Hopefully you have seen Scotland’s Big 5 – Red Squirrel, Red Deer, Golden Eagle, Otter and Harbour Seal. If you haven’t why not set these as a target for a wildlife holiday around Scotland or to see all five during the rest of the year. Doing so will take you to some wonderful places and you will have some fantastic wildlife encounters.
Scotland’s Big 5 is a great list but some of my best wildlife experiences have been outside of these five so I thought I would share my alternative Big 5 species over the next few months. No need to choose between the lists, put both sets together and you will have a tremendous ten to aim for.
First up for me is the White-Tailed Eagle, or Sea Eagle, and this wonderful bird will be the subject of this post. Let me share 5 reasons why the White-Tailed Eagle is in my alternative Scotland’s Big 5.
1. This is a huge bird
Both our resident eagles – White-Tailed and Golden – are huge birds but with a wingspan of up to 2.4m the white-tail is Scotland’s largest resident bird. Just think about that, this bird has a wingspan which is wider than a tall person is tall.
A simple rule for me is if you have seen a bird of prey and you are wondering if it is a buzzard or an eagle, then it’s a buzzard. Once you have seen an eagle, except for distant specks in the sky views, you will simply know you have seen an eagle. People often tell me they have seen a Golden Eagle on a fencepost or telegraph pole and I hate to tell them they have actually seen the “tourist eagle” (that is a Common Buzzard). Once you have seen the flying barn door of a White-Tailed Eagle you know you have seen an eagle because it is massive.
Look at the size of this bird compared to the Hooded Crows tagging on for some scraps left over from a fish this eagle has caught.
2. They are actually quite easy to see
Go to Mull or Skye, fantastic hotspots for eagles, and you are likely to see a White-Tailed Eagle if you drive around the coast, take your time, stay mindful and keep your wildlife eyes open. But drive anywhere along the west coast of Scotland and you have a good chance of seeing this bird too. I have had some great impromptu sightings when driving around the coast and some of my best photo opportunities have been brief but spectacularly unplanned encounters such as the photo below.
3. And you can see them close up
For a spectacular up close wildlife encounter it is hard to beat the White-Tailed Eagle. Is this close enough for you?
I mean seriously, look at that bill? Look at the eye and the individual feathers. You couldn’t really confuse that with a Buzzard could you?
You can have a close up encounter with a White-Tailed Eagle like in the above photo by booking on one of the boat trips organised to see them from Mull or Skye. Some wildlife purists don’t like this form of wildlife tourism. On the boat trips they do feed the birds by throwing out fish for the eagles to fly in and take which is how they guarantee close-up views. But fishermen have been throwing out scraps for eagles for hundreds of years and we all feed blue-tits in our gardens so I don’t have a problem with it. For a first encounter, one to get the kids enthused about wildlife or just to try your hand at bird photography definitely a great place to start. Or you can visit them at Mull Eagle Watch a fantastic community based project.
4. They are a conservation good news story
There are a lot of birds in decline across the UK but the White-Tailed Eagles are coming back, and coming back from extinction in Scotland.
White-Tailed Eagles were persecuted to extinction in Scotland when the last bird was shot in Shetland in 1918. Whilst there was a stronghold over the North Sea in Norway, and these birds occasionally visited, they were only a rare visitor until conservationists took action in the 1970s.
Often eagles have two chicks but normally only the first born survives, the second is largely an insurance policy if the first egg fails. Conservationists took the second chick from nests in Norway and hand reared them before releasing them in Scotland. Birds were released on the Isle of Rum in 1975, Wester Ross (1993-98) and on the East Coast (2007-2012). You often see wing tags on these birds left by conservationists and with a good photo this can identify the story of the individual eagle.
In 2013 they bred naturally in Scotland for the first time since the 19th Century. There is also evidence of the Scottish and continental population mixing and cross-breeding which is important for long-term success.
So remember when you see this bird you have many hard working conservationists to thank.
5. They can turn up anywhere
Don’t get me wrong, if you want to see the White-Tailed Eagle go to the west coast of Scotland, preferably one of the Islands like Mull or Skye, as this is their stronghold.
But now we have Sea Eagles breeding we have juveniles. And young White-Tailed Eagles travel for several years before pairing up and establishing a territory. And this means they can be seen almost anywhere. It isn’t likely you will see an eagle flying over your garden, but it is possible.
I should note that juvinille birds do not have the white tail or lighter head, but are all dark brown. But they still have the characteristic barn door profile, huge bill and long primary feathers (“fingers” at end of wing) to mark them out.
They have been spotted in the Ochils above where I live in Clackmannanshire – most likely an east coast released bird. And they will also head into England too. And since six birds were released on the Isle of White in 2019 and another seven in 2020 they are likely to become more common sights across England too. Recent sightings include North Yorkshire, Kent and Somerset.
And if you want to follow them online some of the birds have satellite tags so you can see where they have been travelling.
I will be sharing another of my Alternative Scotland’s Big 5 soon.