Sunday 19 September 2021

Enormous Garden Tick

For more than a year I have been aware that seeing a White-tailed Eagle locally was now a possibility, due to the wanderlust exhibited by young birds from the Isle of Wight reintroduction scheme. A couple of times at least there has been a social media 'heads-up' along the West Dorset and East Devon coast, as satellite-tracked individuals have been noted heading this way, but thus far nil contact. I have wondered how I would feel about seeing one. Now I know...

At 14:20 yesterday afternoon I set off on a walk at West Bex. Normally this would be the whole afternoon gone, but for a variety of reasons I cut it short. It was really hot, there were very few birds, and I was still feeling a bit rough. The heat, stillness and blue sky got me thinking about comfy chairs, long cold drinks and a bit of back-garden skywatching. By 16:30 I was home.

From the cool, shaded spot with my back against the garden cabin I get a well-lit but fairly limited vista. Nearby roofs and trees cut out quite a lot of sky, but what's left is enough to keep an eye on quite easily and has provided plenty of decent birds. The weakest aspect of my position is the total blind spot behind me. Any bird that comes through the airspace hidden by the cabin is likely to be missed...unless the gulls go off. Our local gulls have been a life-saver many times, but they cannot always be relied upon. As we shall see...

A trickle of hirundines and a couple of distant local Buzzards were all I managed in the first 20 minutes or so. Honey Buzzard is very much bird of the moment right now, so both Common Buzzards triggered a mental reference to the relevant search image, which was still on my mind when the next bird went over.

Coincidentally I had just been viewing a Twitter photo of a dark juvenile Honey Buzzard which had been misidentified as a Common Buzzard, when a large shape flew from left to right over the garden. Its altitude seemed to be as low as the local Buzzards ever get, it was gliding rapidly and directly, and was going to be out of view over the treetops in just a few seconds. I hadn't picked it up until it was heading away, in fact I almost hadn't picked it up at all. Had its flight line been just a few metres different it would have gone behind me, unseen. As it was, I was struggling a bit. The underparts were in shadow, but I was sure they were dark. Where were the pale areas of a Common Buzzard? But the wing shape...? Definitely a bit arched, like a regular Buzzard, not the flat profile I imagined a Honey Buzzard would present.

All this talk of Buzzards gives away the telling fact that I simply had not got an accurate impression of the bird's size. With hindsight I can only surmise that its flight attitude and lack of company had hoodwinked me. Anyway, it sailed over the trees to my right and - thank goodness - began to bank left and rise slightly. At this point (and still thinking Buzzard) I could see it was entirely dark brown, and that the tail looked very unbuzzardy. It began a wide, slow loop...

No, not just slow. Ponderous! Strewth! This bird was huge! And, finally, I got there.

'Come out in the garden! Quick!'

'Why? What is it?'

'An eagle!'

[Sound of scurrying, gasping and dropping jaw...]

'It isn't...?!!'

Together we watched the beast circle a few times, low, beautifully lit, and no more than 3-400m away. Then it switched back in to 'motoring' mode and headed away in exactly the same fashion it had arrived: fast and direct.

I managed four bursts of photos, and there is just one minute and nine seconds between the first and the last...


Catching the sun absolutely perfectly

Probably my favourite shot. Like something taken on North Uist

And away it goes

At this point I became aware of some gulls alarming. Just four of them, up over our little estate, and a very half-hearted effort it was. There are low hills either side of our valley, bordering a band of habitation (where the gulls also reside) perhaps 300 or so metres wide. I reckon the eagle was across the estate so low and rapidly that the gulls didn't really notice the bird until it reached the farmland beyond us and began to circle. And it struck me how close I had been to missing it entirely...

Just a guess, but I reckon this would be the approximate flight-line, with the circle marking the spot where Erroneously I reported the bird as flying east. I always forget that our garden actually points SW.

Had that White-tailed Eagle not paused to inspect the local sheep for a potential meal (or to admire their fine, glossy fleece) I am pretty sure that the biggest garden tick I am ever likely to get would have slipped through unnoticed. Sobering.


  1. An unforgettable and fantastic episode in one's birding life there Gav.
    Of course, for the Eagle to count in the RSPB's garden bird count, it actually has to land within the confines of one's garden.
    But to be fair, having the carcase of a dead sheep on standby just in case, could cause all sorts of problems. Waiting a decade or three for the bird to appear being the least of them.

    1. Yes, it was quite a moment Ric! And, as always when a rare bird and I cross paths, I marvel at the series of small coincidences which lead to such an event. Serendipity.

      Assuming the Isle of Wight population grows, we can probably expect the chances of such an exciting encounter to increase too. I hope so.

  2. We're gonna need a bigger bird table, springs to mind. What a sighting and, as you say, what serendipity. Mind you, all bird sightings have a degree of fortune or misfortune about them, ships in the night and all that.

    1. Yes, exactly that Dave. As I wander about the local countryside I do sometimes wonder if I am unknowingly passing a hidden rarity. Or if a not-hidden one is passing me! 😄

  3. What a stunning garden encounter and so "out of the blue". With the success of the Isle of Wight re-introduction scheme, Kent certainly sees it's fair share of, radio tagged, Sea Eagles during the course of a year. I am well aware of a number of these birds which have passed over Thanet, thus possible garden sightings had I been looking in the right direction - at the right time!
    I can only imagine the adrenaline levels you experienced during that one minute & 9 seconds - what a bird! No doubt there will be some who dismiss these type of encounters as "plastic"? Whatever others think, nothing can replace the utter joy of "that moment"
    A Knepp White Stork or an Isle of Wight Sea Eagle over my garden, no one will diminish the thrill of that moment whatever they think. Great bird, superb post, well done - Dyl

    1. Thanks Dyl. The 'plastic' issue came to mind of course. But as you say, the joy of 'that moment' was not diminished at all by the knowledge of its origins. And my garden list grew accordingly! 😄