White-tailed Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla)
I was out early for something rather special. A White-tailed Sea Eagle. In Buckinghamshire.
Not the place you might expect to see such a bird. But one had been seen in the vicinity coming down to a field to eat cattle cake.
As we gazed over rolling farmland that January, across a field of sheep, I remarked: ‘Where is it, compared to the one on the left?’
At which point, the ‘sheep on the left’ suddenly rose into the air and fulfilled all the promises I’d been given: ‘It looks like a flying barn door.’
This huge beast, thought to have originated from Norway, performed spectacularly over the farmland in front of us in the aptly named village of Brill that cold winter back in 1984. I’d never seen one before. If a Buzzard was a Spitfire then this would be a Lancaster.
Little did I dream then that there would be more to come in southern England–including one over Cranleigh and Ewhurst. It looks like we all missed that one back in April.
This species used to be in the UK but persecution led to its extinction here with the last one being shot in 1918. But its fortunes were revived after reintroduction in Scotland on the Isle of Rhum between 1975 and 1985, and then again last August when four Scottish youngsters were released on the Isle of Wight.
Birders have recently been on the alert as these magnificent birds have been wandering many miles and have occasionally been spotted in the home counties by near-disbelieving observers.
Tiny satellite transmitters enable them to be traced on screen and in map form. One male, known as G274, wandered along the Sussex coast and Kent before arriving over Surrey. This was the second time one of the ‘Isle of Wight four’ had visited our county without being spotted.
With little disturbance from Gatwick aircraft during the pandemic it flew round Reigate, on to Brockham, and then travelled over Redlands, near Dorking, before roosting somewhere between Leith Hill and Ewhurst’s Pitch Hill on the Friday night of 3rd April.
Next morning, ‘male G274’ was off, flying out over Ewhurst and Cranleigh before returning to the island just over four hours later. Who knows how we missed that one!
With a wingspan of over two metres – slightly more than the distance we have been instructed to keep between each other these last few strange and difficult weeks – it is the fourth-largest eagle in the world. Perhaps we just need to look up more. These wandering eagles have at times been flying less than 40 metres above our heads.
But then things turned more bizarre. An immature sea eagle seen in Wiltshire and Hampshire was not from a reintroduction. It had a metal ring and hailed from Sweden. A couple of other wandering birds from Europe also arrived, possibly aided by strong March winds.
Roll on to Easter Monday and 18-year old birder Isaiah V.Rowe, in Worcester Park, got the shock of his life as the lockdown confined him to birding only from home. Drifting overhead was an immature White-tailed Eagle. The ‘Sea’ part of its name was widely dropped some time before they started appearing more regularly inland. But I prefer the old name.
This individual turned out not to be one of the reintroduced birds, and so – pending official acceptance – he becomes the first person to see a truly wild one in Surrey for 114 years. The last one was shot in 1906. Must’ve been an oh so skilful shooter…
White-tailed Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla)
Isaiah told his story on the surreybirdclub.org.uk website:
‘For the past few weeks I’ve been watching and recording birds of prey as they pass over, logging well over 50 individual raptors (mostly Buzzards and Red Kites), which are unusual in my part of Surrey. Then came ‘eagle day’…
‘Monday 13 April 2020 started different to recent days in terms of weather – there was a cold northerly wind. I wasn’t so keen on sitting outside as I wasn’t expecting anything to be moving, so I decided to watch now and then from the window, as sometimes I pick out stuff from there.
‘And that’s how I spotted it! It was 2.30 pm and I noticed a large bird of prey drifting at quite a height, heading fast and firmly south. I grabbed my bins as I immediately noticed it wasn’t a Buzzard, before opening the window wide as I followed it drifting (with wings slightly folded) and heading away.
‘I chose to quickly draw my camera (which is always kept ready in case of a moment like this). I fired away a few record shots and finally it turned its wings as it began to catch a thermal and circle, revealing the unmistakable shape of a ‘flying barn door’!
‘I’ve seen White-tailed Eagles several times on the continent, so this was something that was firmly stuck in my mind. I was completely shocked and shouted ‘eagle’ to my family at home.
‘By then, it was already too far away and when my mum got to the window it had disappeared to the south. My heart was racing as I thought I’ve got to put the news out. I took a few back-of-camera shots on my phone and sent them to a few birders before the news went out. Sadly it wasn’t seen by anyone else.’
But maybe you still will. It’s certainly one not to be missed.
- I’ve been garden birding during the lockdown too. As I write I’ve recorded 51 species. See how I got on next month.