A PAIR of white-tailed sea eagles who found love in East Clare are believed to be expecting chicks this month, making this the first confirmed breeding of the species in Ireland for 110 years.
The four-year-old male and three-year-old female have settled near Mountshannon. It forms the first documented nesting attempt for the species in Ireland in over 100 years.
The breeding pair was collected on the island of Frøya off the west coast of Norway and settled in the Mounshannon area in early 2011.
The lovebirds were released separately from Killarney National Park, County Kerry, in 2008 and in 2009 as part of the white-tailed sea eagle reintroduction programme, developed and funded by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in partnership with Golden Eagle Trust.
Although some pairs have established themselves in County Kerry in 2012, the nesting attempt in County Clare is the first known nesting since the reintroduction programme began.
Historically, the white-tailed sea eagle was once a respected and conspicuous part of the Irish landscape, before it was driven to extinction in the early 20th century.
It is understood nest building began in recent weeks with the birds spending much time in and around the nest site before laying eggs.
Speaking about the revelation, Dr Allan Mee, project manager for the Golden Eagle Trust said, “This is a truly momentous event for Clare and Ireland”.
“It seems a long time since we collected these birds as chicks from nests in the wild in Norway and to see them now nesting in the wild themselves in Ireland is the day we have all been waiting for. To see eagles back in Irish skies and now breeding in the wild after so long is wonderful.
“We had hopes that this pair might try and build a nest but because the birds are relatively young, we really didn’t expect them to breed,” Dr Mee explained.
He said the odds are stacked against young first-time breeders because they have no experience of nest-building, mating and caring for eggs and young. They have to get everything right to succeed, but in this instance he said, “So far, so good”.
The news of nesting white-tailed eagles has generated a lot of excitement in East Clare and is attracting the attention of many keen to see the birds. However, disturbance, particularly during the early stages of nesting when the birds are on eggs, would be detrimental to the pair’s success, according to Dr Mee.
“We are very conscious of the risk of disturbing the birds especially at this stage of nesting. Disturbance could result in the birds leaving the eggs unguarded for a period during which the eggs could be predated or be chilled or the birds could desert the site. We would caution people not to approach the nest area but instead avail of the unique opportunity to watch the nesting pair from nearby Mountshannon pier where a telescope or binoculars will be made available for viewing by the Golden Eagle Trust. Information on the birds, their ecology and conservation will be available. We would like to acknowledge the goodwill and assistance of Mountshannon Community Council, local angling, gun clubs and Clare County Council before and during the nesting period,” he said.
Commenting on the nesting, Shane Casey, biodiversity officer for Clare County Council said, “This is fantastic news for County Clare and reflects the outstanding landscape and biodiversity we have here that can attract such beautiful birds”.
“While it’s understandable that everyone will want to visit the area and have a look for themselves, it is important to remember that this is a very sensitive and critical time for the birds and, as such, we need to show some patience and responsibility and let nature take its course unhindered. We are all hopeful that this story ends in a chick but we must remember that this is already a success story and the first white-tailed eagle egg laid in Ireland in over a century was laid right here in County Clare,” Mr Casey warned.
In Norway, news of the nest was also greeted with delight. Norumm Myklebust of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA), one of the Norwegian partners in the reintroduction programme commented, “NINA is delighted to hear of the first breeding attempt of the white-tailed eagle in Ireland for 110 years and is proud to have co-operated”.
The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan added, “We are working hard in my department to protect and enhance our natural heritage and this development is a great boost. Already, the white-tailed eagles are a wonderful asset to tourism around Killarney and wider afield in Kerry and their spread will benefit business as well as giving joy to anglers and naturalists around the Shannon.”
Whatever the outcome of this nesting attempt, the signs are good for future breeding in the area and at a number of other sites across Ireland. Birds can live for 25 to 30 years and generally mate for life with adult pairs remaining within their home range throughout the year. First-time breeders, especially young birds, often fail at their first attempt. However, with the goodwill and support of local communities, the birds should have a bright future.
The public are also warned white-tailed eagles are a protected species and it is an offence under the Wildlife Act to willfully disturb birds at the nest during the breeding season.
One hundred white-tailed eagles have been released between 2007 and 2011 in Killarney National Park, 20 birds have been recovered dead and in that time the eagles have dispersed throughout Ireland and beyond. Many eagles have been reported from Northern Ireland and at least six birds have travelled to Scotland. One male that spent eight months away from Kerry in 2009 travelled over 2,000km to the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland before returning to Kerry. Immature white-tailed sea eagles may disperse over a wide area but once birds begin to mature and pair up at four to five years old, they establish territories along the coast and inland lakes where they are resident throughout their lifetime.