So far, so good…

Last week, I visited the white-tailed eagle release area where Forestry England and the Foundation are embarking on a project to restore the sea eagle as a breeding bird to the Isle of Wight and the English Channel coast. The first six young have thrived since they were brought south from Mull, Skye and Wester Ross. Of course I had received frequent CCTV footage and photos of them growing up since they arrived there on 25th June; but I was delighted to see them in outstanding condition and ready for release. The hacking cages built by Pete Campbell, his metal work team and Dick Milner, the joiner, were the best I’ve seen. Daily supplies of plentiful fish and dead rabbit carefully threaded through a hatch in the back of the cage by Steve Egerton-Read, the project officer, meant that they young had grown and their plumage was perfect. And they had not seen a single person, important for keeping them truly wild birds.

Continuous monitoring was achieved through a superb CCTV system in each cage and on the roof, which allowed Steve and the team of volunteers to monitor progress. On Tuesday 20th we gathered at the site, with a contingent from Scotland, – Ian Perks, Dave Sexton and me, – joining Tim Mackrill, Steve and the team for the important step to catch up each bird so that our highly skilled raptor vet, John Chitty, could examine each bird before release. He passed all of them fit and ready for release, and also collected tiny blood samples to confirm sexes and for future DNA studies. Then we fitted small satellite transmitters to each one so that their movements post-release could be tracked. At this age these are now powerful birds, with very sharp bills and talons, and require careful but firm handling. By afternoon all was completed and they were back in their temporary homes.

Each of the birds were given a health check by vet John Chitty (right) prior to release.

It was a 4.45am start next day so that the team could lower the cage front door in darkness, which allows the young to come out in their own time when first light starts to illuminate the release area. Finally the big Mull female came out and perched on the front door, bouncing along the branch from side to side. She looked around but was slow to fly, so the male came out in a hurry and beat her to the first flight, which was into the nearby wood. Next morning and another pre-dawn start to release the other four young eagles. It’s a time of change for those who have looked after and watched over them for two months, and a time to wonder about the massive leap of releasing young sea eagles back to the Isle of Wight after an absence of 240 years.

The successful release was covered by a BBC crew and will feature soon on the ‘The One Show’. There has been tremendous interest and support for the project, and we have started to produce podcasts of our fieldwork that are now available on many of the podcast platforms. Our latest podcast covers the release of the eagles last week. To listen, click the link below.

Before release, we were not sure what they would do – would they stay nearby or would they just fly off in all directions and distances? In fact, they all stayed close by, within a few kilometres and three remained in the immediate vicinity. Those ones started to return to the feeding platform and the top of the cages where Steve placed fresh fish each day after dark, so as not to disturb them. Most of the time they perched in trees at the edge of woods, spending their time watching what was happening in their new world. For such a huge bird they can be surprisingly unobtrusive, and despite many reports of people seeing them, we were able to confirm from their satellite tracks that only a couple of people would have seen them in the first days. We are keeping the release location confidential for the welfare of the birds, but as they start to disperse, we’ll be posting regular updates on their movements. We also hope it will be possible to set-up a public eagle viewpoint once the settlement patterns of the birds are understood.

We are very grateful to two generous donors, who have allowed us to get the project underway and to employ a full-time project officer. We are very careful with funds for these projects do cost money and as well as general support donations which come in through our website or mail, we would welcome help with paying for certain equipment. For example someone to sponsor the top-class CCTV equipment (£11,000) or the satellite transmitters at £1200 each and with the white-tailed eagles being so good at hiding in woods a thermal imager for the project would be extremely useful. You can make a donation or get in touch via the support us page if you would like to help this ground breaking project.

Two of the eagles perched together after release last week. Both of these birds are females (photo by Tim Mackrill)

The released eagles are now growing in confidence on the wing (photo by Steve Egerton-Read)