Northern Ireland

On the trail of the rare sea eagle in north Antrim

A rare sea eagle soars in the skies over north Antrim
Image caption A rare sea eagle soars in the skies over north Antrim

With a wing span of up to seven feet the sea eagle is a jumbo-sized bird.

Yet for all its intimidating presence its brown and white plumage is perfect camouflage here in north Antrim.

Our search for the rare eagle began in a deep wooded glen beyond Armoy but a signal from a radio transmitter fitted to the bird is weak.

Heading out towards the coast, the signal begins to get stronger and by early afternoon we are standing on high ground looking down on a neat farmyard fringed by high trees.

The steady rhythmic bleep of the transmitter suggests the eagle is very close now but only with binoculars and the experienced eyes of Marc Ruddock of the Raptor Study Group do we eventually distinguish the shape of the huge bird roosting on a tree less than 50 metres from a farmhouse.

The family confirms the eagle has been in the area for a few days now and they are clearly excited by the arrival of such a spectacular bird.

No threat

Out beyond the farmyard sheep are grazing contentedly in a field below the eagle's tree.

While this is is one of Europe's most densely-populated areas for sheep, local farmers seem to readily accept the Raptor Study Group's reassurances that the bird does not pose a threat to their flocks

Sea eagles feed on carrion, wildfowl and fish floating on the surface of a lough or the sea.

Up in the eagle tree things are stirring.

A mob of crows is trying to move the eagle on and eventually the giant bird tires of their bullying, stretches its wings, tips momentarily from the branch before turning sharply into the stiff breeze.

We walk out across the sheep-field looking skywards where the eagle is slowly soaring and swooping.

Far from flying off, the eagle comes directly overhead and looks down at us.

It is quite a moment to suddenly be in the beady eye of an eagle.

Uncomfortable

But now the crows are back, two tiny specks compared with the eagle but they seem intent on keeping up their campaign of harassment and intimidation.

Birds of prey will take crow chicks in the spring and early summer and so crows will not miss an opportunity to make life uncomfortable for an eagle.

But the real threat comes from trophy hunters who are thought to be responsible for the shooting of an eagle on Lough Neagh last year.

The evidence too, from County Kerry, is that poison laid for foxes and crows also poses a major risk.

But while there are clearly dangers, optimism is high that the sea eagle will make it here in north Antrim.

The young eagle we saw may not settle down and look for a mate for a year or two yet but the signs look good.

As we head back to the car the radio transmitter is bleeping softly.

Somewhere out there beyond the conifer-covered hill, an eagle is on the wing, surveying its new domain.