By Brydon ThomasonMarch 4th 2022
Brydon Thomason

White-tailed eagles, also known as sea eagles, have been regular visitors to Shetland in recent years including one that spent this winter in Unst. Naturalist Brydon Thomason hopes the islands may again become home to breeding pairs of eagles...

It’s hard to put into words how exhilarating it is to have Europe’s largest bird of prey, glide overhead so close that it fills your frame.

That feeling of not knowing whether to capture the moment on camera, or go all in, lifting your binoculars instead to immerse yourself in the moment. Fortunately, on this occasion, I could do both as this juvenile white-tailed eagle circled and soared above.

With a wingspan of up 2.4m, this is a huge bird. Even at a range of a mile or more, alongside our local heavy weights, raven and great black-backed gull, this is a beast of a bird. Watching it soar up and down Loch of Cliff in Unst, where it has spent most of the past couple of months, it is tantalising to imagine that having not bred in Shetland for well over 100 years, there is a feeling that their return could well be imminent.

Optimistic this may sound yet similar events have occurred in Orkney where, after an absence of over 140 years a pair established a territory on Hoy in 2015 and bred successfully for several years. With birds being seen here with growing regularity, particularly in spring, it is widely recognised as a strong possibility that this magnificent bird of prey might once again recolonise. We have all the elements we know them to need, which once worked for them before, it is now just a matter of timing.

Eagles return

It is only in the past decade or so that records have increased from one or two individuals every other year, to as many as one or two here at any one time. Spring tends to be the season they occur the most as this is a time non-breeders will wander, potentially in search of new territory or pushed out of one already taken.

There is a tendency for these to be immature birds however adults have been recorded on several of the last few years – all we need now, is for two birds of the right age and sex and at the right time of year, and nature will hopefully take its course!

The eagles’ reintroduction in Scotland eventually became a great success. I say ‘eventually’ as the first attempt, was here in Shetland.

In 1968 four young eagles were released in Fair Isle. Although it may have not have been successful it was the beginning of what became a marvellous conservation success story, as much was learned from that first attempt.

It is tantalising to imagine that having not bred on Shetland for well over 100 years, there is a feeling that their return could well be imminent

Brydon Thomason

Interestingly many of the birds that are recorded here are birds from this long running programme, identified as such by colour rings or even wing tags. Eagles of Scandinavian origin have also been confirmed and probably many of those that are not rung are of that authentic origin. A bird that drifted over our garden in Unst one beautifully crisp and frosty December morning in 2011 was the first bird to make that connection.

This was a classic example of “citizen science” aided by the digital connectivity of the modern world. By reaching out to various ringing programmes in Scotland and Scandinavia, we got a “hit”, based in the bird’s colour rings. Dr Bjorn Helander of The Swedish Museum for Natural History, replied with confirmation that it was a Norwegian bird of authentic origin.

Known in Shetland dialect as “ern”, this is a species that was once very well known in Shetland. With written records dating back as early as 1615 the “sea eagle”, as they are also known was one of the first species ever recorded here. It is thought that there may have been as many as 20 breeding pairs across the islands. Place names still in use today still reference “eyries”, (the term used for an eagle nest site).

Eagles in Shetland folklore

But this was not a popular species. Eagles were very much regarded as a threat to livestock and sadly hunting and persecution eventually led to their extinction. An albino shot in North Mainland in 1916 was thought to be the last of the indigenous British breeding white-tailed eagles.

Of course, much more is now understood about their behaviour and ecology and indeed whether they are, or ever were, such a threat.

Infamous though eagles may well have been, they were also very familiar in Shetland folklore. The story of “The Eagle and The Baby” is one I remember being told as a child and read various accounts of since.

One of the Fetlar breeding pair was said to have snatched an infant from Unst, to their eyrie on the north cliffs of Fetlar. Legend had it that the baby, Mary Anderson was rescued by a young Fetlar man named Robert Nicolson, who scaled the cliffs to retrieve her from the nest and that they later married!

Intriguingly, the legendary Shetland naturalist, the late Bobby Tulloch of Yell, went as far as to research the genealogy of these names and found they checked out! Bobby was a childhood hero of mine and a huge inspiration, who was as renowned a storyteller as he was gifted naturalist, and I often wonder if it was his mischievous nature and sense of humour that urged him to write of it in that way. Either way, when I ever tell of “The Eagle and The Baby”, I always do so with Bobby’s addendum, as it adds one more layer to the tale, no matter what your conclusion might be.

Discover more about Shetland's winter wildlife highlights.