It is one of the country’s top predators, with a 2.4-metre (8ft) wingspan and a preference for plucking fish from the ocean.
So a young sea eagle’s choice of landlocked Oxfordshire as its home is unexpected. More surprising still is that the bird has lived for four months almost completely unnoticed by the public close to the M40 and the commuter belt.
The eagle, known as G3-93, is one of six satellite-tracked specimens released on to the Isle of Wight last summer, when they became England’s first resident sea eagles, or white-tailed eagles, for 250 years.
“He thinks he’s a red kite,” said Steve Egerton-Read, a project officer for the reintroduction programme led by Forestry England and the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation. “Like all young birds, he tries to learn from other birds. In the absence of other eagles, he’s learning from red kites. He flies around picking up bits of dead stuff – dead rabbits, dead game birds.”
Scavenging carrion is normal for young sea eagles, which rarely learn to hunt live animals in their first year. According to Egerton-Read, G3-93 is living on private land where the bird is safe from persecution by humans.
“Oxfordshire is full of game shoots but there’s no ill-will towards it and the landowners are very pleased to have another exciting bird to add to their list,” he said. “I don’t have many concerns for their safety over southern England and there is much more food for them here than in Scotland.”
In six months since the six eagles’ reintroduction into England, their tags have revealed their contrasting fates. One bird died shortly after release during a prolonged wet spell. It has not yet had a postmortem to reveal its cause of death.
Another, named Culver, was tracked cruising over central London on a day-trip from the Isle of Wight. Unfortunately its tag failed and the bird is feared dead because it has not been spotted since.
Barely one in three young eagles survive to adulthood so to have four of six surviving into 2020 was a very positive start, Egerton-Read said.
Previous attempts to reintroduce sea eagles have been scuppered by fears they would terrorise pigs and lambs, but the current specimens appear to have melted into busy southern England. There have been relatively few reliable public sightings, although there was one unconfirmed report that an eagle devouring roadkill was narrowly missed by a lorry.
Three of the eagles remain on the Isle of Wight. G3-18, a female, returns every day to a feeding station to take the fish Egerton-Read puts out.
White-tailed eagles take five years to reach maturity, and even then may not breed successfully for another two or three years.
The project aims to release as many as 60 eagles in southern England over the next four years. The birds are taken as chicks from nests in Scotland, where there are now 150 pairs after the birds were reintroduced from Norway in the 1970s.
It took 30 years for the first chick to fledge in Scotland but Egerton-Read hopes the English reintroduction will be quicker. “If we’re lucky, by 2030 we might get eight to 10 breeding pairs,” he said.
Egerton-Read said the project would inform the public if the English eagles began appearing regularly at accessible sites so they could be watched and admired. They may become more visible in the summer when they become more active, soaring on thermals.
“I remember 20 years ago buzzards were a rare sight in this part of the world,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to the day people look up and go, ‘Oh, another eagle.’ That will be a success.”