The White-Tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) is the largest raptor resident in the U.K. From a distance they are easily mistaken for the Golden Eagle. However, the White-Tailed Eagle has a pale head and neck, and the adult birds have white tail feathers. This article covers a short background on the White-Tailed Eagle and its conservation status and useful information on some of the best places to see and photograph these beautiful birds.
Mankind’s Impact on the White-Tailed Eagle
The White-Tailed Eagle was hunted to extinction in the U.K. during the early part of the 20th century. It is illegal to kill or disturb these birds as they are protected under U.K. law, and they were reintroduced into some of their former strongholds. Despite this, the population has gradually reduced since re-introduction, and it is estimated that there are only around 300 or so breeding individuals left in the country.
WHITE-TAILED Eagle Diet
During the breeding season, they need up to 600g (circa 21 ounces) of food each day and will get this from hunting, stealing, and eating carrion. Their preferred diet is fish, and they can be seen gliding over the water and snatching fish from below the surface. They will also eat birds and mammals such as hares and rabbits. The White-Tailed Eagle has historically conflicted with farmers, as they believed the birds preyed on their livestock. Whilst the White-Tailed Eagle is known to eat lamb, it is predominantly carrion as opposed to through hunting. During the winter months, they are still prolific feeders, although their dietary requirement is about half that compared to during the breeding season.
These birds can be seen in mountainous areas, as well as in marine, coastal, and wetland environments.
Note that this map is for a rough illustration of animal distribution across the UK, whereby dark green indicates denser populations and lighter greens indicate progressively lower populations. For a more accurate illustration see JNCC data from references.
The White-Tailed Eagle patrols vast territories of land in search of food. Adults can breed at around 5-6 years of age and tend to favor nesting sites near to where they were brought up, and in proximity to other nesting pairs. This is one of the reasons that the expansion of their population density is very slow. A male and female will pair for life. The female lays two to three eggs which hatch after 38 days. Chicks can start to fend for themselves after about 6 weeks. The female takes on the majority of the responsibility for rearing young. In the wild, adults can live over 20 years.
Recognizable by their yellow beak, the aforementioned pale feathers on their head, and white feathers on their tail. Older birds also tend for their head feathers to become whiter. Mature birds stand at an impressive 70 to 90cm in height with a massive wingspan of 200 to 240cm. Mature males weigh in at up to 5kg whilst females can be up to 7kg in weight.
WHITE-TAILED EAGLE Natural Predators
Mature birds do not have any natural predators, however, their nests can be susceptible to other birds and mammals.
Where & When To Photograph
You can spot White-Tailed Eagles year-round as they patrol their territories, and if you are lucky they will circle your proximity as they search for food, or you will see them soaring low over the water. With so few left in the U.K. spotting these birds in the wild is a challenge, and a lot of the time comes down to a little luck. For the best chances, Scotland is where the majority of the population of White-Tailed Eagles reside, and coastal areas particularly in the highlands are a good bet. The Loch Druidibeg area is a good place for Eagle spotting, as it is a managed reserve by the RSPB. Mull is also a bit of a hot-spot, and there is even an eagle spotting center there!
If you want to guarantee to see these fantastic birds up close, then there are several licensed raptor sanctuaries across the U.K.
Camera & Settings
If you are spotting White-Tailed Eagles in the wild then as long a lens as you can cope with is going to better guarantee your chances of getting some action photos, and with most of the population in the U.K. being in Scotland, then you are often fighting for enough light, so as wide an aperture as you can afford is beneficial. I typically use something in the range of 600mm with a shutter speed between 1/1000s to 1/2000s depending on light conditions. This should better guarantee nice sharp images. If you are going to a sanctuary then a more modest lens of 100-200mm should suffice your needs with a shutter speed of about 1/500s.
Map distribution data and behavioral references based on JNCC data.
If you enjoyed this article, and are maybe interested in some of the photography, please check out my Eagle Gallery