French flight

Since the start of the White-tailed Eagle project, which we run in partnership with Forestry England, satellite tracking has shown how nomadic the young eagles can be prior to settling on a breeding territory. For example, one of the birds now established at Poole Harbour, male G463, spent two successive summers in continental Europe, before returning to the South Coast and pairing up with female G466. Up until a few weeks ago G463 was the only one of the Isle of Wight eagles to cross the English Channel, but at the end of last month G818, a female that was released in 2021, having been translocated from the Isle of Lewis, followed suit, spending just over a fortnight wandering extensively in northern France, as Tim Mackrill explains.

The bird’s flight was also featured on BBC News at Six, and you can watch the film by pressing play below.

Flight to France

Although so far unpaired, G818 has been favouring the Avon valley on the Dorset-Hampshire border in recent months and has been regularly seen catching grey mullet in Christchurch Harbour. On the morning of 22nd March she left a favoured area and then flew south across the Isle of Wight, before spending the afternoon at RSPB Brading Marshes. It is not uncommon for the young eagles to visit the Island, but they are usually seen off by the resident pair, G274 and G324, quite quickly and so it was no surprise when G818 crossed the Solent at 9:00 next morning. Once over the mainland G818 tracked east along the South Coast, passing over Brighton at 10:00, Eastbourne half an hour later, and Hastings just before 11:00.

At 12:13 she was over the sea at St Margarets Bay, just to the east of Dover, and while circling at 665 metres, would have been able to see the French coast at Calais.  She flew 35 km (21 miles) across the English Channel in 30 minutes, with her altitude dropping from a high of 804 metres off the English coast to 255 metres as she made landfall west of Calais.

Once she reached France she headed south through des caps et Marais d’Opale Regional Natural Park and eventually roosted to the east of the market town of Desvres having flown 301 km (187 miles) since leaving Brading Marshes that morning.

G818 flew 301 km to northern France on 23rd March

French Explorations

G818 continued south at first light next morning, before crossing into Normandy at 12:55. She continued to track the Normandy coast for the next three days, passing Rouen at lunchtime on 25th, and Caen the next day.  Eventually she then reached the wetlands of Parc des Marais du Cotentin in the Cherbourg Peninsular during the afternoon of 28th, having flown a total of 454 km (282 miles) in four days. 

On the morning of 30th March G818 flew north towards the northern tip of the Cherbourg peninsular. However, she turned around as she approached Cherbourg and then headed south along the west coast. She roosted that night near Mont Saint-Michel in the south-west of Normandy having flown 189 km (117 miles). 

G818 moved a few kilomteres south into Brittany on 31st March and spent the day at the wetlands of Réserve Naturelle Régionale du Marais de Sougéal. She was still there next morning and was photographed hunting wildfowl by Maude Bachet. 

G818 was observed hunting wildfowl at du Marais de Sougéal (photo by Maude Bachet)
G818 at du Marais de Sougéal (photo by Maude Bachet)

Heading for home? 

G818 left the wetlands at 10:45 on 1st April, initially heading south-east towards Le Mans, before turning to the north-east during the afternoon. She flew 224km (139 miles) before roosting in woodland near Longny-les-Villages in the Perche Regional Natural Park. It appeared from this significant flight and change of direction, that she might be beginning to head for home. 

She moved a little further north on 2nd and then remained near Verneuil d’Avre et d’lton on 3rd. Then, on 4th, she made a more purposeful flight north, travelling 77 km (48 miles) to the River Seine just to the west of Rouen in Normady.   She lingered beside the Seine all day on 5th and then during the morning of 6th, before moving 32 km (20 miles) north that afternoon and roosting in the grounds of Château de Cany. 

Next morning G818 left the Château at 9:30 and then followed the Normandy coast north-east, passing over Dieppe at 10:30 and eventually reaching Wissant just to the west of Calais at 13:10. Conditions obviously weren’t conducive to a Channel crossing because she headed back inland, before roosting in an area she had first visited on 23rd March, after a day’s flight of 227 km (141 miles). 

G818’s explorations in France, with roost sites (and dates) shown by yellow icons.

Next morning, on 8th April, G818 flew back to the coast and then time headed out across the English Channel, 11 km south-west of where she had made landfall on 23rd March. She took 27 minutes to make the crossing, arriving over Dover at an altitude of 109 metres at 12:40.

G818’s English Channel crossings on 23rd March (easterly route) and return on 8th April.

She then continued north, stopping briefly on the Isle of Sheppey at 14:15 before heading west and skirting around the south side of London before roosting south of Oxted in Kent, having flown 196 km (122 miles) from northern France. Over the course of the next three days she continued west through the South Downs, and then the New Forest, before arriving at a favoured location in the Avon valley at 08:30 on 12th. She had flown a total of 2062 km (1281 miles) in 22 days. A remarkable flight for a young eagle learning her place in the world.  

G818 returned to England on 8th April, flying 196 km that day.
G818 flew 2062 km in 22 days.

Very many thanks to everyone who has made donations to the Foundation and the White-tailed Eagle project in the past few months. Your support is greatly appreciated. If you would like to donate to our work, then you can do so via the link below.

Roy Dennis is awarded an OBE

We are thrilled to announce that Roy Dennis has been awarded an OBE in the New Years Honours List for his contribution to wildlife.

Roy, who received an MBE in 1992, said, “I am very honoured by this OBE and believe it recognises the innovative nature recovery projects carried out by our Foundation and its supporters. It’s a recognition that nature recovery is essential to the planet and increasingly valued by society.”

Many thanks for all the good wishes received.

You might also like to read Roy’s latest blog here.

Photo by Marc Hindley

Happy Christmas

Christmas is a good time to reflect on the past twelve months, and 2023 has proved to be a very significant year for our work.

Fledging success

The White-tailed Eagle project, which we run in partnership with Forestry England, reached a major milestone in July, with a chick fledging from a natural nest in southern England for the first time in 240 years. We fitted the youngster, G625, with a satellite tag and this has provided a fascinating insight into his movements since leaving the nest. The young male remained within 1km of the nest site for the first month after fledging, with his parents, G405 and G471 – both translocated to the Isle of Wight in 2020 – providing a steady supply of food, which field monitoring and analysis of prey remains indicated was predominantly fish, supplemented with some rabbits. He made his first longer flight away on 15th August, following G471 to a favoured area 10km to the south. These exploratory flights became more regular thereafter, and on 6th September G625 flew over 20km north-east and eventually roosted away from the nest for the first time.

G625 on an exploratory flight (photo by Mike Jerome)

We know that G471 catches bass off the South Coast and on 23rd September G625 followed his father to the coast, and then made another visit with him on 29th, before making a solo visit on 3rd October. Such experiences will be invaluable for the young male as he becomes independent. He remains in his natal territory most days but there are signs that he is becoming more self-sufficient. It was particularly encouraging that he was seen catching a fish for the first time on 11th December, by Ben Ayling. It will be fascinating to see at what point G625 finally decides to leave the area, or whether he will wait until he is pushed away by his parents once the new breeding cycle begins.

Establishing pairs

While G405 and G471 were the only pair to breed this year, two other territorial pairs of White-tailed Eagles are now well-established. G274 and G324, released in 2019, are resident on the Isle of Wight and the Solent, while G463 and G466, translocated in 2020, have paired up at Poole Harbour. This latter pair are regularly seen from the brilliant Birds of Poole Harbour boat trips which are now one of the very best ways of seeing the White-tailed Eagles in southern England. It has been wonderful to join some of these trips and to see the excitement that the birds generate. Birds of Poole Harbour are running regular trips this winter, so check out their website for more. We are hopeful that these two pairs of White-tailed Eagles will attempt to breed for the first time in 2024.

G466 (left) and G463 have paired-up at Poole Harbour (photo by Mark Wright)

Sad news

Unfortunately, it is not all good news from Dorset. In early September we were encouraged that two 2021 birds, female G801 and male G816, appeared to have paired in an area to the south-west of Poole Harbour. However during the afternoon of 26th September, the satellite data indicated that G816 had been hit by a train on the main London-Weymoth line. We contacted Dorset Police and, with assistance from Network Rail, they recovered the body of the bird. A subsequent post-mortem carried out by the Disease Risk and Health Surveillance team at Zoological Society of London (ZSL) confirmed that the injuries sustained were consistent with a train strike. It seems G816 had been feeding on a dead deer close to the tracks and was then hit by the train as he attempted to fly off. Sadly, this is a well-known cause of death of White-tailed Eagles in other parts of Europe, but it was especially disappointing to lose a bird that had begun to pair-up.  Thanks to Dorset Police, Network Rail and ZSL for their valuable assistance in dealing with this sad case.

Although G801 avoided the train strike, she has recently developed an overgrown bill. This has been recorded in White-tailed Eagles in Scotland in the past and can be caused by a rage of factors. One possibility is that she sustained an injury, which subsequently became infected. G801 has had several territorial disputes with the Poole Harbour female, G466, and it is possible that she damage her bill in one such incident. Although G801 appears thin, the satellite data indicates that she is behaving normally. We will continue to monitor her condition closely over the coming months.

G801 at RSPB Lodmoor on 17th December (photo by Helen Wood)

Ospreys breed again

We were delighted that Ospreys nested for a second year at Poole Harbour. Translocated male 022 and Rutland Water female CJ7 raised three chicks, which all fledged successfully in July (see video below, which shows 5H3 returning to the nest after his first flight). It was excellent that Birds of Poole Harbour arranged public viewings at the nest for the first time, and Osprey boat trips during August and September were once again a resounding success. We were also encouraged that a second translocated male, 374, released in 2021, returned for the first time and spent time at several artificial nests around the harbour. We very much hope that this young male will return earlier in 2024 and attract a mate.

In addition, two translocated females, 014(18) and 019(19), again bred successfully in North Wales, both rearing three chicks. Meanwhile two other younger females from the 2021 cohort, 372 and 379, were also seen in Wales, raising hopes that they may return to join the expanding Welsh population in 2024. These sex-based differences in natal dispersal, with males returning to breed close to their natal site, and females often joining other populations, is typical of Ospreys and shows how the Poole Harbour translocation can play a key role in linking different populations of Ospreys.

Thank you

Sincere thanks to everyone who has supported our work in 2023, through donations, by submitting sightings and photos of White-tailed Eagles or Ospreys, or simply through words of support. We wish you all a very happy Christmas and all the very best for the New Year.   

The eagle chick, G625, aged approximately 10 days.

Very many thanks to everyone who has made donations to the Foundation and the White-tailed Eagle project in the past few months. Your support is greatly appreciated. If you would like to donate to our work, then you can do so via the link below.

Lifetime achievement award for Roy Dennis

We are delighted to report that Roy’s inspirational work with birds of prey has been recognised with a lifetime achievement award from the Raptor Research Foundation (RRF).

The Partners for Raptors Lifetime Achievement Award honours outstanding individuals who have dedicated their lives to raptor research and conservation. These notable awardees are recognised for their significant contributions to the study and conservation of birds of prey, as well as their outstanding achievements gained through innovative field work, impactful collaborative partnerships, and a lifetime of inclusive interactions with their peers and the public focused on raptors.

Roy’s award was announced at the Raptor Research Foundation’s recent annual conference, held in Albuquerque in New Mexico. The Foundation’s Zoe Smith, who is the Director Outside North America for RFF, was there to talk about Roy’s work. Click play on the video below to see RRF President Rob Bierregaard and Zoe introduce Roy’s award, as well as Roy’s acceptance speech which he recorded at home in Moray.

Roy with his award from the Raptor Research Foundation

A tribute to John Love

Roy Dennis was at John Love’s funeral in Inverness yesterday, 6th November. There was a big turnout of family and friends, his colleagues in nature conservation and sea eagles, and many islanders from the Hebrides. His family asked Roy to give the tribute to his friend at the service. It is printed in full below.

We have lost a dear friend; we have lost a true Highlander – a genuinely lovely person – a naturalist, historian and story teller. And the Sea Eagles have lost their long-standing champion.

I first met John when I was in my 20’s at Loch Garten and he was a schoolboy birdwatcher in Inverness; ever since he’s been a friend, our meetings might miss a year but any new conversation we had was as if we had met the previous evening! He was kind and thoughtful and valued his friendships with people in nature, history, culture, music, and especially with islands.

John ran the sea eagle reintroduction project on the island of Rum from 1975 to 1986; a tremendously exciting venture but we must remember his day-to-day hard work of finding food for the birds, cutting it up and taking it to the remote cages, often in the worst of weathers. Of course there were the highlights of the year – of visiting his friends in Norway to collect the young eagles, flying with them on the RAF Nimrods back to Scotland, exploring the islands searching for the first breeding pair – I remember a week sailing around Skye, the small isles and the Shiants on a yacht (amazingly paid for by the government) with John and his colleagues Morton Boyd, Peter Tilbrook and Martin Ball of the Nature Conservancy.

His two superb books – The Return of the Sea Eagle and later A Saga of Sea Eagles – are  testament to his hard work, enthusiasm, research and his ability as an author. He wrote other books including about Rum and the Natural History of Lighthouses. He was often involved with tv, radio and newsprint on a subject they often knew little about and he helped them get good stories; I remember him telling me about a newspaper reporter who phoned ahead to ask if John ‘could be photographed with an eagle chick perched on his finger!’

We sorely miss John but for me, and I’m sure John’s other friends, when next and whenever we see sea eagles in the sky we will remember him – a lasting memorial above our heads. Thank you, John.

John Love (right) with Roy Dennis at a sea eagle nest at Bodo, Norway, June 1984

Podcast with John Love from 2019

You might also like to listen to our podcast, recorded in 2019, in which Roy Dennis and John Love discuss the early days of the Scottish reintroduction.

First white-tailed eagle in 240 years fledges in England 

In a landmark moment for conservationists, the first white-tailed eagle for over 240 years has fledged from a nest in the wild in England. The chick is the first successful breeding attempt of the white-tailed eagles released by Forestry England and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation’s project to return this lost species to England.

White-tailed eagles are Britain’s largest birds of prey with a wingspan of up to 2.5 meters and were once widespread across England. Human persecution caused their extinction with the last pair breeding in southern England in 1780. In 2019, Forestry England and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation began a reintroduction programme to restore these iconic birds to the English landscape.

Two of the birds released by the project in 2020 – female G405, originally translocated from the Outer Hebrides and male G471, from north-west Sutherland – reared the male chick earlier this summer. The location of the nest, on private land with no public access, is not being disclosed for the welfare of the birds and to prevent any disturbance to them or the landowner either this year or if the birds return to breed at the same location. 

The chick was ringed and fitted with a satellite tag by licensed ornithologists from the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation enabling the project team to track this historic bird’s daily progress through its life. 

Roy Dennis MBE, Founder of the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, said: 

“This is a very special moment for everyone who has worked on, supported and followed this ground-breaking project. Restoring a breeding population in southern England, where the species was once widespread, has been our ultimate goal. Many thought it was impossible but we knew food for eagles – fresh and salt water fish, cuttlefish, rabbits, hares and wild birds – was plentiful. I visited the Isle of Wight as a young birdwatcher in the 1950s, saw the last breeding location at Culver Cliff and knew they should be restored. It is early days, but this is a very significant milestone and we are heartened by the enthusiastic support shown by so many people and that the sight of these huge eagles in the sky inspires hope for restoring nature. We still have a long way to go, but the feeling of seeing the first pair reach this stage is truly incredible.” 

The birds are one of three territorial pairs that have now become established in southern England and the first to breed. 

Steve Egerton-Read, White-Tailed Eagle Project Officer for Forestry England, said: 

“We are thrilled that this moment has happened and at such an early stage in the project. At only three years old, it is remarkable that the pair have successfully bred, with most white-tailed eagles not attempting to do so until they are at least four or five. This pairs’ ability to breed and fledge their chick at this early age is extremely encouraging.”

“It is really hard to put into words just what an incredible moment this is for the return of these iconic birds to England. It is evidence of just how well the eagles are starting to fit back into this landscape and how, with a little help, nature can begin to return and thrive. Although it has not been possible to set up a public viewing site at this location, we are hopeful that one of the other pairs that has become established in southern England will choose to nest in a location that we can share with the public in future years.”  

To date, 25 white-tailed eagles have been released by the reintroduction project with 16 still surviving. A further release of young white-tailed eagles is planned for later this summer from the project team’s base on the Isle of Wight. 

The reintroduction of white-tailed eagles is conducted under licence from Natural England, the Government’s wildlife licensing authority. All of the young birds involved in the project are collected under a NatureScot licence from the wild in Scotland and brought to the Isle of Wight.

The White-tailed Eagle chick in the nest prior to fledging (RDWF)
The chick was fitted with a satellite tag prior to fledging (Forestry England)

A Who’s Who of White-tailed Eagles at Poole Harbour 

Over the last year Poole Harbour has become a hotspot for White-tailed Eagle activity. The vast natural harbour provides rich forging opportunities throughout the year with abundant supplies of fish, including Grey Mullet, as well as waterbirds, and many quiet areas to perch. We have been particularly encouraged that three-year-olds G463 and G466 have become established as a pair, and up to six other birds have been regular visitors over the past twelve months. Here is a brief overview of each of the birds, and also where best to see them, by Tim Mackrill.

G463 and G466

Male G463 was originally translocated to the Isle of Wight from Sutherland in North-West Scotland in 2020. After spending his first winter near Chard in Somerset, G463 crossed the English Channel in early April 2021 and spent seven months exploring Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, favouring many areas with expanding White-tailed Eagle populations. G463 made the return journey across the English Channel in November that year and then spent the majority of the winter in East Anglia, favouring parts of North and West Norfolk and also the Suffolk Coast. During his time in Norfolk, G463 lost the lower part of his right leg, as reported in our blog in January. Despite this, G463 appears to have adapted well, and again crossed the Channel in early April before summering in mainland Europe; returning to many of the sites he had first visited the previous year, and also making a short flight into southern Sweden. 

G463’s movements in Europe during 2021 (red) and 2022 (white)

Despite the fact that he would have encountered many White-tailed Eagles during his travels in mainland Europe, the draw of returning to the South Coast clearly proved very strong and G463 headed back across the English Channel on 22nd September last year.  He then spent time in favoured areas in East Anglia and Somerset, before finally returning to the Isle of Wight on 9th January, after more than two years away. He first visited Poole Harbour on Boxing Day, and has been present there almost continuously since late January, when he first encountered G466. 

Female G466, was also translocated to the Isle of Wight in 2020, from a nest near Uig on the Isle of Skye. After spending her first winter on the Isle of Wight, G466 flew north to Scotland the following spring, and then spent the rest of the year in Caithness in Sutherland. She eventually returned to the Isle of Wight in February 2022, but then flew north again on 5th April, and like G463, returned to many of the sites she had favoured the previous summer, including Cape Wrath, the most north-westerly point of mainland Britain. She flew south again in late September and after visiting various sites on the South Coast, she became a regular at Poole Harbour from 20th November, appearing to displace another female, G801, who has been resident over summer 2022 (see below). 

G466 spent two summers in northern Scotland
G466’s movements in northern Scotland during 2021 (white) and 2022 (yellow)

G466 was joined by G463 on 20th January, and the two birds have been together on an almost daily basis since. Their favoured area, which covers approximately 125km², is centred on the Wareham Channel at Poole Harbour, and stretches south to the coast at Kimmeridge, where the satellite data indicates they catch fish off-shore, and also Wareham Forest to the north. The birds have made regular courtship flights in recent months, flying in tandem across much of this area. It is clear that they are now a pair, and we are hopeful that they may try and breed as early as next spring. 

G466(right) and G463 (with a Carrion Crow for size comparison) have paired at Poole Harbour. This brilliant photo, by Mark Wright, was taken from a boat trip run by Birds of Poole Harbour.

G801

Female G801 was translocated to the Isle of Wight in 2021 from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. She spent much of her first winter on the Isle of Wight, but also visited Hampshire and Dorset. As the days began to lengthen, she made longer exploratory flights into Surrey and Sussex during February and then west to Devon and Cornwall during March.  G801 returned east to Poole Harbour on 19th March, and became a regular in the Wareham Channel during April. On 4th May she set off on another longer exploratory flight, heading east to Kent where she was seen at Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory. She then followed the East Anglian coast north before continuing through Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, reaching Saltburn-by-Sea on the Cleveland coast, on 9th May. After a few days in the nearby North York Moors, she headed south again, stopping at Middleton Lakes near Tamworth from 15th-23rd May before returning to Poole Harbour on 27thMay. 

G801 spent the rest of the summer at Poole, again favouring the Wareham Channel, where she was regularly seen from the Birds of Poole Harbour’s excellent boat trips. She also visited the coast at Kimmeridge. However once G466 became resident at Poole Harbour, as described above, she seems to displace the younger female, who moved to Cranborne Chase, another area that is favoured by the young eagles. Nevertheless, G801 continues to make regular visits to Poole Harbour, most recently on 21st May. 

G801 spent most of summer 2022 at Poole Harbour, but now seems to have been displaced by G466 (photo by Mark Wright)

G812 and G486

Male G812 was translocated from the Isle of Lewis in 2021.  He has remained in southern England since release, favouring an area that extends from Poole Harbour in the south to Cranborne Chase in the north. He has formed a close association with female G486 who was translocated from the Isle of Mull the same year. The female has been more nomadic, visiting East Anglia during July 2022, Colliford Lake on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall from 11th December – 26th January, and then various South Devon estuaries in late January and early February this year. She returned to her favoured areas in North Dorset on 9th February and she and G812 continue to visit Poole Harbour, often together. 

G812 has favoured Dorset since release in summer 2021 (photo by Jamie Randall)
G486 has been a regular in Dorset, but has also spent time in East Anglia, Cornwall, and Devon (photo by Jamie Randall)

G816

Another 2021 male, G816, who was translocated from the Isle of Lewis, has also remained in southern England since release. He is a regular visitor to Poole Harbour, and also spends time on the Purbeck coast at Kimmeridge, the Isle of Wight, in south Wiltshire and Cranborne Chase. During the early part of 2023 he began to associate with 2021 female G818, but the female, who was also translocated from the Isle of Lewis, has since flown north to the Cairngorms, where she spent much of summer 2022.  

G318 

Female G318 is one of three surviving birds from the first release in 2019. She remains unpaired and somewhat nomadic, but was a regular visitor to Poole Harbour in 2022 when wandering away from her favoured areas in Cranborne Chase and the Avon Valley. She has spent the past two summers in the Peak District and recently returned north to the same favoured area near Howden Reservoir on 24th May.  

Female G318 has spent most of the past year in Dorset, but has recently returned to the Peak District for the third successive summer (photo by Jamie Randall)

Where to view White-tailed Eagles at Poole Harbour?

White-tailed Eagles can be encountered just about anywhere in and around Poole Harbour but there are a few particularly good spots to try:

  • The new Ham Common Viewpoint offers panoramic views along the Wareham Channel and the areas often favoured by G463 and G466. More details here: https://bcpprojects.net/ham-common-lookout/
  • Arne RSPB reserve offers an excellent chance of seeing White-tailed Eagles, with the Hyde’s Heath trail and Coombe Heath viewpoint the best places to try. 
  • Birds of Poole Harbour run boat trips throughout the summer, and often get excellent views of White-tailed Eagles from on board. For more details check out the Birds of Poole harbour website: https://www.birdsofpooleharbourbookings.co.uk/.  

Thank you

Sincere thanks to everyone who has been in touch to report sightings or sent photos of eagles either from Poole Harbour or in their local area. This information is of real value and adds to our understanding of how the birds are living in the landscape. You can report any sightings using our online form. We have been thrilled at the excitement the birds have generated, and greatly appreciate the support the project has received.  

Very many thanks to everyone who has made donations to the Foundation and the White-tailed Eagle project in the past few months. Your support is greatly appreciated. If you would like to donate to our work, then you can do so via the link below.

A Transatlantic Flight

Ospreys have been colour-ringed in the UK since the early days of the Scottish recovery in the late sixties. This has provided a wealth of valuable data on natal and breeding dispersal, longevity and, perhaps most excitingly, migratory movements. As someone who is privileged to ring Osprey chicks every year, I know what a thrill it is when a bird you have known as a nestling is seen on its wintering grounds having completed its first migration. Each winter we receive numerous reports of UK Ospreys from wintering sites in West Africa and Iberia, and as the organisation responsible for coordinating the UK colour ringing project, it is always pleasing to be able to pass these sightings onto the relevant ringer. We have received some very interesting re-sightings over the years, from a bird that returns to winter on the Canary Islands each year, to others which have migrated as far south as the Ivory Coast and Ghana. However earlier this month we received what is undoubtedly the most remarkable record of all.

A few weeks ago Michael St John got in touch with photos that he had taken on 9th March of a first-winter female Osprey with a blue-colour ring on its left leg. Nothing unusual there until I noticed where he had seen it – Bawdens Irrigation Pond in the north of Barbados in the Caribbean! The ring number was clearly visible – KW0, which indicated it was a bird from Scotland. Michael had actually first observed the bird six miles away at Fosters private wetland on 25th October 2022, but on that occasion had not been able to read the colour ring. He did, however, take some excellent photos.

KW0 was photographed in Barbados on 9th March (photo by Michael St John)

With an increasing number of Ospreys colour-ringed in the UK each year, and an ever-growing number of Osprey ringers, it can sometimes take a while to track down who ringed a particular bird, but thanks to David Jardine and Hayley Douglas we now know that KW0 is definitely Scottish. It was one of two chicks ringed on 23rd June 2022 at a nest in Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park which lies in Renfrewshire, Inverclyde and North Ayrshire, by the Clyde Ringing Group (Iain and Madonna Livingstone, Kevin Sinclair and Paul Baker). They were assisted by staff from Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park who have supported Osprey conservation and monitoring efforts in the area, which are led by Clyde Ringing Group. Roy Dennis visited in 2010 to advise on the location of artificial nests and the first nesting attempt took place in 2017, and successfully in 2018. Last year the two chicks went on to fledge around 29th July, and likely departed on migration in late August/early September.

KW0 was ringed by members of Clyde Ringing Group on 22rd June 2022 (photo by Clyde Ringing Group)
The second chick in the nest, KW1, was also ringed on 23rd June (photo by Clyde Ringing Group)

As far as we are aware, this is the first time that a UK Osprey has been observed in the Americas. It is 4124 miles from Clyde Muirshiel to Barbados. This is the kind of distance that many Ospreys from northern Europe will migrate each year – some Finish Ospreys are known to winter in South Africa, which is considerably further – but of course what makes this record amazing is the fact that the vast majority of the journey is across the Atlantic Ocean.  We know from satellite tracking studies that Ospreys are able to make much longer sea crossings than most other raptors. Their long narrow wings reduce drag and make active flapping flight, which is usually necessary over the open ocean, less energetically costly compared to larger, heavier species. Juvenile Ospreys, which migrate alone, and rely on a process known as vector summation (an inherited programme of distance and direction) to migrate to distant wintering grounds, are particularly likely to make long ocean crossings because, unlike adult Ospreys, they are usually unable to correct for displacement by crosswinds. In other words, if a juvenile Osprey, which is instinctively migrating south-west, encounters strong easterly winds it will drift further to the south-west. This coupled with the UK’s position on the edge of Western Europe means that juvenile Ospreys often fly direct across the Bay of Biscay from southern Ireland or South-West England to northern Spain during their first autumn migration. Others also make long flights from South-West Portugal to North-West Africa. In one exceptional case a juvenile male Osprey, known as Stan, which was satellite-tagged by Roy Dennis in northern Scotland in 2012, completed an amazing eight-day migration to the Cape Verde Islands, situated in the Atlantic, approximately 400 miles off the West Africa coast.  Stan’s flight included a 620 mile crossing from Portugal to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, and then a non-stop 930 mile flight to the island of São Nicolau in Cape Verde. Unfortunately, Stan’s transmitter stopped working eight days later, and we speculated at the time that this may have been due to the fact that he tried to continue on the same south-westerly course and then drowned at sea.

Even Stan’s remarkable migration pales into insignificance compared to that of KW0 who is likely to have flown 3800 miles (6114km) across the Atlantic from South-West Ireland to Barbados. It is highly unlikely that even an Osprey could have completed this in a single flight, even with strong tailwinds, and so it is probable that she took the opportunity to rest on boats, which may themselves have been travelling to the Caribbean from the UK. Other satellite-tagged Ospreys are known to have interrupted their journey in this way in the past. In fact, a satellite-tagged juvenile known as Chip almost made it to the Azores from New Hampshire in this way.  It could be that KW0 stopped-off on the Azores en route to Barbados. One thing we can be certain of is that KW0 must have departed on migration in exceptional condition in order to have survived this remarkable transatlantic crossing.

Having spent at least four-and-a-half months in Barbados, KW0 is clearly very settled at present, and, in fact, may well remain there for the foreseeable future. Young Ospreys usually remain on the wintering grounds for the whole of their second calendar year, meaning that KW0 could linger in Barbados until spring 2024. Quite what happens then remains to be seen. Most Ospreys fly north back towards their natal area during their third calendar year, but clearly that is unlikely to be an option for KW0, who may instead choose to remain on the other side of the Atlantic. Let’s hope we receive further sightings of this remarkable young Osprey in the months ahead.

Tim Mackrill, 24th March 2023

KW0 (above and below) was first observed in Barbados on 22nd October 2022 (all photos by Michael St John)

The Art of the Impossible – White-tailed Eagle and Lynx

I’m sitting in one of my favourite places in our home; a large upstairs window that looks out over the woods and fields. Below me is a small burn running from the hills on its way to the Moray Firth. It’s twisty and there’s a flooded pool where a clear freshwater spring comes out from under the bank, green with watercress planted long ago by the children of my next-door neighbours. It’s a place where the frogs spawn in the spring, and I’ve noticed over the last few days a grey heron has come to stab away. Earlier this evening it was nice to see three pairs of mallard sail in and start dabbling; a sure sign of approaching spring.

The burn takes a turn on the right under the big bank below a grazing field. Along the bank is a big thicket of bird cherry trees, for when bird cherries are crashed down by heavy snowfall they root and spring upwards in a tangled mass. Today’s fresh fall of snow – although only two inches in depth – has whitened the ground below a solitary beech tree growing in the flat area where I know that soon the daffodils will flower.

A local blackbird flies across the clearing to its night time roost in the dense Douglas firs on the other bank, and the dense thicket, the snowy slope and the eeriness of the evening light suddenly makes me think of lynx. I can imagine one slinking out of the thicket to start its night patrol, placing its paws carefully as it descends the bank before jumping the burn into the Douglas firs. She would already know that sometimes there’s a roe deer hiding there or maybe a couple of brown hares from a grazing field behind the wood. From there she can track up through the fields, into the big larch forest and into a wild country of woods, burns and moorland, with no sign of habitation for six or seven miles. Ideal lynx country despite being so close to the town of Forres in Moray.

Thanks to Stephane Regazzoni – trail camera shot French Jura

Maybe a thousand years ago lynx would have travelled the same road at night before they were all exterminated by man. Now when we talk about having them back people say ‘You’re mad’, ‘There’s no room for them now’, ‘They don’t belong’ and ‘We don’t want you messing about with nature’.

Yet as I watch dusk take over the scene my mind is whizzing south to the Isle of Wight where four years ago my Foundation and the government agency Forestry England started a project to restore the white-tailed eagle to the Isle of Wight, where the species last bred in 1780. People said we were mad, that they would chase away all the wildfowl and waders in the Solent, they would kill the red squirrels, that there’s just no room for them now and then anyway they would kill lambs, in fact they’d be a menace.  And, to top it all large eagles will be unable to thrive among the large numbers of people now living in southern England, close to the big cities of Portsmouth and Southampton

How wrong they were. Those eagles which we first released on the Isle of Wight in 2019 followed by more in 2020 and 21 have settled into England as though they had never been away. Most of the time, about 90%, they sit in trees watching what’s going on, and at other times sail on their great wings.  I’ll never forget during the Covid lockdowns the number of times that we received a message from someone imprisoned in their garden, unable to go birdwatching in their local gravel pits or along the shore, who had suddenly looked up and seen a huge eagle flying over on its eight-foot wingspan. They had been so excited and staggered, and they said how marvelous to know, despite living in highly populated areas in England, that they could see such wildness return.

It’s now four years since we started the project. In the early years the young ones explored much of England, some going back to Scotland and one even venturing into mainland Europe, as far north as Sweden. As they matured, they came back home. There are now three pairs of the oldest birds setting up home ranges and thinking of breeding.  They have seen carrying out their spring display of tandem flying, the two huge birds flying a few metres apart, round and round over their favourite place. Some people have been even luckier to hear them duetting in the early morning with their shrill calls. Will the first pair breed this year? We’ll have to wait and see.

It seems only the other day that people said it was impossible. And yet it’s happened, and there’s great enthusiasm for the return of the sea eagle. People say it encourages optimism for the future and hope that we can keep planet Earth inhabitable.

How easily the same could happen to the lynx. In fact, even more easy because they cannot fly away. The view from my window reminds me of places I’ve been in Norway and Slovakia, in Romania and Switzerland where lynx live in similar places hunting roe deer, just as close to farms and rural houses. They are not seen nor heard by people; the only evidence is in winter when their pad marks show up in the snow. They simply fit in with local communities and their ways of life. My local town, Forres, is twinned with a town in Germany called Viennenberg, in the Harz Mountains where lynx have been successfully reintroduced. We should emulate our twin town.  

Once they are back – and I hope that happens in my lifetime – people will ask what was all the fuss about and will, again, appreciate that it is possible to restore wild nature.  Although, unlike the eagles, the lynx will be difficult to see in Britain, people will just find their footprints in the snow and know that the ecosystem has become more whole.

The explorer returns

During the course of the first four years of the Isle of Wight White-tailed Eagle project, which we run in partnership with Forestry England, the young eagles have followed a fairly predictable pattern. They disperse widely during their early years, but then move back towards the Isle of Wight and the South Coast as they approach breeding age. This is demonstrated by the fact that the first two territorial pairs have become established on the Isle of Wight and in the Arun valley in West Sussex, despite the fact that three of the four birds involved spent time in Scotland during their second calendar year. 

The latest bird to return to the Isle of Wight after a prolonged period away is 2020 male, G463. He was the first Isle of Wight bird to cross the English Channel and spent seven months in Continental Europe between April and November of his second calendar year, favouring the Wadden Sea coasts of Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. When he returned he spent the majority of the winter in East Anglia, mainly in north and west Norfolk, but also visiting the Suffolk coast. Later he also re-visited a favoured area near Chard in south Somerset, where he had spent his first winter, but made no attempt to return to the Isle of Wight. 

On 3rd April last year he made a second crossing of the Channel, and returned to many of the locations he had visited the previous summer, and also made a short excursion into Sweden. It was notable that like many of the other young eagles, he was returning to favoured locations first encountered during his initial explorations. 

G463’s movements from 13th October 2020-31st December 2021 (red) and 1st January 2022-9th January 2023 (white)

One of the places G463 re-visited during his second visit to mainland Europe, was the Biesbosch, a large wetland in the Netherlands which supports breeding White-tailed Eagle and Osprey. Whilst G463 was there we received images taken by a local photographer, kindly sent to us by Dirk van Straalen who monitors White-tailed Eagles in the Netherlands. We were very concerned that the photos clearly showed the bird was missing his right leg below the knee. We initially suspected that this was a recent injury, but when we analysed the satellite data it was clear that G463 had been behaving apparently normally for several months; indicating it probably occurred earlier.

The tag’s in-built accelerometer, which provides data on the eagle’s movement, indicates that G463 probably sustained the injury in December 2021 when he was in North Norfolk. White-tailed Eagles favour the sit-and-wait strategy when searching for food, and consequently are are often static for prolonged periods. However, in this case, the data indicated G463 was more sedentary than usual, and so the Foundation’s Associate Ornithologist, Zoe Smith, a highly experienced raptor fieldworker, made a specific visit to try and locate him. The eagles can be very difficult to track down depending on their location, but with the permission of the landowner, Zoe was able to locate G463 perched inconspicuously, and not easily viewed, in a quiet area of woodland. A few days later we were encouraged that he became more mobile again.

In January G463 moved further south and was seen and photographed at various locations in Suffolk, including at RSPB Minsmere at the end of the month. Close inspection of photos taken at the time indicate that the right foot was missing, even though it again went unnoticed. This supports our hypothesis that G463’s period of inactivity the previous month was due to the injury. 

Having sought advice from the project’s vet and raptor expert, John Chitty, it seems that the injury could have been sustained in one of two ways. The first is through loss of blood due to entrapment or entanglement, and the second is through electric-shock, which is known to cause raptors to loose legs in the manner of G463 (see here for some examples).

G463 at Minsmere on 31st Januay 2022 (photo by Rachel Harvey)

Regardless of the exact cause, it appears that G463 has learnt to adapt to living with only one foot. He returned across the English Channel on 20th September 2022 and initially returned to favoured areas in West Norfolk, where he remained until the end of October.  He then made his way slowly south-west to Somerset and spent six weeks in south Somerset, before heading east to Poole Harbour on Boxing Day. Finally, on 9thJanuary he returned to the Isle of Wight for the first time since 13th October 2020. During his 27-month period away – the longest of any of the released eagles so far – he flew over 17,000km and visited seven different countries. 

On his first night back on the Isle of Wight, G463 roosted close to the release area, but like other returning eagles, he had the Island’s resident birds, G274 and G324 to contend with. The satellite data showed they roosted very close to each other that night, and then G463 remained in the local area for most of the next day. However, on the morning of 11th, the tracking data indicates that G463 was seen off by G274 and, after spending two further nights on the Isle of Wight, albeit in areas away from the resident male’s core territory, G463 headed back across the Solent during the afternoon of 13th. He flew north across the New Forest and spent several days near Amesbury in Wiltshire, before heading south-west and returning to Poole Harbour. 

G463 at Chard Junction Gravel Pits on 27th November 2022 (photo by Dave Helliar)

Poole Harbour has become something of an eagle hotspot over the past twelve months and on the morning of 21st January G463 was photographed by John Thorpe, Pete Scott having an aerial tussle younger male G812, who has been a regular visitor to Poole Harbour in recent months. He then spent the rest of the day with 2020 female G466, who returned to the South Coast in early October after spending last summer in northern Scotland, and has been another regular in the area. With both birds now in their fourth calendar year they are reaching the age where we might expect them to pair up and establish a territory, and so it be interesting to see what happens over the coming weeks. We will be paying particular attention to G463 to understand better how he has adapted to living with only one foot. Birds can be remarkably adaptable and there are examples of Bald Eales living with only one foot in North America (see here). The fact that G463 has survived for more than a year, is certainly encouraging. We will be sure to keep you updated over the coming months. 

G463 (below) tussling with younger male, G812 at Poole Harbour. The missing right foot is evident in this photo (photo by John Thorpe)

G463 (below) with G812 (photo by John Thorpe)
G463 at Poole Harbour on 21st January (photo by Pete Scott)