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Thursday, 20 December 2007 00:00

GE Newsletter 2007

Eagle before fledging Eagle before fledging (c) Laurie Campbell

The news that a Golden Eagle Chick had hatched in Donegal, for the first time in around 100 years, was commended by widespread national public and media interest. The picture of the newly hatched young chick was widely posted and film footage of the chick was broadcast repeatedly on various news bulletins. After 7 long years of effort by the entire Golden Eagle Reintroduction Steering Group, we saw the first visible proof that we could re-establish Golden Eagles as a breeding species in Ireland. The Irish Golden Eagle Reintroduction project began in 2000, following several years of pre project planning by the Golden Eagle Trust Limited, which in turn incorporated earlier efforts by the National Parks and Wildlife Service in Glenveagh National Park.

Of course this single successful breeding attempt does in no way secure the favourable conservation of this species in Ireland, but it does suggest that with appropriate landscape management and species protection, the Golden Eagles can reoccupy a percentage of their former haunts along the west coast of Ireland and possibly along the northern coast of Northern Ireland. Can we now hope that this pair of Golden Eagles will breed in Glenveagh National Park for the next two decades and be augmented by other breeding pairs in Donegal and beyond? If the Project Steering Group can maintain its focus and determination to succeed, hopefully we may in time look back on 2007 as a turning point in the status of Irish Birds of Prey in general.

The Irish Golden Eagle Re-introduction Project
The re-introduction of vanished species to their former historical range is an increasingly common conservation tool. The Irish Government is required and encouraged to re-introduce extinct native species, where appropriate, as a signatory of the Rio de Janeiro Convention on Biological Diversity and the European Union’s Habitat Directive, respectively.

As an island off the edge of Europe, Ireland may be more prone to extinctions than other European countries. Ireland has at least 10 extinct birds, including at least six large birds of prey.

Irish conservationists have been planning the re-introduction of Golden Eagles since 1989. The Millennium, with the strong emphasis in Ireland on regeneration, provided the necessary impetus to help start the project. County Donegal was chosen as the best Golden Eagle release site in Ireland due to the quality of its mountain environments. Traditional hill farming methods in Donegal have helped retain these features. The expert opinion in Scotland and Ireland was that Golden Eagles had little chance of recolonising Ireland naturally from their unproductive population in the Southwest of Scotland.

The project involves bringing young eaglets from Scotland and releasing them in Glenveagh National Park annually. We have released 50 birds in Glenveagh National Park between 2001-2007. We hope to release 60- 75 birds. As in many wild eagle populations, we expect only a third of the released birds to survive till they are mature enough to breed at four or five years of age. Therefore we hope that 6-8 pairs of Golden Eagles will become established in Donegal by 2010.

Scottish Support
The Golden Eagle donor stock is collected annually from Scotland under a special licence from Scottish Natural Heritage. Only one chick can be collected from nests containing two young. Every year scores of bird of prey enthusiasts help monitor potential donor stock nests. The Scottish Raptor Study Group, the Highland Foundation for Wildlife, the Forestry Commission, the National Trust for Scotland and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have all played a key role in collecting young. The Irish Golden Eagle Reintroduction Steering Group would also like to thank all the Scottish landowners, deerstalkers and gamekeepers who have facilitated and assisted in the collection of young also. The Irish Golden Eagle project is clearly built on the supply of Scottish Eagles, through the support of numerous Scottish people.

Dr Jeff Watson
It was with great sadness that we heard the news that Dr Jeff Watson had passed away this autumn. Jeff was undoubtedly one of the World’s leading Golden Eagle experts. He had been an ardent supporter of the Irish project and had often declared his belief that Golden Eagles should not be seen only as a Scottish bird – he had hoped that they would be encouraged to reoccupy all their former haunts within Britain and Ireland.

In 1992 I met several eagle watchers in Lochaber who had enourmous admiration for Jeff and all his meticulous and tiresome research each spring monitoring numerous local pairs of eagles in some of the wettest and most difficult terrain of Britain. In 1995, the late Jim Haine and myself met Jeff at his house on the Black Isle. We had asked Jeff for advice on our tentative plans to reintroduce Golden Eagles to Ireland. Jim invited Jeff to speak at the Irish Wildbird Conservancy/RSPB All-Ireland bird conference in Wicklow in 1996. At the conference, Jeff gave a fascinating insight into his Golden Eagle research and enthused many in the audience with his passion for eagles.

His monograph on Golden Eagles, published in 1997, has always been an invaluable reference book and indeed source of inspiration to the Irish project. Once Scottish Natural Heritage approved the licence application for Irish donor stock, again Jeff played a vital role in facilitating the licensing of several birds, in those difficult early years of the project. We will always be in his debt for his support in overcoming the collection difficulties we faced and his willingness to help us at anytime during the frantic collection period. Unfortunately, Jeff never got an opportunity to see the Golden Eagle chick in Glenveagh. Jeff had a broader more expansive vision of Golden Eagles in Europe, beyond its current distribution, and a wild Irish chick, reared by two Scottish Golden Eagles, was a concrete example of what he extolled. I am told he was thrilled that at last a chick had been reared in Ireland. We offer our deepest sympathy to his wife Vanessa and his son Ronan.

2007 Breeding Season

Site: DO1
1 egg laid 2005, pair present and new nest built 2006, 2 eggs laid 2007
Male: Yellow 2 Spots Female: Blue O
From: Glen Affric, Invernesshire 2001 From: Lude Estate, Tayside 2002

The first Donegal pair of Golden Eagles to breed, in 2005, was composed of Yellow 2 Spots (male) and Yellow Diagonal Bar (female). The 2005 breeding attempt failed as the male ‘appeared’ to abandon the breeding attempt after 4 weeks incubation in mid April 2005. During the 2005/2006 winter the pair was seen on site occasionally. In mid February 2006 they were seen displaying together over several days. On 23rd February an incomplete nest, containing large quantities of heather, was found on an exposed ledge near their winter roost site. They had not added any new material to their 2005 nest by early March but a single eagle was seen vigorously defending the 2005 nesting crag from nearby Ravens and an intruding second year Golden Eagle. By early April, the 2005 nest had some new material added and a second new incomplete eyrie was found nearby on the same cliff. A single yellow-tagged eagle, almost definitely the female, was also seen near this site. So no breeding took place in 2006.

It is now known; that the Yellow tagged female Golden Eagle seen perched next to the resident male in Glenveagh National Park on 1st August 2006 (D05) was Yellow Diagonal Bar. So sometime between early April 2006 and 1st August 2006, this female had abandoned this territory and its original male partner.

In 2007, Yellow 2 Spots bred with Blue 0, his new mate, and though two eggs were laid and incubated for the full term the eggs failed to hatch. In 2006, Blue 0 bred, as a four-year-old female, laying two eggs in a failed breeding attempt in an adjacent territory with Yellow Three Spots. Blue 0 and Yellow Three spots were seen together inside their 2006 territory (D02) on the 26th and 28th December 2006. On the 15th January 2007, this pair was again seen inside this territory while at the same time a third ‘single eagle’ was noted just across the territory boundary in an adjacent territory (D01).

But on 22nd March 2007, Blue 0 was seen in this new territory for the first time, though observations were very limited here in preceding weeks. It was seen perched and preening for 40 minutes near the old D01 eyrie in the company of Yellow Two Spots. So some time between 15th January and 22nd March 2007, this female had abandoned its old territory and original mate. It is known from all the original biometrics and the general observations of both birds post release that Yellow 2 spots was a bigger, stronger and more aggressive male than Yellow 3 Spots.

The female Blue 0 was seen on several subsequent occasions, usually carrying a full crop, near the old 2005 nest. The male bird was even seen carrying in a large prey item to the loafing female on the last day of March. By the 3rd April, Blue 0 was seen incubating in the old 2005 nest. The wing tags of both adults were read regularly and the female and male were both seen incubating up till the 26th May 2007 - 54 days after the first laying date. Incubation usually lasts approx 43 days. By the 31st May, the breeding attempt had been abandoned. A nest inspection revealed it contained two addled eggs.

There was no supplementary feeding, undue observer disturbance or any form of project management that could have influenced this turnover between the three territories, which all occurred between the 4th April 2006 and 23rd March 2007. Though Jeff Watson’s Golden Eagle monograph states that no confirmed changing between mates has ever been observed elsewhere among marked birds (prior to 1997), he puts this in the context of stable populations where few gaps occur. But the Irish situation is rather unique in that a population is being re-established through a reintroduction programme in suitable but unoccupied habitat.

Site: DO2
nest built 2005, 2 eggs laid 2006, single male on site 2007
Male: Yellow 3 Spots Female: None present during the breeding season
(Blue 0 present up till 15 January 2007 at least)
From: Glenfinnan, Lochaber 2001 From:

This pair was seen on site on several occasions in December 2006 and up to mid January 2007 (see D01 above) – but there was less mutual pair soaring than previous years. The male bird, identified by its wing tags, was seen near its old nest on 7 separate days between the 28th February and the 28th March 2007. It was also roosting in its usual spot near the 2006 nest, though no material had been added to this nest or two artificial eyries nearby.

This roost site had signs of constant occupancy still on the 19th September 2007 – though no birds were seen. The roost ledge contained the fresh remains from two Hares and the exposed skulls from two ‘smallish’ foxes, killed or scavenged over the summer.

Site: DO3
2 eggs laid 2006, nest with some fresh material 2007.
Male: Female:
From: From:

The male bird, Red S from the 2006 breeding pair was recovered dead on the 24/12/2006. Since then there have been some splashes and feathers found on ledges near the nest. On 7th February 2007, a radio signal from the original female (Red F) was picked up from outside the territory, to the south of Lough Veagh, Glenveagh.

A radio signal from a second year male bird, Orange 1, was picked up from within this territory on the 9th March 2007. This bird was noted outside this territory, approx 20 kilometres away, on the 1st March 2007. There were small bits of new greenery (woodrush and heather) and bits of eagle down in the nest on the 9th and 25th March though no fresh items were recorded on the 11th April or thereafter. No fresh material was added to an artificial eyrie erected in a quieter part of the territory. No birds were seen in this territory recently during 2007, though there has been one anecdotal record of a pair seen occasionally within this territory over the summer of 2007.

Site: DO4
pair present early 2006, single pair present throughout 2007
Male: Green O Female:
From: Skye From:

A pair of eagles (Blue 5 and Green N) was noted together several times in early January 2006. Unfortunately both radio transmitters were known to be loosing power or intermittent at the time. But there were no subsequent observations of these birds during the late spring of 2006.

On the 22 February 2007 a three year old male (Green O) was first noted by radio tracking in this territory. It was last previously noted flying in the Bluestack Mountain, some 25km away, on the 1st November 2006. On the 1st March this bird was again located by radio tracking and seen in the company of a second unidentified eagle. This bird did not seem to have an active radio transmitter – or at least no known radio frequency was identified. It was seen again on the 27th March, again with a second eagle without an active radio transmitter. Green O was displaying vigorously in front of the second bird. Despite cold searches of many of the potential nesting cliffs, no rudimentary nests were found. Green O was located by radio tracking in several other parts of the territory several times in April and May, and was noted roosting in different parts of the Home Range also during this time.

Green O was seen on its own inside this territory on the 5th December 2007.

Site: DO5
single male nest started 2006, 1 Chick fledged 2007
Male: Blue 3 Female: Yellow Diagonal Bar
From: Skye 2002 From: Assyant, Sutherland 2001

Blue 3 built a nest in Glenveagh National Park in 2006. On 1st August 2006, Blue 3 was spotted sitting next to a Yellow tagged female on the branch of a tree near the 2006 nest. Though the wing tags were not seen, it is presumed that these two birds were the pair seen flying together (with one bird carrying a stick) on the 14 October, on the 20 October and again on the 18 November 2007. On the 27th February 2007 Blue 3 was seen preening and roosting next to an artificial eyrie in Glenveagh. A Yellow tagged eagle, presumably Yellow Diagonal Bar, was seen foraging over the Glendowan Mountains in March 2007. Blue 3 was repeatedly seen alone inside the Home Range in Glenveagh during April. Indeed, it was only on the 27th April that this year’s nest was located. The pair was only seen once together, during the month of February and March, even though they were under our noses.

On the 27th April, Blue 3 was observed carrying a clump of Mollina grass. A subsequent search of its initial landing spot yielded a nest, with a young chick 1-2 days old alongside an egg. The very faint chipping of the chick drew me toward the hidden nest, though I genuinely considered whether I was merely imagining such a welcome sound in Ireland. The nest was in an ideal location under a prominent overhanging rock. The nest was rather small but nonetheless solid and dry.

The Female was identified as Yellow Diagonal Bar on the 1st May. This was the first conclusive observation of her wing tags since the 4th April 2006, showing how difficult it can be to read Golden Eagle wing tags away from a nest site or food dump.

On the 4th May, a nest visit confirmed that there were now 2 chicks in the nest. Unfortunately, on the 10th May it was found that only the older chick was alive and there was no sign of the younger chick, which had died sometime between 5 and 11 days of age. In the early stages of the project, because we are struggling to find sufficient donor stock, we will endeavour to maximise the productivity of each Irish breeding attempt in the future. We may achieve this by providing food at the nest or nesting area or by some form of manipulation of the second vulnerable chick – either by transferring the youngest chick (at 6 days old) into another eyrie with addled eggs or by rearing it through falconry techniques for up to 14 days before returning it to the eyrie.

Both adults were regularly seen near the nest site and they appeared to be very attentive. There was little in the way of disturbance of the nest site, apart from nest checks. Though on one occasion the noise from a passing Helicopter caused the female to abandon brooding the chick for several moments before returning to the nest.

There was no supplementary feeding of this pair prior to or during incubation. Though there was a concerted effort do ensure the survival of the chick through supplementary feeding until it fledged. Records from nest visits and a subsequent search of the nest area with Robin Read after the breeding season, indicated that this Golden Eagle pair supplied at least 10 hares, 2 badger cubs, 2 Red Grouse and a fox cub to the chicks during the nestling stage and early post fledging stage. A single blanched eggshell, from a gamebird or wader, was noted on the nest on the 20th May. Though this pair seems to be reliant on hares, the presence of a fox cub and two badger cubs may indicate a shortage of other more usual alternative prey items such as rabbits or crows. The eagle’s ability to predate two of Ireland’s predatory mammals would suggest that the local food chain might have a more natural balance going forward.

The chick fledged between the 8-12th July, at 75-79 days of age. The chick remained within 100 m of the nest until 20th July. By the 28th August it was seen flyng freely with the adult female with two of the recently released donor stock eagles in close company. By early October all four of the released eagles had left Glenveagh National Park, though no aggressive interaction between the released birds and the resident pair had been noted. The female chick reared in Glenveagh was still in Glenveagh and seen in the company of the adult female on the 14th November 2007 and again on the 7th December.

Apart from the five territories above, there were signs that three other territories may become established in future years. The records below are sparse, but it must be emphasised that the observation effort in these areas has been minimal to date.

Potential Eagle Territories:
Six On the 1st May 2007 an observer saw two Golden Eagles soaring together in a suitable upland area in Donegal. A single Red tagged eagle was noted in the same vicinity in Sept. 2006.

Seven A pair of eagles was seen together in another part of Donegal in May and June 2007. This pair had been noted in three separate parts of a potential territory, by three separate observers, either soaring together or apparently hunting myxomatosis rabbits.

Eight On a single day a pair of Golden Eagles was seen high soaring together in a suitable upland area of County Galway in late May 2007.

Release Programme
Four young birds were collected from Scotland with the support of the Scottish Raptor Study Groups, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, eagle watchers, landowners and gamekeepers in June. The four birds were collected from Cowal, Uists, Badenoch and Skye. We are also grateful to the Highland Wildlife Foundation who provided temporary holding facilities and organised the animal health certificates. We have now released 50 birds over the 7-year programme. Our original target was to collect up to 75 birds and the majority of advice we have received suggests this is still necessary in order to establish a viable Irish Golden Eagle population. We have found it increasingly difficult to locate a sufficient number of broods of two at 5-7 weeks of age and will in future attempt to collect birds at 4-6 weeks of age and also examine other ways of maximising the number of donor stock collected under the Scottish Natural Heritage export licence.

The four young birds (3 males and 1 female) were tagged on the 14th August and released on the 15th August 2007. The birds were fitted with a sky blue tag on the left wing and a yellow tag on the right wing. The Sky blue colour denotes its origin as a Donegal bird and the yellow tag on the right wing denotes its birth year (2007) and the there will be another colour used in 2008. It may be several years before we are required to adopt another colour for birds reared outside of Donegal. But the initial method of using the same wing tag colour on both wings had at this stage used up the best primary colours over the preceding 6 years, hence the change in the tagging colour system.

All four birds were identified at the food dumps in Glenveagh during August and September. On the 12th November, BY04 was spotted near Limavady, Northern Ireland (just across the River Foyle from Donegal) and was there up till the 20th November at least.

Satellite Tagged Eagles
The satellite tagged programme, though expensive, has proved very worthwhile. The loss of Orange 3 (probably due to poisoning) may have gone unnoticed with conventional radio tracking. Subsequent discussions with local landowners suggested a farmer trying to poison crows legally might have poisoned it unintentionally. We now believe we have an agreement with the farmer that poison will be no longer be used on meat baits and observations this year would indicate that other local birds have been unmolested.

Orange 4 has continued to provide reliable tracking data throughout 2006 and 2007. The Map below shows how extensive its movements were, covering several counties in the Northwest including Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo and Mayo. It had a marked preference for areas around Mayo National Park and the Sperrin Mountains. There have only been two confirmed sightings of Orange 4, by National Parks and Wildlife Service Conservation rangers despite a lot of effort. This confirms that immature Golden Eagles can be inconspicuous. Orange 4 was lasted noted, before its satellite battery depleted as expected, in the south Derryveagh Mountains (near Glenveagh) in April 2007 but has not been visually identified since then.

Public Viewing
Due to the location of this year’s Golden Eagle nest it was unfortunately unsuitable for public viewing. But the birds themselves are regularly seen above the main track at the SE end of Lough Veagh. In time it is hoped that a CCTV system will be established at an occupied nest in order to relay pictures back to Glenveagh Castle and/or the Visitor Centre. However, such young birds can routinely change eyries in their initial breeding years thus possibly thwarting any effort to install cameras on the ‘correct’ nest during the pre-season. But the Project Steering Group has agreed to set up such a system as soon as possible

Ministerial Visit
The Newly appointed Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, John Gormley T.D. visited Glenveagh National Park to see the Captive Golden Eagles on the 20th July 2007. Regional management from the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Golden Eagle Trust Limited accompanied the Minister to see the eagles. We were very reassured and grateful for his personnel support for the project.

Media interest
There was an enourmous amount of interest in the announcement of Donegal’s First Golden Eagle chick in almost 100 years. And while there had been chicks reared in County Antrim in the 1950s, many press articles suggested it was the first chick in Ireland in over 100 years, which was factually misleading. However the pictures of the Chick and egg received prominent coverage in most of the national and local papers, on local and National news and on national TV. There was equal interest in the news from all major media outlets in Northern Ireland and in several Scottish media also. Indeed a search of the web shows how this news story travelled across the Globe from the USA and Canada to Australia and countries such as Germany.

Some people ask why the project has put so much emphasis on collaboration with farmers and the tourism sector, education and publicity? Well as a predator, the survival rate may be primarily influenced by the attitude of the local populace toward the project. We have always maintained that Golden Eagle will always pose a slight threat to sickly or newborn lambs; they could lift the odd chicken. If local people were to target Golden Eagles because of these minimal threats, then the project would fail. But if people (farmers, the tourist sector, schoolchildren and their parents) consider that eagles are an important aspect of the Donegal landscape and bring local economic benefit, they may be inclined to accept that the loss of several score euros (the odd lamb or chicken) is offset by attracting increased tourism spend and raising the profile of Donegal generally.

Young birds are naïve and often behave in a more confiding way than the more circumspect adults. We believe that Golden Eagles may have killed two lambs and a guinea fowl over the last seven years. But we also know that they have killed and eaten Badger cubs, Foxes, Ravens and Hooded Crows. Indeed farmers in several parts of the Bluestack Mountains have suggested that the arrival of Golden Eagles has considerably thinned out the number of Hooded Crows in certain areas.

We believe that we have lost at least two birds to persecution and we suspect several more eagles could have been lost to similar causes. In County Mayo a farmer who laid out a dead lamb on the hill in order to shoot scavenging Hooded Crows and Ravens, reportedly told colleagues he also shot a large bird with a pooch on it back – we suspect he may have shot a Golden Eagle with a radio back pack. Another farmer in Donegal is believed to have inadvertently poisoned an eagle while trying to legally poison crows. Though we never actually recovered the corpse of this satellite tagged eagle on the hillside, the location, timing and local information suggests it had been feeding in a field with poisoned baits the day it died.

However these incidents must be set alongside other more widespread support for the eagles in Donegal. The Golden Eagle Project Steering Group would like to pay special tribute to the Donegal IFA. Their public support for the project, notwithstanding several anxieties they hold, laid the foundation for the ongoing progress of this project. It is also only fair to relate two very pertinent anecdotes regarding the importance of the general public attitude toward eagles. Several years ago a poacher shot and killed a Red Deer hind in the Derryveagh Mountains and proceeded to remove the two hindquarters late that evening. The following morning he returned to collect the less valuable front quarters. As he approached the carcass he saw an eagle feeding on the remains and decided to approach the carcass as though stalking a live deer. He managed to get quite close and watched the eagle busily feeding, through the sights of his rifle, from within easy firing range. He told a neighbour how he decided not to shoot the eagle as he felt it rightly belonged in the mountains that he had roamed all his life. A second incident involving a man from a much younger generation, involved a gamekeeper in Northern Ireland, who chanced upon a naïve eagle on his patch one morning. Again the gamekeeper observed this eagle through the sights of his rifle. But this keeper was simply delighted to see such a large bird in his workplace, he simply read the eagle wing tag and made a deliberate effort to contact the Eagle project and we have met several times since then. These incidents clearly highlight the need to educate and garner support for eagles from as many people as possible; especially people beyond the core project area in central Donegal.

Shooting and poisoning are the two key threats to the survival of Golden Eagles on this island. Recreational and unintentional disturbance by birdwatchers may also likely be a potential threat to the outcome of some breeding attempts in the future. The poisoning of Hooded Crows and Magpies with Alphachloralose is still legal in the Republic of Ireland, under strict conditions that have been largely ignored over recent years. The Golden Eagle Steering Group, alongside the White-tailed Eagle and Red Kite Steering Groups, have being lobbying for a change in current legislation to ban the legal use of above ground meat baits in the Republic of Ireland. Some opinion suggests we look for a complete ban of poisoning, beyond rodent control, but we are very anxious to work alongside farmers and gun clubs in an effort to minimise the risk to scavenging birds of prey, protected mammals such as Pine Martens and indeed working sheep dogs and pets. In Britain a complete legal ban on poisoning is still undermined by illegal poisoning. Our dual goals are to; change attitudes and work with people who use poison in an effort to change or alter current practices, and to see all meat bait poisoning banned under the regulations.

The Golden Eagles released in Glenveagh National Park have been seen and tracked by radio in various counties during the year. You can help by reporting all sightings of Golden Eagles. All the released Golden Eagles carry coloured wing tags for identification of individuals. From 2001-2006 the wing tags on each wing were the same colour (including yellow, dark blue, red, green, orange and white in that order). In 2007, the four released birds and the Glenveagh chick were fitted with a sky blue tag on the left wing and a yellow tag on the right wing. All future Golden Eagles fitted with wing tags in Donegal will have a sky blue tag on their left wing identifying its Donegal origins. This year’s yellow tag, on the right wing, identifies it year of birth as 2007, and the 2008 birds will be fitted with dark blue tags on their right wing. Both tags will carry the same letter or number, either painted in black or white, identifying individual birds.

Please report any sighting of a Golden Eagle to the project manager as soon as possible, noting where possible the following:
- Wing tag colour on both wings
- Wing tag letter or number
- Time, date and location of sighting

You can contact the Project manager

By phone on 087 131077
Or by email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Or by post:
County Donegal.

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Last modified on Friday, 09 March 2012 10:33