Tuesday, 18 November 2014

White-tailed Eagle 2014 Update

I've been purposely quiet with news of the local Connemara White-tailed Eagles for a reason this year. As I'm sure many will be aware we've had a resident pair here now since Spring 2012. Both Star (male) and Semi Circle (female) were released in 2009 down in Killarney National Park, Co. Kerry. As they are now five years of age we were hoping that they might have a go at breeding for the first time this year. Amazingly in late February of this year, a visiting single younger male - F Bar accompanied Semi Circle for at least three days.
I saw both of them roosting together and even displaying to one another on a few occasions. I was beginning to think that the young upstart had ousted Star. If this were to happen breeding would probably be unlikely this year at least, given the young age of the male (two years younger than Semi Circle). F-Bar had also briefly hooked up the female Inverted Triangle, the female from the second younger WTE pair also based in Connemara earlier in the winter. F-Bar left Connemara shortly after hanging around with Semi Circle and made it all the way down to the Wexford Slobs. From here he then flew back over to Killarney. Apparently he is now back up in Cavan I believe where he was in residence before arriving in Connemara.

I was lucky to come across Star one day in early March. I managed to visually track him as he seemed to be on the move at the time. He eventually flew into a tree with the female Semi Circle already there waiting for him. From my position (which was nearly three kilometres away) both birds looked like they were standing beside some sort of structure in the tree that looked suspiciously like a nest! I was able to confirm the next day that yes indeed it was a nest, the first White-tailed Eagle nest in Connemara in well over a century - happy days. Over the next few weeks both birds built up the nest although Star brought in the majority of sticks. I saw him on a few occasions pulling and snapping off live branches from adjacent trees. To finish off the construction of the nest, large clumps of dead Purple Moorgrass/Molina grass were brought in for the inner cup. Both birds would sit in the nest for periods of up to two hours but would then get up and leave. Eventually though both parents commenced proper incubation once the egg(s) were presumably laid.  They were incredibly attentive during the long incubation period and both birds shared incubation duties.

I was actually away in the States when the egg(s) were expected to hatch. Allan Mee and Aonghus O'Donaill did however manage to check on the birds at this time. Unfortunately something went awry at this stage as both birds were missing from the nest. There was some extremely heavy rainfall around the same time. This or more likely the inexperience of these first time breeders probably lead to the failure of the nesting attempt. A similar outcome happened with the very first pair of White-tails down at Mountshannon during their first attempt also. Although we were fully aware that the Connemara birds would be unlikely to be successful on their first attempt, it was a disappointment after spending so much time watching the birds on the nest. We managed to check the nest shortly after the birds had failed. The only remains found in the nest was a single small shell fragment so we have no idea if they had laid one, two or even three (unlikely). It's highly likely that the local Hooded Crows cleaned up any unhatched eggs or dead chicks in the nest shortly after the parents abandoned the nest. There was no obvious food remains in the nest either though food was seen to be delivered to the incubating individual by the returning bird on a few occasions.

We're obviously not releasing the location the nest for fear of unintentional disturbance or even wilful persecution. While some may be of the opinion that the more people that know about the location, the better as it may offer more protection for the birds. This wouldn't be possible in this case as they are in a very remote area where round the clock protection just isn't a reality. The vast majority of local people including many farmers that I've talked to locally about the eagles either have no issues with their presence or are quite interested to hear about them. However I have spoken to at least two persons who have told me to my face (almost in a boastful manner), that they would have no issue with shooting the eagles if they look sidewards at any of their livestock. If they were to see any eagle feeding on a long dead sheep I'm sure they would shoot first if they had the chance and probably wouldn't even bother to ask questions afterwards. The Mountshannon pair in county Clare are very close to a busy public pier so keeping them quiet just isn't an option. The local community certainly do keep a very close eye on them and really see them as their own eagles. If the public wish to get great views of nesting White-tailed Eagles they can visit Mountshannon so please don't ask me about the nest location of the Connemara birds. I've visited most of the local primary schools in the area to try and get the message out that they aren't a threat to livestock and also to highlight the dangers of poisoning to these special birds. Hopefully this will pay dividends in time.
I viewed the Connemara pair mostly from a well hidden hide at a distance of at least 1,500 metres away and I can say they certainly weren't as tolerant of human presence compared to some other eagle nests in the country.
The second younger pair of White-tailed Eagles are still present. Both birds have radio tags which have been very useful for keeping tabs on them over the last year or so. The battery of the female Inverted Triangles' tag is now probably exhausted as it usually only lasts about four years. D-Bar, the male seems to spending a lot more time on the lower Corrib this winter compared to last winter. Hopefully D-Bars battery will last for another year before running out. We are hopeful that they may attempt breeding next year so fingers crossed.

While we're on the topic there is a great account of  Connemara's White-tailed Eagles in William Thomson's The Natural History of Ireland which was published in 1849. It's interesting to note that there is no mention whatsoever of White-tailed Eagles taking lambs anywhere in Connemara in the below account.

"Mr. M'Calla, writing from Roundstone, Connemara (Galway), in 1841, supplied me with the following information in substance respecting this species.
It is common throughout that district; has its eyrie in cliffs rising from the sea; in trees growing on the small islands of inland lakes and in once instance built on a green islet without any trees. A pair has bred for a number of years on the marine island of Boffin and from the nest being inaccessible, a brood of eaglets has been annually reared; these have always left the island so soon as able to wing their way elsewhere. The inhabitants of the island believe that the pair of old birds which frequent it, not only guard and abstain from injuring their fowl but that they will not suffer other birds of prey to molest them. The people of Connemara generally, indeed, believe that the eagle never takes away any fowl from about the houses in the vicinity of its nest. My informant has seen a sea eagle lift a duck from near the door of a house, at a distance from its eyrie and bear it away but being pursued by a number of gray crows (Corvus cornix), it dropped the prey which was still alive, though much torn by its talons. This species of crow, which is abundant in the district, is said to be the "inveterate enemy of the eagle" and to gather from all quarters to harass and attack it, so soon as the royal bird comes in sight. The writer has visited fourteen eagles' nests and robbed several of the eggs, which were never more than two in number. A few years ago it was considered a dangerous undertaking to rob an eyrie, and persons went armed with guns to protect the aggressor, but my informant has never himself been assailed, nor known men to be attacked by the parent birds. They appear to breed for a number of years in the same nest, renewing it every season. One built in a Yew tree, growing upon an island of the lake on the western side of Urrisbeg mountain, was, with the accumulated materials of the nest of the preceding years, nine feet in diameter. The portion in which the eggs were deposited, was lined with wool, the fur of the hare, etc."

Star, the male.

Star, you can see the satellite pack with the aerial on his back here, this runs off a solar panel rather than battery.
Semi-circle, the female.


Star & Semi-circle

Plucking perch used by the breeding pair.

Eagle pellet with a one Euro coin for scale.
Inverted Triangle, the female from the younger pair. Pic taken in June and she was looking rather ragged being in moult at the time.


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