Sea eagle: Bird of the Week

The sea eagle, or white-tailed eagle, were wiped out in the UK in the early 1900s until a re-introduction programme brought these magnificent birds back to Scotland.

By Kieren Puffett
Published 5 Jul 2018, 15:31 BST
Sea Eagle, or white tailed eagle, swooping low over water in UK
The last sea eagle in the UK was shot in 1918, but a programme to reintroduce the bird to the UK was launched in the 1970s and there are now over a 100 breeding pairs of sea eagles in the UK.
Photograph by Chris Gomersall RSPB Images

These magnificent birds are the largest birds of prey in the UK, nicknamed the ‘flying barn door, on account of their huge wingspan. They currently breed only in Scotland where there are 106 pairs. The 'eagle with the sunlit eye' is the translation of their poetic name in Gaelic, but the distribution of place names with an 'eagle' component (frequently variations on the Germanic word 'erne') suggests that white-tailed eagles were previously found across much of lowland Britain and Ireland.

Persecuted to extinction in the UK, white-tailed eagles returned following a re-introduction programme to the west of Scotland, instigated in 1975. The RSPB became involved in the late 1970s, and since then, this population has recovered steadily. As this population is now self-sustaining, no more are being released on the west coast. In fact, a breeding pair have been found on the Isle of Orkney raising a chick for the first time in over 140 years. 

The sea eagle will swoop low over water looking for fish to catch. When fishing, they fly low over water, stop to hover for a moment and drop to snatch fish from the surface.
Photograph by Ian McCarthy RSPB Images

Nesting Grounds

White-tailed eagles tend to nest close to water and build huge stick nests that are used for many years, in trees, or on cliffs, or even on the ground, if trees are not available. They take around five years to mature enough to breed, but they can live for many years, generally forming long-term and monogamous bonds with their mates.

White-tailed eagles tend to take their food from low-lying wetland or coastal habitats, mainly fish and waterbirds, depending what is available. They will also scavenge on both carrion and live mammals. This has led to conflict with sheep farmers in some areas, though closer investigation suggests that the actual level of impact by eagles on sheep farming is far lower than perceived by many land managers.

Watch a Bird-Eyes' View of a Sea Eagle Flying over Scottish Cliffs

An Eagle's Point of View
Get a true bird's-eye view of Scotland's seaside cliffs.
Read More

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