White-tailed Eagles & Long-eared Owls

The White-tailed Eagle was originally native to the UK but the species was persecuted to extinction by the early 20th century. Fortunately, a reintroduction scheme started on Rhum in the 1970’s using young birds brought in from Scandinavia has been successful in creating a new breeding population.

If you go to Scotland, particularly to the west coast, you may be lucky to see a White-tailed Eagle soaring in the sky or maybe fishing in one of the many sea lochs. The islands of Mull and Skye are particularly good places to visit to see this bird. However, sightings are generally a small speck in the far distance and not really good enough to fully appreciate this magnificent bird.

Early this year I went to the Hortobagy region of Hungary where there is also a good population of White-tailed Eagles. In several places they are provided with supplementary feeding in winter and special hides have been built that allow a much closer view. This offers an excellent photo opportunity that I was very happy to accept.

I arrived at the hide before 6:30am while it was still pitch dark and got comfortably installed while the guide pegged out some fish as bait to lure in the eagles. This was not your average RSPB hide. It had comfy padded seats, a heater (it was sub-zero outside!) and a toilet. Just as well since I was in there for the day and not allowed outside since that would scare off the eagles. Once everything was ready the guide drove away and left me to it. I just had to wait for some daylight and hopefully some eagles.

Dawn broke slowly from 7:30am onwards. It was a bit misty during the day but not too bad. First birds to arrive at the site were an enormous flock of Hooded Crows, with a few Rooks and Jackdaws, and immediately set about devouring the fish. I wondered if there would be any left for the eagles. The first eagle arrived some 45 minutes later but stayed some way out in the field. Gradually a few more birds arrived and only then did they move in on the baited area. On average the birds were about 10-30 metres away, with some birds coming as close as 3 metres. Just imagine the Whooper Swans at Martin Mere at feeding time to have an idea of the view. At the peak activity I counted 11 eagles in view at one time.

The eagles that came in were a mixture of adults and juveniles at various stages of maturity. They were generally quite peaceable and didn’t squabble much over the food. When a new eagle flew in the incumbent would give way and move off. The Hooded Crows were not much frightened by the presence of the eagles, and in fact their favourite pastime seemed to be to creep up on the eagles while they were feeding and pull their tail feathers. Around lunchtime a flock of Caspian Gulls moved in to scavenge but they were much more wary of the eagles and would scatter when one flew over.

By late afternoon the fish was eaten and all the birds dispersed before it got dark. Right on cue my guide arrived to rescue me and take me back to the centre. On reviewing the photos that evening I discovered that an Eastern Imperial Eagle had visited the site for a short period and I had got a couple of photos without realising it. Golden Eagles sometime visit the site as well but I couldn’t see any obvious “Goldies”.

Day 2 was a repeat of day 1 but at a different hide. Unfortunately it rained heavily for most of the day so fewer eagles came in and all the birds were looking very bedraggled. An added bonus was a few extra species present such as Grey Heron, Magpie and a pair of Ravens that came very close to the hide indeed.

Overall it was mission accomplished for the holiday. The weather could have been better but the views of the eagles were far better than I ever imagined. During the remainder of my stay in Hungary I visited hides targeting woodland species, but that’s another story!


An adult flying in. You can easily make out the white tail.


Showing the spread of the wings. They really are enormous!


The hooded crows were not particularly afraid of the eagles. This one seems to have high ambitions to steal the eagle's fish. I like the way that the eagle is staring down at the crow in amazement.


Trying to fly off with the bait. Luckily it was pegged down. The relative size of the eagles compared to crows and gulls can be clearly seen.


A close up of a fine adult.

On the morning of my final day in Hungary (see above) I was taken to visit a Long-eared Owl roost. There are a few known roosts locally in the UK, perhaps best known being at Marton Mere near Blackpool. Usually these roosts are way out in the countryside, only contain a very small number of birds (often 1 or 2), and the birds are well hidden in the deep cover in the trees or bushes making them difficult to find or see.

By way of contrast, this roost was in the middle of the local village. On a normal side street there was a stand of conifer and birch trees that contained probably 20-30 birds. Many were well in cover but also many were well out on full view, seemingly taking advantage of the god weather that had now arrived to do a spot of sunbathing. People were walking past under the trees and across the road someone was hammering metal on metal and making quite a din, but the owls never batted an eyelid and dozed on. Fortunately some were a bit more lively and I managed to capture their wonderful orange eyes in the photos.


Sitting in the sun.


Close up showing the orange eyes.


This one is quite alert with its ear tufts very erected.

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