Spring in uncertain times

It’s very strange not to be going out birding when the signs of the coming spring are beckoning, but at least I have more time these days to watch the going-ons in the garden. The stoat that lives in our roof has turned from white to brown during these first two weeks of our isolation, while Phoebe’s nest box, built at Scouts and finally fixed yesterday to the end of the Wendy house, has attracted a pair of great tits, this early morning taking ownership. As I type, though, I’m thinking of larger birds.

The young white-tailed eagles we released last August on the Isle of Wight have had a busy few weeks.  Despite occasional short wanderings, the four eagles had settled into a winter routine, three staying on the island and one having gone to live with red kites and buzzards in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Most of their time was spent just sitting in big trees watching the world go by and learning the life of the countryside, watching in particular other carrion eaters, for they lived off dead birds and small mammals, as well as dead deer and a fox. They may also have caught rabbits and a mallard and one may have hunted grey mullet in an estuary on the Solent. Four living successfully through their first autumn and winter, and on into April, is a success at the start of the reintroduction project.

Way back in 1968, on Fair Isle, three out of four young sea eagles which we released there survived the winter on the island, before, in spring, the two females departed. In those days they left and we had no idea where they had gone. They were, in fact, never seen again, but I always hoped that, when soaring several thousand feet above that remote Shetland island, they may have seen Norway and headed home. Much later, during the releases of the 1990s in Wester Ross, one young sea eagle, individually identified by its coloured wing-tags, flew north to Shetland and, years later, was proved to be breeding in Norway, so we know that at least one did make the long flight over the North Sea.

Now, of course, it’s all so different. Without leaving my desk I can check each eagle’s tiny satellite transmitter on my laptop. Within an hour, the data on each bird’s travels will appear on my screen in digital and map form. Despite my being restricted to home I can have a daily catch up on wild creatures, whose lives continue despite the tragedies affecting the world’s human population.  Until a month ago, we would generally find each eagle sticking closely to its usual routines, sometimes living for days within a few square kilometres of wooded countryside.

This past month, though, it’s started to be very different. My colleagues Tim and Steve are likely to phone me with the latest news before I’ve got online. One eagle made a big circular flight to Kent and back to the Isle of Wight; the Oxfordshire wintering bird headed west to the Forest of Dean and north to Stoke, and then to Rutland Water. One settled in Wiltshire and later did a day trip to the Somerset levels and back. Each day brought something new – see Tim’s summary of recent happenings here.

And then we got a report of the first immature sea eagle not from the reintroduction, sighted in Wiltshire and Hampshire. It had a metal ring and, with the help of Swedish colleagues, we established that it was probably from there. Other birds were then reported, from Buckinghamshire to Kent to East Anglia – there was a small influx of mainland European wanderers. We were very grateful to people who sent in photos, as we can use them to identify individuals, looking for nicks in their big flight feathers or other distinguishing features.

We always hope that one or more might be attracted to join the Isle of Wight birds, but we also have to accept that these ‘new’ ones might encourage the island birds to wander. We’d like to hear of sightings, without encouraging anyone to leave home base, for these are eagles that fly over towns and villages on their journeys. Great photos have been already been taken from suburban gardens. Please report sightings here.

Eagle behaviour such as this, and that of the bird which returned to Norway, raises a fascinating question: from what distance can one large eagle see another, soaring on a clear day?  It looks as if they do go and look for – and maybe follow – each other. I remember how one golden eagle, which I was satellite tracking in Scotland, flew 40 km from Angus to Tentsmuir in Fife to check out a pair of white-tailed eagles, before tracking west to Perthshire.  On Saturday, we saw similar behaviour from young sea eagles. One flew from Rutland Water to the south Humber and, yesterday, on to the North York moors, while another flew from Berkshire to roost overnight just 5 miles from the Humber bird, then also flying north to the North York moors.  Were they alone? Or were they following a wanderer from over the sea? It’s a shame that people cannot see them but checking their progress on GoogleEarth is far more than I could do with those first errant Fair Isle eagles.  We are staying home, but they are free to fly, and we can follow them as they go.

All of the young White-tailed Eagles have wandered widely since late March. Check out their recent movements here.