I saw my first ever white-tailed eagle, indeed my first wild eagle of any species (unless I saw a bald eagle as a 10-year-old in Florida or a 12-year-old in New England and subsequently forgot about it), close to Andover in Hampshire, just down the road from the Hawk Conservancy Trust. That proximity did not go unnoticed to early observers of this particular bird, but it was soon established as a coincidence. The Hawk Conservancy had not misplaced any birds and the eagle in question was entirely wild, most likely a roaming first winter bird from Germany or Sweden. Oddly enough, I saw my second white-tailed eagle not far away at Old Basing, also in Hampshire. I wonder what they see in the north Hampshire countryside? Perhaps it’s the density of plump, juicy pheasants!
Despite all that free food going begging, eagle sightings like these in southern England remain a rarity. The closest breeding eagles in the UK, whether golden or white-tailed, are in Scotland, and I’ve contrived not to see one every single time I’ve been north of the border. Next time! Over in the eastern United States, where I’m fortunate enough to go visiting family once or twice a year, things are different. Bald eagles – the American cousin of the white-tailed eagle – are increasingly common in the Chesapeake Bay area at all times of year, and they turn up well inland too, frequently cruising the skies of the Washington, DC suburbs.
Geographically, the respective parts of the USA and UK I’m talking about are broadly similar: heavily developed, relatively densely populated, and close to the national capital. It’s a vague comparison, and one I’d like to research and interrogate in more detail, but it adds to my conviction that white-tailed eagles, ospreys too for that matter, would do very well along the south coast of England. Indeed they probably used to, many hundreds of years ago, so it could be that the difference is a matter of time and culture rather than ecology. Intensive human action on the American coast never quite had long enough to wipe out bald eagles before they were protected, nor to my knowledge was raptor persecution historically as high in the States as it was here. Another point for further research.
Today I was at the Hawk Conservancy for work. I spent some time admiring the three species of sea eagle (genus Haliaeetus) on display: bald, white-tailed and the immensely impressive Steller’s. I hope in the future that it will be much easier to see these awe-inspiring birds close to home without having to look at them through the wires of an aviary. Unfortunately, the potential reintroduction of white-tailed eagle to East Anglia has been shelved for now and the debate about rewilding and reintroduction of top predators seems to be entirely obsessed with mammals. Yet it seems to me that reintroduction of birds poses far fewer logistical problems (see osprey, red kite et al.) and that the example of the Maryland-DC region shows how, to paraphrase former president George W. Bush, human beings and the eagles can co-exist peacefully. What are we waiting for?!