White-tailed eagle project | December 2019 update

White-tailed eagle juvenile flying in a clear blue sky
Photo credit: Ainsley Bennett

White-tailed eagle project update

Find out what our young eagles have been up to over the past few months in this guest blog from Steve Egerton-Read, our White-Tailed Eagle Project Officer on the Isle of Wight.

Facing their first winter

After a really wet and windy autumn, winter is truly underway now. The days are short and we’ve had a number of heavy frosts – even here on the sunny Isle of Wight! Despite the difficult weather conditions, the young white-tailed eagles are doing well; conserving energy on wet and miserable days but making the most of the breaks in the weather to search for food.

Following the epic flights of a couple of the birds early after release, perhaps the most surprising fact is that in the past six weeks none of the eagles have moved particularly far. Three birds remain on the Isle of Wight, and bird ‘G3 93’ is still in Oxfordshire. The satellite tracking data gives us a fascinating insight into the young eagles’ daily movements, and has shown that they are often extremely sedentary; perching quietly in wooded areas for much of the day and seldom flying more than a few kilometres from their roost site. 

This is why white-tailed eagles are referred to as ‘sit-and-wait’ foragers. They would rather sit and watch for prey than make longer flights in search for food like golden eagles tend to do. This saves valuable energy, which is particularly important for young birds in their first winter. Our fieldwork indicates that the birds are finding plenty of carrion in the landscape, although one bird – G3 18 - is continuing to return to the release site on a daily basis to feed on the fish we’re still providing. As the days lengthen in the New Year it will be interesting to see if the birds begin to wander further afield.

White-tailed eagle juvenile flying in the clouds
Photo credit: Nick Edwards

A perfect pair

Interestingly, two of the birds ‘G3 24’ and ’G2 74’ have spent much of the past four months together on the Isle of Wight. These two birds were not reared in the same pen but found each other on the Isle of Wight whilst exploring after fledging. Although the birds are reared in pens with at least one other, they have no contact with the other young eagles during this period. This means that when they meet each other after release, it replicates the natural process of young eagles from different nests encountering each other.

The tag data shows us that the two birds frequently roost in the same copses, and sometimes even in the same tree, and we have had a number of reports of them tumbling with each other mid-air. The project team were also told that they had been seen soaring with paragliders over the west Wight, which must be the most extreme sighting we have had to date! The satellite data indicates that the two birds also soared together over Newport early in December, but it seems that they went unnoticed on that occasion.

Although white-tailed eagles do not breed until they are around 4-5 years old, it is sometimes possible for pair bonds to become established much earlier than that. G3 24 is a female and G2 74 a male, and so there is a chance that if the two birds survive the next few years, they may eventually form a breeding pair.

Pair of white-tailed eagles over water
Photo credit: Ian Day

Winter wildfowl on the Solent coastline

The winter is also a great time for us to enjoy birds that visit our shores to escape the extreme cold of the Arctic. Much of the Solent is designated a Special Protection Area (SPA), because the Solent coastline is an incredibly important site for wintering wildfowl and waders. As many as 125,000 birds travel here to overwinter. Many of these are easy to see in places like Yarmouth Harbour or off Ryde Pier head; perhaps the most charming of these visitors is the brent goose with its chocolate brown plumage and chattering call. These birds having travelled in excess of 3,000 miles are here to feed until they return to their summer grounds in the high Arctic to breed.

Brent geese they are one of the many species of migratory waterbirds that encounter white-tailed eagles throughout the year. They see white-tailed eagles on their breeding grounds and also on migration through the Baltic. Our water birds are well adapted to evading avian predators, but it’s important to remember that predators play a key role in keeping prey populations healthy and ensure only the fittest survive. In Denmark, for example, white-tailed eagles are known to feed on dead or sick dark-bellied brent geese, but have no negative impact on overall numbers.

Bird watching

Seeing the birds

One threat to the survival of all our coastal birds through the winter is disturbance by people. Persistent disturbance at feeding or roost sites (for our wildfowl, waders and eagles), causes birds to expend more energy when they should be conserving it to better survive the winter weather. The Bird Aware Solent Ranger team can be seen on our coasts helping people enjoy our coastline and its wildlife without causing any disturbance. More information can be found on their website and @BirdAwareSolent on Facebook and Twitter.

We receive a number of queries asking where is best to view the eagles and we hope as the project progresses there may be a suitable place we can recommend. However, on a sunny day, you have a good chance to see the Isle of Wight eagles at any of the islands many landmarks – you just need some luck. If out exploring, please stick to public rights of way and if you are lucky enough to encounter an eagle, or any other wildlife, give the animal plenty of space and avoid scaring it from its position. In future years it will become easier to watch white-tailed eagles as they establish as a breeding species in southern England.

It seems only moments ago that the first white-tailed eagles arrived on the Isle of Wight from Scotland; but 2020 is just around the corner and promises to be an exciting year for the project. We will be looking to release more birds next summer. It will also be exciting to follow the progress of the 2019's cohort of eagles as they learn more about their landscape heading into their second year. As the year closes, it’s important to remember how much work has gone into making this project possible; a great many people have helped the project along the way and wished it well and we are really grateful for this support.

Spotted a white-tailed eagle?

Share your sightings with Steve and the project team:

Two white-tailed eagles on the water with boat in the background
Photo credit: Ian Day

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