Scotland's Birds of Prey, Part 7: the white-tailed (sea) eagle
Although Scotland is perhaps most famous - especially amongst falconers - for its peregrine falcon, it may surprise you to know that Scotland is home to more than 20 varieties of bird of prey. In this series, we're introducing you to some of the birds of prey that you can see in the wild in Scotland.
So far in this series, we've covered:
Having looked at the smallest falcon in the UK in our last post, in part 7 we're now going to look at the UK's largest bird of prey: the white-tailed eagle.
The white-tailed sea eagle
Scotland's enormous white-tailed eagle is reminiscent of a winged dinosaur and it belongs to the most prehistoric of all groups of birds - the sea eagles. This group includes America's bald eagle and the largest bird of prey in the world, the Steller's sea eagle. In ancient times, white-tailed sea eagles were carved in stone by Picts (8th century) and their bones have been found in Scottish burial mounds dating back 4,000 years but the species was persecuted to extinction in the 20th century. Britain's last breeding pair of sea eagles lived on the Isle of Skye in 1916 but the last surviving bird was shot there in 1918.
A coastal bird most associated with the Highlands and Island of the UK, the sea eagle was reintroduced with stock brought from Norway to the island of Rhum in 1975. Although slow to gain traction and prone to set backs, this reintroduction programme proved controversial but successful: an established breeding population is now found on Scotland's north-west and east coasts and the UK is once again home to this impressive raptor.
Impressive in size, scale and flight, the sea eagle is one of Scotland's 'Big 5' - a tourist's must-see list of our most-prized wildlife. With a wingspan of almost 2.5 metres (8'), a fearsome, yellow-curved beak that can crush skull bone and huge yellow feet, bigger and stronger than a man's hand, the white-tailed eagle is certainly a sight worth seeing! As with all raptors, the female is larger than the male and she can weigh 25% more than her mate - as much as 15lbs (almost 7kg).
The white-tailed eagle is an opportunistic hunter so carrion forms a key part of its diet but it's main quarry is fish and rabbit or hare. Surprisingly manoeuvrable in flight, these huge birds can roll and tumble in flight so they can hunt other birds as well. Some of the controversy about their reintroduction was caused by concern that sea eagles would take farm stock and lambs are certainly a good prey option but there are monitoring programmes to assess their impact and recompense farmers as required.
Sea eagle numbers
There are now thought to be more than 100 breeding pairs in Scotland and numbers are increasing, albeit slowly. This is because sea eagles only become sexually mature in their 4th or 5th season and a pair will only lay 2, perhaps 3, eggs at a time. Pairs are monogamous and probably life-long and they use the same nest site in successive years, as long as food is readily available in the locale.
When, where and how to see white-tailed eagles in Scotland
- all year round but breeding pairs will have eggs from February to April or May so take care not to disturb their nests in late winter / early spring
- on Scotland's west and east coasts, especially the Isle of Mull on the West and around the mouth of the River Tay on the East
- with wildlife tour operators, who know where and how best to see these birds and also how not to disturb them (Morvern Wildlife Tours, for example). OR go go to a Ben Potter display. Ben is often booked for events like the Royal Highland Show or the Scone Game Fair and his eagle sessions are excellent - informative and entertaining.
Have you seen (or even heard) a sea eagle in Scotland? Or do you have a story to share about a bird of prey? Please leave a comment in the space below - we'd love to hear from you about this.
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Scotland's Birds of Prey, Part 7 - the sources:
- Unusual carved Pictish stone displayed at Elgin museum https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-north-east-orkney-shetland-35862682
- Thompson, D., Riley, H., and Ethelridge, B. Scotland's Birds of Prey (2010) Lomond Books, Broxburn, Scotland
- Martin, Brian P. Birds of Prey of the British Isles (1993) David & Charles plc pp111-117
Images for white-tailed eagle:
- RSPB, not credited but extracted from https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/white-tailed-eagle/breeding/
- Mull Birds, credited to Sindri Skulason http://www.mullbirds.com/WHITE%20TAILED%20EAGLES.html
- Video by Deborah Brazendale of Ben G Potter at the Royal Highland Show, 22 June 2018. For more information on Ben's amazing eagle displays, go to http://birdsofpreydisplays.co.uk/flying-displays-birds-of-prey/