Crossing the Channel

The key aim of the White-tailed Eagle project on the Isle of Wight, which we run in partnership with Forestry England, is to restore a breeding population to the South Coast for the first time since the late 1700s. This, we hope, will provide an important link between existing populations in Scotland and Ireland with those in continental Europe.  There has been a marked upturn in the number of sightings of wandering White-tailed Eagles from continental Europe in England during the last two springs, and while these young birds are likely to eventually return to their natal areas, some may stay if they encounter a breeding population on the South Coast.  Similarly, we expect young birds from the Isle of Wight to venture across the English Channel, particularly in their early years. While most are likely to return to the South Coast as they approach breeding age, it is possible that some will join the expanding populations in countries such as the Netherlands, France and Germany. With this all in mind, it was very significant that, on 6th April, G463, a 2020 male, was the first Isle of Wight bird to make it across the English Channel, as Tim Mackrill explains.

G463

After wintering near Chard in Somerset, G463 was one of three Isle of Wight birds to spend time in East Anglia this spring. The young male arrived in early March and spent three weeks in the Brecks and West Norfolk. He was photographed at Thornham beach on 19th March before returning south to the Brecks that afternoon. Next morning he was on the move again, and flew south-east to the Suffolk coast near Southwold. The Suffolk estuaries are another superb area for White-tailed Eagles, and G463 spent time at the mouth of the River Blyth at Southwold on 21st March, before heading further south along the coast to the River Alde, between Aldeburgh and Orford Ness where he remained until the morning of 25th March.

G463 receiving unwanted attention from a Carrion Crow on Thornham Beach in Norfolk (photo by Richard Campey)
G463 being mobbed by a Common Buzzard in West Norfolk (photo by Andy Bloomfield)

On 25th March G463 flew north along the Suffolk coast, passing over Minsmere at 10:15 and then Lowestoft just before midday. He then headed into the Broads and spent four days in the Horsea area until 29th. G463 subsequently headed west along the North Norfolk coast and returned to his favoured areas in West Norfolk before moving south back to the Brecks on 1st April. The next morning he crossed back into Suffolk and then spent two days around Ampton Water north of Bury St Edmunds.

G463’s explorations in Norfolk and Suffolk during March and April

G463 was on the move again on 4th April, passing over Bury St Edmunds at 15:05 before heading south-east into Essex. He was over Colchester at 17:05 and then the Colne Estuary soon afterwards. The young male then headed north back into Suffolk and spent the night in woodland near Alton Water to the south of Ipswich. The next morning G463 initially flew north to Stowmarket, but strong north-westerly winds then encourage him south again. He crossed the mouth of the River Thames at 12:30 and the Isle of Sheppey soon afterwards. By 13:30 he had reached the south Kent coast at Dover and that afternoon flew 7 km out into the English Channel at an altitude of over 700 metres, before turning back again.

That night G463 roosted 10 km (6 miles) inland, but was back on the coast at 08:30 the next morning. At 09:52 he was 7 km out to sea once again but, like the previous afternoon, subsequently returned to land. He then flew south-west along the Kent coast to Dungeness. At 13:02 he was circling 1382 metres above and with a strong north-westerly wind providing perfect tailwind assistance, he headed out across the Channel a few minutes later. The transmitter logged the bird’s location every five minutes as G463 crossed the sea and showed that by 13:22 his altitude had dropped to 404 metres, but at the point of the next GPS transmission he had succeeded in gaining altitude to 582 metres. G463 continued on the same south-easterly course before making landfall just to the north of Boulogne-sur-Mer at 13:45, having completed the 47 km (29 mile) crossing in just 40 minutes at an average speed of 70 kph (43 mph).

G463 circled up to an altitude of 1382 metres over Dungeness before heading across the English Channel
G463 took just 40 minutes to make the Channel crossing

After reaching French airspace, G463 continued to make good progress and flew a further 176 km (109 miles) south-east through France, eventually stopping to roost in a small wood near the village of Douilly in the Picardy region, at 19:40 local time.

G463’s flight between 6th and 8th April

Next morning the wind had changed to a south-westerly and this perhaps influenced a distinct change of course for G463. After leaving his roost site at 06:55 the young male headed north-west towards the Ardennes Forest. By 12:40 he was flying close to the Belgian border, and eventually crossed into Belgian airspace near the town of Givet an hour later. As the afternoon progressed G463 turned to a more northerly heading and eventually stopped to roost in a forested area just to the south of Liege having flown 237 km (147 miles) during the course of the day.

On 8th March G463 left his roost site at 08:00 and again headed north, skirting around the west side of Liege and then on towards the Netherlands border. He passed into Dutch airspace just after midday and headed NNE, following the course of the Meuse River for 30 km before crossing into Germany at 13:30. He continued flying north for less than an hour before stopping in woodland on the south side of the River Rhine having flown 158 km (98 miles) during the course of the day.

On 9th April G463 left his roost site at 07:30 but stopped again in farmland nearby soon afterwards. He eventually resumed his journey at 11:00, crossing the Rhine and then heading north-east through the German regions of M√ľnster and then Lower Saxony until 14:30 when he stopped in an area of woodland and arable farmland near the town of Herzlake. G463 remained in the local area for the rest of the afternoon, but had still covered 154 km (95 miles) in just 3.5 hours of flying.

G463 remained in the local area for the whole of the next morning, but then headed north again at 13:00, flying 39 km (24 miles) north to Leegmoor, a wetland nature reserve. He roosted locally and then remained in the area all day on 11th .

On 12th April G463 was on the move again. He set off from Leegmoor in a north-easterly direction shortly after 10:00 and reached Jade Bight, a bay on the Wadden Sea coast at midday. He then skirted around the southern end of Bremerhaven before continuing north-east, pausing in a forested area south of Wingst, north-west of Hamburg, for four hours between 14:10 and 18:10, before continuing a little further north to a small wood on the south side of the mouth of the River Elbe. By the time he went to roost G463 had flown another 158 km (98 miles) during the course of the day, and was now just south of Schleswig-Holstein the most northerly of the 16 German states and a stronghold for White-tailed Eagles in Germany. G463 will now be encountering many other eagles on his travels.

G463’s flight through Germany, 8-12 April
G463’s travels since 1st March

G463 remained on the south side of the River Elbe all day on 13th April. This is an excellent place for the young male to spend some time, and it will be fascinating to see how long he lingers in the area, and if and when, he heads back towards the Isle of Wight.

G463 remained on the south side of the River Elbe all day on 13th April

G405

G463 is not the only Isle of Wight bird to wander a considerable distance this spring. Female G405 has also ranged extensively, but unlike her compatriot from the 2020 cohort, she returned to the Island yesterday after a month of explorations that took her as far north as East Lothian in southern Scotland.

In our previous update we reported that G405 had spent much of February and early part of March at Longleat in Wiltshire. She subsequently returned to the Isle of Wight via Dorchester and Poole Harbour on 16th March, but only remained on the Island for three days before heading north again back to Longleat on 19th March. She completed a short circuit of Warminster and Westbury on 21st, but then made a more determined movement to the north-east on 22nd, flying 132 km (84 miles) to south Northamptonshire. Interestingly that night she roosted in the same wood near Silverstone as 2019 female, G318, had a few weeks earlier.

A brisk south-westerly wind encouraged G405 to continue north-east the next day and by 10:40 she was over Tallington in south Lincolnshire, flying at an altitude of 583 metres. She continued on the same heading through the Lincolnshire Fens towards Mablethorpe before turning north-west to head into the Lincolnshire Wolds. That night she roosted in a small wood near the village of Burgh on Bain having flown 193 km (120 miles). The next day G405 made a shorter movement of 40 km (25 miles) to the north-west and roosted in Laughton Woods in north-west Lincolnshire.

G405 left her roost site soon after first light on 25th March and headed north-west into South Yorkshire and then north towards York. At 11:30 she was 12 km (7 miles) east of the city, flying purposefully north at an altitude of 717 metres, and an hour later she was photographed circling over Appleton-le-Moors. She subsequently headed north-west into the North York Moors having flown 118 km (73 miles) from Lincolnshire.

G405’s flight to the North York Moors

G405 remained in the south-west of the North York Moors for six days, and in that time favoured an area frequented by G318 last year, tending to remain on the lower slopes rather than the open moors.

On 31st March she flew 123 km (73 miles) west to the Yorkshire Dales and roosted in woodland south-west of Cowgill in Cumbria. The next morning she flew north the western part of the Yorkshire Dales and then into the Lake District. She was perched just to the north of Haweswater, between 12:22-12:37, close to the area where Golden Eagles used to breed, but then continued north again, passing the east end of Ullswater at 13:15 and then to the east of Carlisle at 14:25. She then crossed the border into Scotland at 16:00 before stopping in woodland 10 km (6 miles) north-west of Kielder Water, having flown 170 km (105 miles) from the Yorkshire Dales.

G405 passed Haweswater and Ullswater in the Lake District on 1st April
G405’s flight north through the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District, 31st March – 1st April

G405 remained in the local area on 2nd April, but then headed further north on 3rd April, passing Jedburgh at 11:45 and then completing a circuit of the Lammermuir Hills, where G324, a 2019 female had summered last year. At 14:45 G405 was at the most northerly point of her journey, 587 km (367 miles) north of the release site on the Isle of Wight. At this point she began heading south again, and eventually stopped in woodland 4 km (2.5 miles) south-east of Selkirk having flown 147 km (91 miles).

The next morning G405 headed slowly south-east and crossed the border back into England at 12:20. She then continued south-east through Northumberland before roosting in woodland just north of Rayburn Lake after a flight of 70 km (43 miles).

G405’s movements in Scotland and northern England 2-4 April

Having initially been encouraged north by southerly winds, a distinct change in the weather to cold northerly winds appeared to prompt G405 to head south again. She left her roost site at first light on 5th April and flew purposefully south, passing directly over Newcastle at an altitude of 601 metres at 09:47 and then to west of Middlesborough at 10:30. By 11:00 she was back in the North York Moors, and she flew a wide arc around the east side of the moors before stopping in Dalby Forest soon after midday, having already flown 170 km (105 miles). She remained in the local area for the rest of the afternoon and then next morning flew 7 km (4.5 miles) south before spending the day beside the River Derwent west of Yedingham.

G405 flew south through the North-East on 4th April

On 7th April G405, again encouraged by northerly winds, was on the move again. At 11:40 she was 21 km (12 miles) south-west and now back on the exact track that she had used to fly north. She followed an identical route for 48 km (30 miles) and then continued on the same SSW heading over Worksop in Nottinghamshire at 13:36 (997 m altitude) and then Nottingham between 14:10-14:26. She subsequently skirted around the east side of Leicester and then directly over Market Harborough between 15:13-15:18 at an altitude of 469-499 m. At 15:43 she was just to the east of Northampton (840 metres) and then over Milton Keynes at 16:13 (630 m). She continued south, aided by the strong wind and skirted around the west side of Tring between 16:43 and 16:48 (207-338 m) before finally stopping in woodland to the west of Amersham at 17:25 having flown an impressive 323 km (201 miles) from North Yorkshire.

G405 used an almost identical route south through Yorkshire as her northward journey in March
G405 flew 323 km (201 miles) south on 7th April

Next morning, G405 headed south-east towards London, and was flying at an altitude of 466 metres to the west of Wembley. At 11:15 she was directly over the River Thames to the east of Richmond at a low altitude of just 154 metres and she was then photographed by Ian Jones as she passed over Beddington Farmlands in south London at 11:50. Once past the capital she continued south-east into Surrey, Kent and then East Sussex. At 14:05 she was just 12 km (7.5 miles) north of the South Coast but at that point she turned to the east and flew back into Kent before settling to roost in Park Wood, north-west of Elham and east of Ashford, having flown another 188 km (117 miles).

G405 flew over London on 8th April

Next morning, 9th April, G405 flew 22 km (14 miles) to the East Kent coast at Pegwell Bay and remained there for three hours before returning to the same area as the previous night to roost. She then lingered in the local area for all of the next day, before heading west on the morning of 11th April, passing just to the north of Rye Harbour at 10:15 and then north of Lewes at 11:40. She spent two hours near Plumpton during the middle of the day before continuing west and eventually stopping in Westdean Woods the South Downs north of Chichester.

G405 remained around Westdean Woods all day on 12th April but then headed south on the morning of 13th. She crossed Thorney Island at 10:30 and then headed west to the north of Portsmouth and then across Southampton Water. At 12:30 she was close to Lyndhurst in the New Forest and she then headed south to Lymington before crossing the Solent back to the Isle of Wight after just under four weeks away, have flown 2279 km (1416 miles) in that time.

G405’s flight back to the Isle of Wight on 13th April
G405 flew 2279 km (1416 miles) between 19th March and 13th April

G405’s return to the Isle of Wight is another demonstration that the translocated birds regard the Island and the South Coast as home. This is also evident in the differing behaviour of the 2019 and 2020 cohorts during the past month. After wandering extensively last year, the four 2019 birds are now spending all of their time either on the Isle of Wight or neighbouring areas of the South Coast. It is particularly encouraging that male G274 and female G324 seem to be forming a pair, and are spending most days together in coastal locations around the Isle of Wight. They have been observed catching both marine and freshwater fish on a frequent basis as well as Coot, Black-headed Gulls and even an injured Canada Goose. They also appear to be keeping the other two 2019 birds, G393 and G318, away from the Island wherever possible. This is the first indications of territorial behaviour, and is another encouraging sign for the future.

G274 and G324 have spent most of the past month together on the Isle of Wight (photo by Ainsley Bennett)

In contrast all of the 2020 birds continue to explore extensively. G461 has ranged along the whole of the South Coast from Kent to Cornwall in the past month, while female G466 has travelled west to Cornwall, completed a circuit of East Anglia and, most recently, was flying north through County Durham this morning. G471, meanwhile, has spent the majority of the past month in East Anglia, favouring the North Norfolk coast and also the Ouse Washes in Cambridgeshire, but then flew south-west today and was heading into Herefordshire at 17:00. G408 has generally remained more local, but visited the Somerset coast near Burnham-on-Sea on 4th April and has also spent prolonged periods in the Arun valley in West Sussex where he has been joined, on occasions, by 2019 male G393. These movements are typical of young White-tailed Eagles during their second calendar year, but the satellite transmitters are providing a fascinating insight into their daily explorations. It has also been excellent to hear about sighings of the birds on their travels – very many thanks to everyone who has been in touch and sent photos.

G471 has spent much of the past month in East Anglia (photo by Andy Bloomfield)
All of the 2020 birds have ranged extensively during the past month
(G405 = blue; G408 = white; G461 = purple, G463 = green; G466 = yellow; G471 = orange).
G274 and G318 at dawn on the Isle of Wight (photo by Ainsley Bennett)

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