Webcam Spies on U.K.'s Rarest Bird of Prey

John Pickrell
for National Geographic News
June 30, 2003

White-tailed sea eagles are not the easiest birds to spot, especially when nesting in a secluded forest canopy miles deep in the protected forests of a sparsely populated Scottish island. But now, thanks to a Webcam powered by solar panels and an old car battery, birders world wide can follow the progress of one family of this spectacular bird of prey.

White-tailed sea eagles became extinct in Britain in 1918. They were re-introduced to Scotland from Norway 28 years ago. Today, there are just 25 pairs of sea eagles (Haliaeetus albicilla) in the whole of Britain.

Many of the birds nest on protected lands inaccessible to the public. The raptors prove an elusive sight for birders.

But a newly-installed Webcam is helping people to see these birds up close and in real time. The new Internet stars, which are nesting near Loch Frisa on the Isle of Mull off the west coast of Scotland, are mustering public support for the bird's conservation.

Off the Beaten Track

In past years, visitors could travel to the island to view the nesting pair from a bird blind located half a mile (0.8 kilometer) distant, according to David Sexton, the Mull officer with the Royal Society for the Protection of Bird's (RSPB). But this year, the birds surprised conservationists by selecting a nest site deep in the forest.

RSPB staff installed a digital camera to beam nest images back to visitors at the island's bird blind. "But once it was in place, it suddenly struck me that we might be able to use it as a Webcam too," said Sexton. While the chicks hatched in April, RSPB workers, concerned about disturbing the hatchlings, waited until several weeks ago to install the camera. Images from the nest site debuted on the web in mid-June.

Solar panels and a car battery power the Webcam's pencil-sized camera and antenna. The effort marks the first time an occupied wild nest of white-tailed sea eagles have been broadcast via the Internet. The nest is home to two young eagles, expected to leave the nest by mid-July.

The initiative is sponsored by the RSPB, The Forestry Commission Scotland, conservation body Scottish Natural Heritage, and the Mull and Iona Community Trust.

Driven to Extinction

White-tailed sea eagles, which have a wingspan of up to eight feet (two and a half meters) across, were once common in the United Kingdom. They were driven to extinction in 1918. Today, an estimated 8,500 to 11,000 pairs are thought to exist worldwide, sparsely distributed from Greenland to Siberia. Habitat loss, pollution, and persecution by humans in many regions threaten existing bird populations.

"A lot of our native predators were driven to, or near, extinction, [by landowners and farmers] in Victorian times," said Richard Evans, a rural policy officer and sea eagle expert with RSPB Scotland in Edinburgh. Sea eagles are less wary of people than other birds of prey, Evans said. That, together with the fact that the birds feed on easy-to-poison carrion and will nest in populated coastal regions, contributed to their demise, he said.

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