For thousands of years, white-tailed eagles roamed the endless skies of Scotland. These aerial hunters became deeply etched in Scottish myth. At the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, you can view thousand-year-old stone carvings depicting eagles with fish firmly grasped in their talons. Travel north to Orkney and you’ll see a Stone Age ruin known as the Tomb of the Eagles sitting atop the dramatic South Ronaldsay cliffs. When the ruin was first uncovered, the bones and talons of 14 white-tailed eagles were found among tools and 100 human skulls.

The white-tailed eagle, often called a sea eagle, is enormous. Its wingspan approaches two and a half metres and its body is nearly a metre in length, making it the world’s fourth largest eagle. It’s also a highly successful raptor thanks to broad wings, strong talons and a large beak. Ranging from Greenland through Siberia to Japan, it’s considered a species of least concern by the IUCN – although that status doesn’t hold true for the United Kingdom.

As Britain’s wild lands were transformed into pasture and farmland centuries ago, white-tailed eagles came to be considered a threat to livestock and game birds. Shepherds and landowners began a systematic extermination and by the early 1900s, the species had been entirely eliminated from the Scottish landscape.

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RSPB sea eagle expert Rhian Evans is the driving force behind eagle reintroductions along Scotland's eastern coast. Image: RSPB

But by 1975, attitudes began to change. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Europe’s largest conservation organization, began to reintroduce the species to western Scotland. RSPB officer David Sexton was there from the beginning and helped the first chick fledge into the Scottish wild. “They should absolutely be here. I know things have changed. People have changed and the landscape is different. But it is still very suitable for the birds to live here.” He adds: “We met all of the IUCN reintroduction guidelines. There are now over 80 nesting pairs on the west coast and that has led to an eagle tourism industry that brings in £5 million annually. But beyond that, there’s the spiritual side of it. We all feel better when we see an eagle soaring in the sky.”

Today, eagle reintroduction along Scotland’s eastern coast is in the hands of RSPB sea eagle expert Rhian Evans. “We have a 70% survival rate over a seven-year span. That’s very good for a reintroduction project when compared to similar efforts worldwide.” Evans was responsible for bringing the last of the white-tailed eagles to Scotland in 2012. RSPB worked with the Norwegian government and the Norwegian Ornithological Society in gathering young eagles for the reintroduction.

Unlike Britain, Norway has always been a relatively safe haven for the birds due to different land uses and a less populated landscape. To this day the birds continue to thrive in the wilds of Scandinavia. “It’s like nothing I’ve seen before,” recounts Evans. “It’s a fragmented coastline of fiord and forest. The scale is absolutely phenomenal. We collected chicks between six and eight weeks old from the nests that were sitting in Norwegian and Sitka spruce 12 metres above the ground or from steep, seaside cliffs. We only took one chick from nests that had two or more newborns in order not to upset the Norwegian eagle breeding cycle. We’re very grateful to Norway for basically gifting the birds to us to ensure the survival and the return of the species to the UK.”

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A Norwegian white-tailed eagle chick on its way to its new home in eastern Scotland. Image: RSPB

Upon arrival in Scotland, the chicks were transported to a secluded hilltop aviary outside of Perth. The north side of the structure is screened, offering the young eagles a panoramic forest view. The opposite wooden wall is peppered with small holes for observing the chicks and flapped doors where food is passed through. This design limits human contact and allows chicks to more easily adjust to the wild upon release. Evans and her team fed each chick a couple of pounds of raw fish, squirrel or deer meat daily for nearly two months. They also fitted the birds with VHF transmitters and lettered tags. Data collected from the electronic devices allows RSPB to track the released birds up to five years. When the project’s reintroduction phase concluded, 85 juveniles had been released in eastern Scotland, but the monitoring of these birds still continues.

In May last year, Evans got a call from an RSPB volunteer who had followed a radio signal to the top of a lodgepole pine about 30 feet high and had spotted two eagles among a maze of thick branches and twigs: it was the first eastern Scotland nest of white-tailed eagles in 200 years. “The parents were juveniles released in 2009,” explains Evans. “We called the female Turquoise One and the male Turquoise Z based on their wing tag designations. They were soon caring for a chick that we named White 1.”

White 1 left the perch about 12 weeks later. Before he did, Evans and a colleague scaled the lodgepole pine and entered the yard-wide nest while the parents were out on the hunt. “I lifted myself up into the nest really slowly,” recalls Evans. “White 1 looked at me and lay down. He was very calm. He weighed out at 4.1 kilos and measured about a half metre tall. Afterwards, we put wing tags and a ring on the juvenile so that birdwatchers will be able to identify him in the wild and report back to us.”

The team also fitted the bird with a small satellite tag weighing just 70 grams, about 1.5% of the chick’s weight. “It has a solar panel on top and is mounted in a harness worn by the bird. The satellite tag gives us a constant stream of data of where White 1 travels. It shows us where the bird goes between roosts, his daily movement and flight paths. That’s vital information for us to learn more about these birds in their new environment.”

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White 1 gets ringed and tagged. Image: RSPB

Since leaving the nest, White 1 has traveled more than 200 kilometers from his birthplace. He now faces the hazards all white-tailed eagles face in the 21st century: power lines, wind generators, and moving cars and trains. But there are also intentional threats. “The eagles face a number of problems including poisoning, trapping and shooting,” explains Bob Elliot, head of investigations for RSPB. “The poisoning is often undertaken by people who are working the land to produce surfaces for grouse and other game birds. They usually use Carbofuran, a nasty pesticide. A few granules can easily kill a human.” Egg collectors who steal eggs from the nest are also a problem, and such offences carry a maximum penalty of £5000 or six months in prison.

And there are other menaces, too. In 2012, Evans was following an eagle pair that appeared to be nesting deep in a gaming estate, kilometers from the nearest road. RSPB informed the estate of the nest and its desire to monitor it through the nesting season. A week later, Evans discovered that the tree had been cut down. Eagle nest sites are protected all year (they are also protected from being disturbed at roosts) under Scotland’s Wildlife and Countryside Act. Yet despite a police investigation, no one was charged in connection with the incident.

Evans wants to make clear that reintroductions are always carried out with both eagles and landowners in mind. “This isn’t an effort to simply toss out the chicks into the surrounding area. We have worked extensively with local groups to ensure a safe return for the eagles. Most land managers have been generally understanding.”

“The difference that we’re making in restoring what should be here … what rightfully should be here – that makes me very proud. We’re restoring the balance for the successful return of these amazing birds.”

To that end, RSPB and others have enacted programs to help farmers and landowners with the changing environment. White-tailed eagles are opportunistic and thrive on carrion as well as live game. To counter their impact on domestic livestock the Scottish Natural Heritage introduced a sea eagle management scheme. Farmers can receive grants up to £1500 annually to improve nutrition, which makes newly born lambs stronger and faster. They also fund the construction of plastic lambing tunnels that protect young lambs from harm in their vulnerable first days of life. Grants have also been offered for the purchase of scarecrows that inflate every 30 minutes to scare away the eagles.

“It is a bold thing to release white-tailed eagles in such a densely populated area like Fife,” says Evans. “We would not be able to do that without the support of the local stakeholders. Without that, this project would never have gone ahead.”

In April, Evans found 2014’s first nesting pair. She is expecting two or three nesting attempts by east coast eagles this year. The hope is that in ten years eagle density will be great enough to attract tourists and nature lovers to watch these sky giants fly over eastern Scotland just as they did two centuries ago. The Heritage Lottery Fund recently gave a grant to build an observation hide with educational displays. While White 1’s nest did not lend itself to eco-tourism, others in the future may be better suited to offering visitors a glimpse of the next eagle generation. There are also plans to offer beach tours so that tourists can watch the eagles hunt.

Rhian Evans glances back at the first nest one more time. “The difference that we’re making in restoring what should be here … what rightfully should be here – that makes me very proud. We’re restoring the balance for the successful return of these amazing birds.”

Header image: Yathin