Nature Notes: Topping my bird list with the biggest of all – an eagle!

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By Stewart Sexton
Friday, 15th May 2020, 11:59 am
The first Swallow arrived back at Howick on March 10. Picture by Stewart Sexton
The first Swallow arrived back at Howick on March 10. Picture by Stewart Sexton

Even then, the vagaries of the online world can mean having the frustration of not being able to access some systems at apparently random times. When this happens, what else is there to do but head into the garden for some solace in the wildlife that shares our space every day.

Since the 20 th March I have been keeping a list of all the birds seen or heard from the garden. Note, the key word here is ‘from’, as you will see.

My garden is very rural and measures approximately 21m by 24m including the footprint of the house. This is a bit smaller than the average golf green or about two doubles tennis courts.

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Immature White-tailed Eagle flew over Howick on March 31. Picture by Stewart Sexton

Fortunately, from the back, I have a good view that extends a mile or more in several directions.

As you would imagine, the birds at our feeders started things off with visitors like Tree and House Sparrow, Woodpigeon, Jackdaw, Blue and Great Tits, Robins and Dunnocks etc all logged on day one. A Great spotted Woodpecker is a daily visitor to brighten things up. Outside the garden wall, I could see and hear two pairs of Grey Partridges, a Bullfinch and a flock of 10 Oystercatchers as they flew from the coast to the breeding grounds in the Cheviot valleys. The common garden birds soon lined up on demand.

By the 25 th March, a Buzzard soaring over woods to the west was new, but things were slowing down. It’s a game of diminishing returns, this garden listing, so I put in a little more effort on 26th March.

Up and out early, standing in the far corner of the garden peering through still leafless trees to a newly harrowed field I added Pied Wagtail, Yellowhammer, a pair of Lapwings and Great black backed Gull, then the fog rolled in and stopped play. This spot, on a later day, gave me visible Gannet and Kittiwake with heard only Sandwich Tern over the tiny patch of sea visible from home.

Hardly garden birds but for this process, they are within the rules so they count.

New species don’t just turn up during the day either. Late nights letting the dog out meant I could hear Tawny and Barn Owls, plus three proper garden firsts – Teal, Moorhen and Coot all calling clearly as they fly overhead in the darkness on migration to breeding areas further north.

However, it was on the 31 st March that the unbelievable happened. Normally during the five week days I am in an office 25 miles away so do not get the opportunity to see my local wildlife as often as now when a simple leg stretch for a tea break means I can stand in the garden. The fine weather over the last weeks has helped enormously in this too, but I was on my computer working when the phone rang on 31st.

Julie, a neighbour with a good knowledge of birds sounded excited on the phone. Then, I could not believe it when she said ‘Stewart, there’s an eagle over your house – NOW!’

If you imagine the next reaction in slow motion, like in a film, the phone was almost left hanging in mid-air as I grabbed my binoculars and camera ( always at hand) and ran outside. I frantically looked around but could not see anything? Something was definitely up with the local birds, they were silent and a few pigeons were flying rapidly away.

About 15 minutes passed, seeming like an eternity, then, from behind me I sensed something, it might have been a shadow or a sound that made me look up and there it was, only 50 feet up, gliding on massive outstretched wings, an immature White-tailed Eagle! I managed to rattle off a few shots as it glided straight west over a neighbour’s house and out of sight behind the pine plantation on the hill. Only 30 seconds of view, but what a view! A White-tailed Eagle, possibly from the increasing Scottish population, or even from Scandinavia, now on my garden list. Unbelievable.

Since then I have kept the list going. Summer migrants have arrived with Swallow, House Martin, Willow Warbler and Whitethroat on the list that now, on 6th May, stands at 79 species, but I can’t see me getting anything more exciting than that brief glimpse of our largest bird of prey.

It just shows, you have no idea what goes around while you are out. Keep an eye open, you might not see an eagle, but there will be birds and other wildlife near you that you would never have imagined.. Stay safe.