only 36 instances of the eagles taking lambs to the nest, of which 24 were already dead.

Farmers in Ireland took a great exception to a release program in Killarney National Park back in 2007. Following a demonstration at Kerry airport when the eagle chicks arrived, quite a few of the first release chicks were shot or poisoned and the program was nearly shut down, but the authorities persevered and the first chicks were hatched in 2013.

Back in the Isle of Wight, another seven chicks were released in August 2020, in addition to the four surviving chicks from 2019. The aim is to release about 60 chicks over about five years to establish a breeding population on the island of six to eight pairs. The chances of seeing an eagle locally will be greatly enhanced.

(Read more about the Isle of Wight eagle releases)

Two decades ago, the only raptors to be seen were Sparrowhawks, Kestrels and the occasional Hobby, but Marsh Harrier, Red Kite and Buzzard are now familiar and possibly White-tailed Eagle will once again be seen in their old hunting grounds.

Another introduction program caused quite a lot of excitement when a Lammergeier (also known as a Bearded Vulture) was spotted in Derbyshire, where it spent most of the summer. By DNA analysis it was shown to come from a reintroduction program in the French Alps, and while many experts did not think it would survive Eagle journeys particularly as carrion forms the major part of its shows the spring diet and it is illegal to leave dead stock lying journeys of the about; - survive it did, and it has made its way back to the Alps.

It does not have a satellite transmitter like the eagles, but it is so large (it dwarfs an eagle) that it was well tracked as it made its way south over England, crossing the channel at Beachy Head, having passed over Tunbridge Wells.

Charles Trollope 240821 cetetal@btinternet.com

Charles Trollope cetetal@btinternet.com

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