My Early Eagling Days

It all began with an impromptu announcement on my way home from school back in the early stages of 2007. We rounded the corner turn-off for Tomies woods on the Western side of Killarney National Park towards home on the outskirts of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks when something incredible happened; I heard that the White-Tailed Eagle was to be reintroduced back into Kerry after a century long absence thanks to our ancestors’ actions. To add even more interest to the announcement, Killarney had been chosen to facilitate the release of 100 young Eagles into Kerry skies over a five year period starting in 2007 and culminating in 2011.

Eagles are iconic birds and you’ll never come across someone who hasn’t heard of them. My first memory involving Eagles is of a rather weak April fool’s joke from in and around my senior infants’ years in primary school. It was heavily overused but always resulted in a reaction. Someone would shout “eagle!” pointing towards the nearest window always attracting the notice of those paying attention but alas there were no eagles then. Roll on almost a decade later, the fictional was to become physical, little did we know back then!

A 2008 bird perched and surrounded by the invasive Rhododendron. (Photo by Sean O'Callaghan)
A 2008 bird perched and surrounded by the invasive Rhododendron. (Photo by Sean O’Callaghan)

Upon hearing the planned reintroduction was to take place in my homeland, my mind became infatuated with visions of a large dark bird descending onto an unfortunate roadkill victim on the very bend we took on the way home from school that day, having been placed there by a comment made by one of the radio presenters on the likelihood that the eagles may feed on the carrion provided in roadkill, as elsewhere within their range in Europe, and of the negative implications this food source may bring upon such a large, hungry raptor. To be honest, I could not picture what a White-Tailed Eagle looked like despite observing one fly from one side of its enclosure to the other in a large rectangular aviary specifically built for two eagles in Fota wildlife park, which I had visited by chance as a means of celebrating my first holy communion. Hardly a fitting home for such a large bird. Even though you were guaranteed to see the eagles I don’t recall ever having any clear views of the bird as it flew from one side of the pen, landing briefly before returning to opposite side in which it had come from.

The official return of the White-Tailed Eagle during the summer of 2007 was not welcomed by everyone. When the birds were brought out of their own private plane flown direct from Norway they were greeted by the media’s cameras and the placards of local farmers stating their position against the reintroduction of the eagles. Some signs read “EAGLE OUT“, “Sheep farmers need support not Eagles” and so on while proudly displaying a lovely portrait image of a Golden Eagle (the mountainous based eagle species which was reintroduced to the hills of Donegal in 2001, someone hadn’t used Google images correctly). Hardly the reception one would like for these amazing birds but it was a time of biased and unsubstantiated statements from those who knew no better.

The months ticked on and following an amazing holiday to the Ontario region of Canada, we returned home on a Wednesday at the start of August to see that the first few eagles, from the first cohort of fifteen chicks, had been released on the day we had returned home.

You may think I would have jumped at the opportunity to head out into the wilds of the National Park in search of a very large bird but I didn’t, initially. Partly because I remember myself being pretty lazy at the time but also because I didn’t know where to look.

On a Tuesday in the following month of September, my new secondary school decided to shut its doors at about twelve o’clock for their first staff meeting. This provided me with an opportunity to seize. I don’t remember how or when it was decided but the decision was made to go out on the lake to look for the eagles. I even roped my aunt in, who isn’t too fond of water nowadays (possibly because of the eagle expeditions), to go in search of the birds but she picked up my target species name wrong as she reckoned I was looking of “seagulls” not Sea Eagles.

After departing Ross castle on Ross Island we reached Tomies mountains shoreline having crossed Killarney’s largest lake, Lough Leane, after about a half an hour. It was decided with the boatman that we would do a patrol of the mountains shoreline as the young eagles had been spotted consistently along the watercourse since their release a month prior. After passing the Royal Oak and rounding a corner, burnt island veered into view. As the boat approached carefully due to the high number of large rocks lying just below the water’s surface, all of a sudden the mountain erupted into life, with well over a hundred woodpigeons amongst others taking to the skies. The cause of the consternation? An eagle had taken off from the island upon our approach! This was my first ever encounter with a wild eagle as it soared effortlessly against the glazed background of Tomies mountain displaying a variety of brown colouration across its body. Becoming backlit as it ascended higher than the mountains outline in the near distance beyond. After a few minutes the eagle disappeared over a nearby ridge making a hastily retreat after being spooked by our presence, and the mountain returned to normality. The eagle’s had returned!

We had gotten far more from our monies worth than if it were a seagull trip!

A 2010 bird souring. (Photo by Sean o'Callaghan)
A 2010 bird soaring. (Photo by Sean O’Callaghan)

This single sighting sparked my fascination with these amazing birds of prey. In subsequent years I spent the summers of 2008 and 2009 along Tomies shoreline, camera in hand and scope on tripod to locate the eagles who each year used the same dead trees, boulders and open vantage points as they provided each batch of released eagles with the best perches around. 2009 was a particularly wet year but never the less I spent many hours looking and waiting for the eagles through dark clouds of midges descending upon me (to which I built up a particular distain for these minute insects) and on some occasions the eagles even approached my location while I remained still. I used both natural and human ques to identify the presence of a nearby eagle, whether it be the incessant calls of a corvid harassing an immature bird or simply someone standing upright with interest on a lake boat before proceeding to point at the shoreline. You build up very valuable knowledge in the field which can pay off big time.

During the remaining four years of the project from 2008-11 I also went out by boat numerous times from Ross castle to capture images of the eagles much to the eventual annoyance of the local boatmen to whom I had become a particular bane during the tourism season. My go to line of “have you seen any eagles lately?” was met with far more dismissals than they were in the past, in an attempt to thwart my hopes, still I knew full well that they were around! But one of the most spectacular sights I have ever bear witness to was from the water on a Canadian canoe. It was 6am some Saturday morning in 2010. Setting out from Tomies West near the mouth of the river Laune myself and my father sneakily made our way along Tomies mountains shore without a sound across the mercury surfaced Lough Leane. Upon the arrival of my usual land based spot I counted no less than eight eagles around the same stretch of shoreline with five of them being perched in the same tree! Incredible stuff altogether.

After the last of the eagles were released in 2011 there came a period of little to no eagle activity in my life around Kerry. Thankfully it didn’t last long as I was recruited to monitor the Killarney pair of eagles along with one other in 2013 during each pair’s first breeding attempt. The sight of an adult White-Tailed Eagle will never leave you with a white tail purer than cloud, grey to pale head draping its broad shoulders coloured dark brown and equipped with a broad yellow beak, there’s no mistaking this incredible raptor once it’s reached maturity with anything else!

The National Parks resident male being harassed by a hooded crow in 2014. (Photo by Sean O'Callaghan)
The National Parks resident male being harassed by a hooded crow in 2014. (Photo by Sean O’Callaghan)

Sadly having successfully hatched Kerry’s first chick in a century within the National Park, the young bird subsequently perished thanks to that summer’s heatwave where the sticks at the front of the nest dried up and gave way collapsing while taking the chick down to the forest floor below. The 2014 breeding attempt was also thwarted by the weather as heavy rain on the days prior to the expected hatch date seemed to have affected the eggs temperature resulting in no hatched chicks for the second breeding attempt.

However this past Summer the Killarney White-Tailed Eagle pair did succeed in hatching their second chick and it went on the fledge which was an absolute privilege to be a part of (on the monitoring side of things) signalling the start of a lifecycle all over again for this enigmatic Irish Eagle species!

Killarney National Park's first fledged eagle chick in a hundred years last August! (Photo by Sean O'Callaghan)
Killarney National Park’s first fledged eagle chick in a hundred years last August! (Photo by Sean O’Callaghan)
About Sean O'Callaghan 1 Article
Sean is currently a second year student in GMIT studying Applied Freshwater and Marine biology. He has a keen interest in cetaceans and raptors and as such is involved with the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group and the Golden Eagle Trust locally. Since 2014 he has set up KerrysWildSide aimed at bringing the county's often overlooked wild side to the public’s eye.

2 Comments on My Early Eagling Days

  1. Thanks for the fascinating insight into these amazing birds Sean! It was great to hear the first chicks fledged this year. Hopefully the new Irish population will become well established and the birds stay clear of any danger.

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