White-tailed eagles, up to 2.5 meters wing size, were once a popular sight throughout southern England until the 18th century when they were wiped out by unlawful shooting.
They were last reported at Culver Cliff on the Isle of Wight in England in 1780, before being extinct in the entirety of the UK in 1918 when the last bird was shot on the Scottish Shetland Islands.
According to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), European sea-eagle populations also suffered from severe persecution, which led to significant declines and extinction in several countries.
But that lost species is making a comeback thanks to Forestry England and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation. Last summer, as part of a five year effort to return the species to southern England, six juvenile white-tailed eagles were introduced on the Isle of Wight. The birds were collected from the wild in Scotland, where the species was reintroduced under a similar scheme in the 1970s, before being transported to the island.
They were fitted with GPS trackers and four of the young birds were tracked by the team behind the programme as they make their first trips.
The satellite data gave the team a fascinating insight into the behavior of the birds, who were largely sedentary over the winter but started exploring further afield, including Norfolk, Kent and Somerset, now spring has arrived. Two of the eagles, a male G393 and a female G318 flew as far as the Moors of North York.
The pair stayed for days in the national park, but also took a trip to the coast where they spent four hours exploring a 12-mile stretch from Whitby to Saltburn-by-Sea.
Another male bird, G274, completed a 325-mile tour of southeast England for three days, and appears to have bonded on the Isle of Wight over the winter months with G324, a female. G324 has generally been the most sedentary of the four birds since release but was spotted soaring over the West Wight with paragliders along with G274.
White-tailed eagles do not breed until they are about four or five years old, but it is hoped that if they survive until then, G274 and G324 could form a breeding pair. Satellite analysis has given the team with interesting insights into the actions of the birds, revealing that they pick days with the best weather to make their major movements, choosing a tailwind and open skies.
The birds are classified as “sit-and-wait” foragers, who tend to wait and watch their targets for food rather than travel wide distances, saving precious resources. Roy Dennis, founder of The Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation said: “I have spent much of my life working on the reintroduction of these amazing birds and so watching them take to the skies of the Isle of Wight has been a truly special moment.”
“Establishing a population of white-tailed eagles in the south of England will link and support emerging populations of these birds in the Netherlands, France and Ireland, with the aim of restoring the species to the southern half of Europe.”
Bruce Rothnie, from Forestry England, added: “We are immensely proud that the woodlands we manage on the Isle of Wight and surrounding South Coast are now home to these incredibly rare birds as they return to England’s coastline.”