Lough Derg eagles are going to soar again this summer. And they are attracting tourists in crazy numbers. Who knew?

White Tailed Sea Eagles. Who knew they would draw tourists and twitchers in such numbers? And these bird enthusiasts are bringing their wallets with them. Just in the trial period of a new viewing point for the birds, bird watchers threw down half a million euro for local economy. In fact, a visitor survey conducted last year found that 43% of people said the attraction was the primary factor influencing their decision to visit Mountshannon. LET’S GET SOME EAGLES IN EVERY CITY!

The white-tailed eagle’s Irish name is Iolar Mara (sea eagle). And it has long had a historic association with the island’s coast. It was re-introduced to Ireland in 2007, from Norwegian-caught eagles. Now every year, 15-20 young eagles are released into the Killarney National Park.

The species has a rich history in Ireland but became extinct in Ireland in the 1900s due to persecution from landowners, who felt they were stealing newborn livestock. The last pair bred on the coast of Mayo in 1912. And farmers still don’t like them. In 2007, a hundred local sheep farmers gathered at Kerry airport to protest the eagles’ arrival. Irish Farming Association Hill Committee chairman Mr O’Leary said he had no doubt the eagles would take lambs. Since their reintroduction seven eagles have been confirmed poisoned in County Kerry, two suspected of having been poisoned, and one shot. A 13th eagle released in Kerry was shot in Northern Ireland. But what farmers lose in lambing stock, tourism gains. More than 10,000 people flocked to the shores of Lough Derg between mid-July and September 2014 to catch a glimpse of the first successful breeding pair of White Tailed Sea Eagles in Ireland in 110 years.

Editorial Photographer, Limerick, Ireland , Munster

The Viewing and Information Point features telescopes and information and displays about the White Tailed Sea Eagles, regarded as Ireland’s largest and most spectacular breeding birds. The Mountshannon breeding pair of eagles, a seven-year-old male and six-year-old female, were originally collected as chicks on the island of Frøya off the west coast of Norway.

The birds were released in Killarney National Park before relocating to Lough Derg in 2011. The pair, named Saoirse and Caimin, created history in 2013 when they reared the first chicks to fly from a nest in Ireland in 110 years. The pair successfully hatched another chick in 2014 with the local community in Mountshannon expressing hope of another successful hatching this summer.

“Our trial opening in 2014 shows there is significant and genuine interest amongst the general public in these wonderful birds. People are especially fascinated by how and why the birds have settled and began to breed in Lough Derg. This project also demonstrates the potential in terms of tourism product development at this location,” said Congella McGuire, Clare Heritage Officer. Ms. McGuire noted that the visitor figures compare well to the Island of Mull in Scotland where White-tailed Sea Eagles watching has been popular for more than 10 years. A greater percentage of people came to Mountshannon (43%) specifically to see the Eagle pair than to the Island of Mull (23%) where eagle tourism brings in an estimated £5 million annually.

But why are these birds such a big deal? Well get a load of this.

-The white-tailed eagle is considered a close cousin of the bald eagle and occupies the same ecological niche, but in Eurasia. This is our bald eagle, people.

-The white-tailed eagle is a very large bird. It measures 66–94 cm in length with a 1.78–2.45 m wingspan. The wingspan is on average the largest of any eagle.

-Females are slightly larger than males.

-Some individuals have been found to live over 25 years, 21 years being the average.

-The largest population in Europe is found along the coast of Norway. The population in 2008 stood at 9,000–11,000 pairs.

-Virtually any fish found near the surface is potential prey for the white-tailed eagle. They occasionally kill and harass some land birds, white-tailed eagles usually target water-based birds as prey. Recently they are reported to have attacked and eaten great cormorants in the Baltic and in some cases destroyed whole colonies.

-When preying upon non-nesting birds, white-tailed eagles often fly towards a waterbird repeatedly, forcing it to dive again and again until the bird is exhausted and more easily caught. Very large prey such as swans may be dragged along the surface of the water to the shore to be consumed.

-Live mammals consumed have ranged in size from voles to lambs and deer calves, the latter likely around the same size as the record-sized deer carried by bald eagles in North America.

-White-tailed eagles are sexually mature at four to five years of age. They pair for life, though if one dies replacement can occur quickly. A bond is formed when a permanent home range is chosen.

-They have a characteristic aerial courtship display which culminates in the pair locking talons mid-air and whirling earthwards in series of spectacular cartwheels. White-tailed eagles are much more vocal than golden eagles, particularly during the breeding season and especially the male when near the eyrie. Calls can sometimes take the form of a duet between the pair.

-The nest is a huge edifice of sticks in a tree or on a coastal cliff. Being faithful to their territories, once they breed, nests are often reused, sometimes for decades by successive generations of birds; one nest in Iceland has been in use for over 150 years. In Scandinavia, trees have been known to collapse under the weight of enormous, long-established nests.

-White-tailed eagles, being apex predators, tend to experience bioaccumulation from environmental pollutants present in their prey; they also suffer intensive persecution by shepherds and gamekeepers who consider them (usually wrongly) a threat to their livestock and gamebirds.

-During the period 1800-1970, white-tailed eagles in most of Europe underwent dramatic declines and became extinct in many regions of western, central and southern Europe. Intense conservation actions led to recovery of many local populations. Since the 1980s, the European white-tailed eagle population has recovered steadily and is spreading back westward. A new threat from wind turbines is emerging with significant mortality occurring at the Smøla Windfarm in Norway.

– Studies of mitochondrial DNA in white-tailed eagles from north-central Europe have shown that the recovering European population has retained appreciable amounts of genetic diversity, implying low risk of inbreeding.

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