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An eagle in the isles

A genuine sea eagle from Norway photographed on Unst on New Year's Day. Pic. Rob Brookes/Shetland Nature

by Brydon Thomason, Shetland Nature

Once a well-established native Shetland breeding species, a genuine Norwegian white-tailed eagle, or sea eagle, has been witnessed flying above Shetland’s north isles for more than three weeks.

Persecution and the rapid colonisation of Fulmars, led to the extinction of the erne (the Shetland for the species), over 100 years ago.

The last of the native Shetland population was shot in the north mainland in 1917, and was the last individual from the whole of Scotland.

Reintroduction programmes have now been running in Scotland successfully for many years in the west of Scotland, particularly in the western isles.

Birds that have been bred in Norway are released in Scotland, all of which are tagged or colour rung for monitoring and tracking purposes.

More recently birds reintroduced to north east Scotland have been fitted with transmitters so their movements can also be recorded.

We were very fortunate and excited to find one on Unst on 13 December. What a beautiful sight it was drifting in the voe over Baltasound on that calm and crisp frosty winter’s morning.

The sea eagle being mobbed. Pic. Rob Brookes/Shetland Nature

It flew in the voe being mobbed by local greater-black backed gulls and hooded crows, which were all dwarfed by its sheer bulk and eight foot wing span.

Again on Unst on Boxing Day it drifted north towards Saxa Vord, giving us a privileged view.

What was very interesting about this individual was that on both sightings it appeared not to be ‘wing tagged’. This led me to suspect it might well be a genuine vagrant from northern Europe.

Most records of immature birds reaching Shetland tend to be (or are at least presumed to be) of reintroduced individuals from Scottish schemes, however after another fabulous sighting of the bird up on Valla Field on Unst on New Year’s Day, my suspicions were confirmed when we were able to, not only be sure it lacked wing tags but more importantly (and by Robbie Brooks capturing these fantastic photographs) record the colour ring combination.

I was delighted when after emailing the images to various sources for confirmation on its origin, coordinator of the colour ringing project for northern Europe, Dr Bjorn Helander of The Swedish Museum for Natural History, replied within an hour almost as excited as I was with confirmation that it was indeed a Norwegian bird of authentic origin.

The colour combination also concluded it was rung as a chick in 2011 but without the actual ring numbers, specifics such as ringing locality could not be concluded. These colour combination were used on the entire Norwegian coast.

Any sighting of such a magnificent bird as a white-tailed eagle is sure to be exhilarating regardless of its origin or locality, but from a birder’s perspective to prove it to be ‘the real deal’ and a genuine vagrant sea eagle and not one that had been introduced, was very exciting indeed.

It is interesting to know that a bird from the Scottish reintroduction scheme that visited Shetland was actually found to be breeding back on the Norwegian coast.

Thanks to the reintroduction programmes, white-tailed eagle is once again becoming a common sight in certain parts of Scotland and with the on-going work and support of the RSPB and others they will hopefully continue to be so.

With the more recent stage of the programme being in north east Scotland it is quite likely that we may well see this supreme bird of prey more often in the isles.

You can read more of Shetland Nature’s sightings on their Facebook page at

General Election - 12 December 2019