White-tailed eagles went extinct in Ireland a century ago. Lenny Antonelli visits an ambitious project returning these huge raptors to Irish skies.
BBC Wildlife, December 2016
Our boat moves over clear green water, gliding towards the massive nest. Nearby a common seal dozes on a rock exposed by the low tide, while off to our stern another lifts its head above the water. It’s June and I’m on the Lady Ellen, a small boat piloted by ferryman Kevin Jer O’Sullivan.
We’re motoring over Glengarriff Harbour, a sheltered bay dotted with wooded islands and surrounded by old oak forests, in County Cork in the south-west of Ireland.
Kevin slows the boat as we approach the nest, high above in a Scots pine. But branches obscure the big white-tailed eagle chick, making him difficult to see. “Wait ’til I show you herself!” Kevin says in his thick Cork accent. He points to the vast adult female on a branch right ahead of us. I’m stunned into silence.
Later that morning, watching the nest from the shore, National Parks & Wildlife Service ranger Clare Heardman tells me this bird’s dramatic story. She and her mate were among 100 white-tailed eagles released into nearby Killarney National Park in 2007–11, as part of an ambitious plan to re-establish the species in Ireland.
In 2014 the Glengarriff pair hatched their first chick, but it died after two weeks. The next summer two chicks hatched – again, one died, but the other chick developed well and Clare looked forward to it becoming the first eagle hatched in Cork in more than a century.
The local boat crews help to watch over the eagles, and one Friday afternoon Kevin called Clare. There were hooded crows around the nest, he told her, and the adult female was making a strange noise. Clare studied the scene from the shore. “The chick was at in the nest, I couldn’t see any movement,” she tells me now. The next morning she went over to the nest with ornithologist Allan Mee, manager of the reintroduction scheme, who climbed the tree and found the chick dead.
“Both adults were still there,” Clare says. “They’d been watching that chick for at least 36 hours. They wouldn’t leave it – they were trying to keep the crows away.” A post-mortem found a sheaf of crow feathers blocking the chick’s intestine. It was a heartbreaking setback, but there was some solace to be had from the fact it had died of natural causes, rather than being poisoned or shot.
Today, watching the latest chick, Eddie, under a bright blue June sky, Clare is again worried. Eddie has been slow to develop his feathers and is underweight. Clare is bursting with enthusiasm for white-tailed eagles, but wonders if Eddie might be suffering from low-level poisoning or a parasite. “Maybe he’s just a slow developer,” she says. “We’re nervous for this one, but hopefully he’ll fly.”
A NEW HOME FOR NORWAY’S BIRDS
The bold plan to reintroduce white-tailed eagles to Ireland is being spearheaded by the Golden Eagle Trust, a charity established in 1999 to bring that other eagle species back to Ireland. In summer 2007, with the help of local ornithologists, Allan collected the first white- tailed eagle chicks from nests on Norway’s west coast.
The chicks were own to Ireland and kept in flight pens among the oak woods and lakes of Killarney National Park, where they learned to fly and became used to their new surroundings. Finally they were released in early August that year. Allan left deer carcasses on the shore to help them through their first winter. The team repeated this for five years and by 2011 had released 100 birds. But the project depends on getting them to breed.
In ‘Ireland’s Lost Birds’, naturalist Gordon D’Arcy writes that there were once 75–100 white-tailed eagle nests in Ireland. But the birds were driven to extinction here by the early 20th century, persecuted by gamekeepers in the era of Ireland’s big hunting estates, and by shepherds and small farmers. Some records say that the last known breeding took place in County Mayo in 1912.
A hundred years later, in spring 2012, two of the released Norwegian birds were building a nest on an island on Lough Derg, 130km north-east of Killarney town. Schoolchildren in the lakeside villages of Mountshannon and Whitegate named the male Caimin, after a local saint, and the female Saoirse, which is Gaelic for freedom. Saoirse and Caimin didn’t fledge a chick that year, though white-tailed eagles rarely do at their first attempt. “We weren’t despondent that they failed, because we knew that was always likely,” Allan tells me.
In spring 2013 Saoirse and Caimin laid two eggs, which hatched in May. Birdwatchers duly descended on Mountshannon, as its harbour provided the perfect place to watch the nest. And when the chicks were about seven weeks old, the Golden Eagle Trust installed a nestcam. Nobody could have predicted, though, the near-disaster that this would precipitate. Spooked by the camera, Saoirse and Caimin abandoned their nest. So Allan made frequent trips to the island to drop off food for the chicks. “Tesco’s finest mackerel,” he says with a smile.
Mercifully, in July 2013, both chicks fledged. Not only were they the first Irish-hatched eagles to fly in a century, they’d also been partially reared by humans. “It was a learning curve, but the bottom line is we successfully fledged the chicks,” Allan says, before admitting that he would, naturally, be wary of installing another nestcam.
In February 2014 tragedy struck – Allan received a phone call from a man who’d found a dead eagle. Allan went to pick up the bird, which turned out to be the young male from the Mountshannon nest. A post- mortem found between 45 and 50 shotgun pellets in its body. “You think that here, at last, is real hope for the project – the next generation – and straightaway one of them gets shot,” Allan says. “That was tough to take.”
Locals in Mountshannon were shocked too. “It looked like it was deliberate,” says Vera O’Rourke of the Mountshannon Eagle Group. “There’s no way you’d mix up that eagle for any other bird. That’s the most sickening part about it.”
Of the 100 birds released at Killarney, 32 have been recovered dead so far. Some of these died naturally, while others hit wind turbines or power lines. Poisoning has been confirmed as the cause of 13 deaths, but Allan suspects that the true figure may be closer to 20 – it hasn’t always been possible to determine the exact cause.
Until the Irish government banned the use of poisoned bait in 2010, such deaths were almost always an unfortunate accident – a farmer would legally lace a sheep carcass with poison to kill foxes and hooded crows during the lambing season, and an unwitting eagle would feast on it. But the practice continues in rural Ireland, and in a strange way the poisonings may actually have helped raptor conservation. When a stricken eagle is recovered by the Golden Eagle Trust, it can draw attention to the problem.
“Shooting is very obvious,” Allan explains. “When someone’s shot a bird, there are pellets on the ground. But, until recently, poisoned birds were rarely recovered, making it difficult to prove. Tagging birds has changed all that – we’re now able to locate and recover poison victims. When we lose tagged birds, it makes the news, which shines a light on the issue.”
Early in 2014, perhaps still spooked by the nestcam incident, Saoirse and Caimin abandoned their home island near Mountshannon. However, to the relief of locals, they built a new nest on another wooded island nearby, and that summer fledged a female chick, which was named Aoibheall.
By this stage Mountshannon Village had become the proud owner of an eagle-watching hide, funded by the local council and equipped with telescopes and binoculars. More than 10,000 people visited in 2014 to see the birds; one estimate suggested that the eagles were worth half a million Euros to the local economy.
Across Ireland six more pairs of white-tailed eagles laid eggs in 2014, including the birds at Glengarriff, although only Saoirse and Caimin were successful. In 2015 Saoirse and Caimin fledged another chick, a male named Cealtra, and – in a huge breakthrough – three other pairs also fledged chicks, including a second pair on Lough Derg.
EXCITING TIMES AHEAD
When I visit the Mountshannon eagle-watching hut in June, Vera O’Rourke and local volunteer James Leonard update me on the latest breeding season. They tell me that, sadly, Saoirse and Caimin have failed to breed for the first time in four years. They say human disturbance is to blame, maybe a boat getting too close, or a drone that James that was seen near the nest. “I was looking through the telescope one day, and I could see the drone right over the nest,” he says. “I mean, that’s crazy.” What’s more, with no chick, visitor numbers to the eagle-watching hut are down this summer.
But on the whole 2016 has been another successful year for Ireland’s white-tailed eagles, with a total of six chicks fledging from nests in Kerry, Cork, Clare and Galway. Thirteen white-tailed eagle chicks have now fledged in Ireland. And when I meet Allan Mee at Mountshannon, he’s in relaxed mood: “At one stage I was picking up quite a few dead birds through poisoning and things like that, but now we’re at a much more exciting stage of the project.” Irish-hatched eagles might even start breeding soon. “It’s possible one could nest in 2017, which would be a real milestone,” Allan says.
Meanwhile, down in Glengarriff, ranger Clare Heardman is still worried about Eddie. White-tailed eagle chicks normally fledge by 13 weeks, but when I visit in June he’s over 14 weeks old and still not flying. Though he is hopping and flapping around, he hasn’t left his tree.
Later, on Tuesday 26 July, Clare texts me to say Eddie has made a short flight to a tree nearby. Technically, he’s fledged. But when I call back a few days later Clare sounds wary. Eddie isn’t moving far from the nest and is barely flying. She talks again about the possibility of disease or poisoning, and mentions the high mortality rate of white-tailed eagle chicks in their first year. My heart sinks.
“Eddie’s made history by being the slowest white-tailed eagle in Ireland to fledge,” Clare says. Then on Sunday 31 July, Clare gets a call from Kevin, the ferryman. He hasn’t seen or heard the chick all day. “Based on Eddie’s behaviour over the past week, this is unusual,” Clare tells me. “Normally he calls quite often, especially if one of the adults has arrived at the nest, and he can be really loud and insistent.”
So Clare decides to take a look. She drives down to the shore, sets up her scope and starts scanning the harbour. It’s a busy bank-holiday weekend. Suddenly she spots an eagle flying low over the water. “I saw a blue tag and momentarily thought it was the adult male,” she tells me later. “But then I registered that it was the chick!” Eddie glided over the water, landed on a branch, then flew to another tree. It’s the first time Clare has seen him make a such an assured flight after months of uncertainty.
Over the next week Clare watches the young eagle make more flights over the rocky outcrops and sea-green waters of Glengarriff Harbour. His development is as fragile, yet as wildly exciting, as the scheme that brought his parents here from the forests of western Norway.
HOW TO SEE IRELAND’S WHITE-TAILED EAGLES
From May to August you can visit the eagle-watching hut at Mountshannon on Lough Derg, Co Clare, during the nesting season.
Find out more at www. mountshannoneagles.ie or www.facebook.com/Mountshannoneagles
In Kerry, hike Killarney National Park’s trails and keep your eyes skyward, or take a boat tour on the lakes: www.killarney.ie/ listing/boat-tours. If you stay at the Lake Hotel (www.lakehotelkillarney.ie) beside Lough Leane, owners Niall and Joe Huggard will offer eagle- spotting tips.
At nearby Glengarriff, take a boat tour around the harbour with Kevin Jer O’Sullivan (+353
87 7007760) or other local operators (www. glengarriff.ie/ferryboat- services), who know the best spots to see the local eagles.