The big buzz here in Hampshire (southern England) at the moment is the recent arrival of a White-tailed eagle Haliaeetus albicilla. This magnificent raptor – it can have a wingspan of 2.4 m and is one of the biggest eagles in the world – is historically extinct in England, but individuals still appear here on occasion [image of the Hampshire bird shown here by Darren Crain].
A member of the ‘sea eagle’ clade Haliaeetus, the White-tailed eagle appears to be the sister-species of North America’s only sea eagle, the Bald eagle H. leucocephalus (Wink et al. 1996, Lerner & Mindell 2005). Both species are part of a ‘Northern sea eagle’ clade, the members of which mostly possess yellow bills, yellow eyes and yellow feet (the odd one out is Pallas’s fish eagle H. leucoryphus, which has the primitive condition of a dark bill, dark eyes and dark feet). Many people might be surprised to know that the closest relatives of sea eagles seem not to be ‘aquiline’ eagles like the Aquila species, but rather kites (Milvus) and perhaps buzzards (Buteo) and kin (Holdaway 1994, Wink et al. 1996, Lerner & Mindell 2005). Kites and sea eagles both share fusion of two of the phalanges in the second pedal digit, and some workers have even intimated that sea eagles can be regarded as super-sized, piscivorously adapted kites: the ‘end members’ of a trend toward association with aquatic environments and a diet of fish [image below shows a Bald eagle H. leucocephalus on a whale carcass (photo U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, from wikipedia)].
Anyway… with my friends Vicky Russell and Tara Dempsey, and my son Will, I went in quest of this most worthy of birding ticks (and thanks to Richard Reeves for some help). Did I see it?
Did I hell, but it was worth trying.
Until extremely recently, the White-tailed eagle (also known as the White-tailed sea eagle or Erne) occurred the length and breadth of Britain and Ireland. Persecution meant that it was mostly gone by the late 1700s: the last breeding English pair was present on the Isle of Wight in 1780, though another pair was still breeding on the Isle of Man in 1815. A surprising number of sightings made in the south-west of England between the early 1900s and 1940s mean that some people have mooted the possibility that the species hung on for rather longer than conventionally thought (Downes 1996), or at the least that it was a fairly regular visitor (interestingly, White-tailed eagles shot in Devon during the 1830s and 1880s were initially misidentified as Golden eagles Aquila chrysaetos. The Hampshire bird was first thought to be a Golden eagle by local landowners). But as a breeding resident, it was extinct [image below shows captive White-tailed eagle. Photo by Małgorzata Szreter, from wikipedia].
The last birds were killed in Ireland in about 1898. Of the last remaining pair in Scotland, the male was shot in 1908 while the female lingered on alone, “brooding over the empty nest each spring” (p. 21), until her death in 1918.
Since 1975, two reintroduction programmes on Rum and in north-west Scotland have been underway*. They have been successful: the birds (introduced from Norway) had produced 29 fledged young by 1992, indicating that the population might increase slowly so long as stochastic effects don’t affect them adversely (Green et al. 1996). In 2009, 36 chicks were fledged and a fantastic 46 fledged in 2010. There are currently about 200 birds on the west coast of Scotland, leading some to suggest that they are back at pre-decline levels. They are a fantastic boost to local economy: the birds on Mull bring in about £2 million in tourism every year.
* Reintroduction efforts also occurred in 1959 (Sandeman 1965) and 1968, but failed.
Since 2007, a reintroduction programme has been underway in Ireland. Sadly, some of these birds were soon poisoned or shot by farmers, apparently convinced that the birds would kill lambs (they do, but not enough to make an economic impact). Another reintroduction programme – this time on the east coast of Scotland – also began in 2007 (for more on this, read this 2009 interview with RSPB’s Claire Smith). A planned reintroduction for coastal Suffolk failed in 2010 due to government spending cuts (this scheme also faced opposition from local farmers).
A White-tailed eagle arrives in Hampshire
The bird currently present here in Hampshire was first reported from the region in the middle of December; it then moved west and (as of last weekend, when I and many others were trying to find it) ended up somewhere between Downton and Hordle (or thereabouts) in the New Forest.
Some people think that it was the same bird seen in Essex in October 2010 [the adjacent image – from Three Amigo’s Birding – shows the eagle with adjacent Common buzzard Buteo buteo and Jackdaw Corvus monedula]. It’s not the only White-tailed eagle to have appeared in Hampshire in recent years – there was another one here in 2007/8 (and I didn’t get to see that one, either). Leg rings showed that this 2007/8 one had flown in from Finnish Lapland.
The initial occurrence of the 2010/11 bird right over in the south-east of England indicates that it arrived under its own steam from the continent, something that should occur with increasing frequency given the success of the birds in Denmark, the Netherlands and elsewhere on the continent. The possibility that birds from Scotland might wander as far south as southern England is also possible of course, but if this happened you would expect sightings to occur as the bird moved down the Irish Sea and across the English countryside.
Anyway… so, we didn’t find it. Given that birds have a nasty habit of flying around, and thus rapidly moving across kilometres of countryside with ease, it may well have moved away from the exact spot where we, and others, thought best to look for it. As you can see from the photo below [left to right: Will, Vicky, Tara], many of the roads in the region were lined with cars, all belonging to people keen to see the bird. And lots of people have certainly been successful over recent days (quite a few Hampshire birders succeeded in getting good photos of it: see the good photos at Three Amigo’s Birding and BirdGuides). Oh well, at least I had more luck with all those Bohemian waxwings Bombycilla garrulus recently.
White-tailed eagles are frequently mobbed by corvids and by smaller raptors like Common buzzards. So we were very interested when we found a mutilated – but still very much alive – Carrion crow C. corone – taking refuge in some woodland undergrowth. A horrible wound on its head looked like it could have been the result of an eagle strike – a suggestion that we couldn’t confirm but were prepared to take seriously. My photos of the bird are useless, but let me know if you want to see one of them.
Re-wilding is underway – have you noticed?
As always, the return to these islands of a former native, and an apex predator at that, is a fantastic and wonderful thing, highly beneficial to the area’s ecology. As with the reintroduction of the Great bustard Otis tarda – another ‘lost native’ – the White-tailed eagle’s reappearance in parts of the UK can be considered part of the re-wilding movement, something that many people only associate with such creatures as wolves and megaherbivores. In fact, bustards, raptors, owls and even far lowlier beasts (rodents like beavers and water voles) should be (and are) part of the plan as well, and can be regarded as the first vanguard in a partially ‘reconstructed’ fauna.
And note that having an apex predator back in the region isn’t just ‘neat’: it has major ramifications for the structure of local ecosystems. That sorry, injured crow we found in the woods is a big clue to the sort of thing that can happen. With apex predators all but gone, so-called mesopredators are super-abundant and have exerted a major influence on the rest of our fauna. When apex predators are back and in action, mesopredator numbers get back in check: this is the start of an ecological community’s restoration. And, yes, this sort of stuff is on my mind at the moment because I’m reading Cristina Eisenberg’s The Wolf’s Tooth: Keystone Predators, Trophic Cascades, and Biodiversity.
I don’t know where that White-tailed eagle I went to see will go next, or how long it will remain within our region. But it reminds us of the successful reintroduction of this species that has occurred elsewhere in the UK, and of the extraordinary work done by the people involved. With great luck, it heralds what we hope is the start of a major recolonisation.
ps – thanks to everyone who identified (or tried to identify) the Maltese animals featured in Bob’s painting. I’ll talk about the animals in the very near future.
For previous Tet Zoo articles on raptors, see…
- Yet again, poor little deer gets killed by big nasty eagle
- Life-size two-dimensional condors and teratorns
- Titan-hawks and other super-raptors
- The most amazing eagle footage ever….. faked
- Raptor makes killing in university grounds
- When eagles go bad, all over again
- Screwed-up Secretary bird
- Condors and vultures: their postures, their ‘bald heads’ and their sheer ecological importance
- Using an eagle to catch and kill a wolf
And for articles on local extinctions and the reintroduction of locally extinct species, see…
Refs – –
Downes, J. 1996. The riddle of the sea eagle. In Downes, J. (ed) CFZ Yearbook 1996. CFZ (Exeter), pp. 26-45.
Green, R. E., Pienkowski, M. W. & Love, J. A. 1996. Long-term viability of the re-introduced population of the White-tailed eagle Haliaeetus albicilla in Scotland. Journal of Applied Ecology 33, 357-36.
Holdaway, R. N. 1994. An exploratory phylogenetic analysis of the genera of the Accipitridae, with notes on the biogeography of the family. In Meyburg, B.-U. & Chancellor, R. D. (eds) Raptor Conservation Today. WWGBP/The Pica Press, pp. 601-649.
Lerner, H. R. L. & Mindell, D. P. 2005. Phylogeny of eagles, Old World vultures, and other Accipitridae based on nuclear and mitochondrial DNA. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 37, 327-346.
Sandeman, P. 1965. An attempted reintroduction of the white-tailed eagle to Scotland, Scottish Birds 3, 411.
Whitlock, R. 1953. Rare and Extinct Birds of Britain. Phoenix House, London.
Wink, M., Heidrich, P., & Fentzloff, C. (1996). A mtDNA phylogeny of sea eagles (genus Haliaeetus) based on nucleotide sequences of the cytochrome b-gene Biochemical Systematics and Ecology, 24 (7-8), 783-791 DOI: 10.1016/S0305-1978(97)81217-3