White-tailed Eagle hunting in Cambridgeshire

A personal account by Bruce Martin

A message from John Oates during the late afternoon on Wednesday January 19th to say a White-tailed Eagle had been reported flying southwest along the Ouse Washes at Welney awoke a long held wish I have had to see one in Cambridgeshire.   The only information we had was that a visitor to the Welney Wildfowl Trust reserve had seen the bird at 2 pm from the Buxton hide sitting out on the washes.   It then flew southwest down the washes towards the Welney road and was lost from view. Aware that the White-tailed Eagle that had taken up residence in Norfolk since late December had moved on the previous day, we thought it highly probable that it was the same bird and decided to look for it on the Ouse Washes the following morning on the off chance that it came into Cambridgeshire.   We also informed Ian Barton, one of the wardens at the RSPB what we were doing.

John was the first to arrive having got up early to feed his new baby daughter Katy.   His timing was a bit out though; arriving at 7 am whilst it was still dark, but he did see nine Little Egrets fly out of their roost near the railway bridge as it became light.

I arrived just after 8 am, with my wife Gwen, and together we spent the next two hours searching.   There were plenty of birds to see, c500 Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff, Dunlin, Bewick’s Swan and plenty of duck, but not the bird we were looking for. We decided to split up and look else ware.   First I had to call at the Welney reserve on Bird Club business and John crossed the Welney road and went back down the west side of the washes.

It was while we were at Welney that I received a phone call at 10.30 am from an excited Ian Barton, (yes, he can get excited!), to say that the eagle had just flown south over the RSPB office at Welches Dam in the direction of Block Fen. A quick call to John and we were on our way.   We joined him at Mepal Bridge after a quick look at Block Fen. With no sign of the bird, it was anyone’s guess where it had gone.   We alerted some other Cambs birders and between us began scanning the washes and surrounding fields from Earith northwards.

I drove to the fisherman’s car park near Fortrey Hall and Gwen and I walked north towards the RSPB reserve whilst John walked north from Mepal Bridge.   Meanwhile Ian Barton headed south from Welches Dam. He met with us near the heronry having failed to find it, but then had to return back to Welches Dam.   It wasn’t long before John joined us together with James Cadbury and Owen Marks, the latter two arriving from Block Fen after checking that area again.   Still split between was it in the area or had it continued south, we were undecided what to do next.

But our indecisions quickly disappeared at 12.50 pm when John received a call from Jono Leadley who had just arrived at Mepal Bridge on his way to Welches Dam on business.   John looked back towards Jono and suddenly yelled into his phone “Look above you, look above you.“ His sharp eyes had picked out the bird flying over Jono’s head.   It continued towards us and the delight when this huge bird came flying along the middle of the washes will be a memory that I will cherish for a very long time. The wish I have had since seeing my first White-tailed Eagle in February 1984 at Brill in Buckinghamshire had been granted. The one sad note was that Gwen had gone back to the car and missed it!

But that is not the end of the story.   James was sure that the bird had dropped down behind trees further up the Washes and promptly went off to find it.   The rest of us, including Gwen who had now joined us, began the long trek, more slowly behind him.   Some 15 minutes later John received another phone call from Jono who was now nearing Welches Dam, he amazingly saw it fly past Purls Bridge just north of Welches Dam.

Later, James told us it had dropped down, but into an area where there was wildfowlers so wisely it didn’t stay.   John and I decided to drive the full circle back to where we started at the railway bridge again with the hope that we might relocate it, whilst Owen went home for something to eat.

In the meantime having heard the news, Richard Allison who had been looking near Earith, also had decided to make his way to the railway bridge.   On arrival at 1.55 pm he quickly found it perched in a tree on the far side of the Washes and phoned the news to us.   We arrived a short time later and had good, though distant views, and I am happy (and relieved) to say so did Gwen.

We watched it for 45 minutes before it flew off northeast back towards Welney where, we heard later, that it continued past the Wildfowl Trust at 3.05 pm and was seen heading towards Downham Market.

John Kemp, from the Welney WWT, who originally found the bird at Great Massingham in Norfolk on December 26th had told me earlier this morning that he was gutted not seeing it on his “patch” at Welney.   He did see it with us today near the railway bridge and made a quick dash back to Welney when it flew off.   I heard later that he that he stood near the bridge over the Hundredfoot and watched it fly past.   Another very happy man.

PS.   Fortunately many other Cambs birders caught up with it on Saturday 22nd when it made another brief visit across the border before leaving the area.


A personal account by Owen Marks

On the 19th January Monica and I had visited the Ouse washes at Oxlode oblivious of the fact that the eagle had been at Welney Wildfowl Trust earlier that afternoon until we saw an Email/Birdguides that evening.   On the morning of the 20th we decided to wait for some news.   I had just cleaned the car while Monica had gone to the hairdressers, and while I was rolling up the hose I noticed there was a message on my mobile from Monica as well as one on the answer phone.   Ian Barton had phoned her saying the eagle had passed their office flying SW at 10.30, but it wasn’t until 10.45 that I read the message.

I quickly changed and decided to go to Earith and then Chain Corner where I met Paul Harrington and Ian Clayton from RSPB Welches Dam.   They were looking across the washes but hadn’t seen anything. I decided to go to Sutton Gault and then through Chatteris to Block Fen Pits.   I had only been there a few moments when James Cadbury arrived. With no sign of the bird James said I think we ought to go to the washes.   On the way to the Fisherman’s car park by Fortrey’s Hall we passed John Oates, who was walking along the Old Bedford river bank.   At the car park, Bruce’s car was there and Gwen was on the footbridge over the river.   James and I met up with John and Bruce on the bank whilst Gwen went back to the car.   Although there were four pairs of eyes scanning the area we couldn’t see any large bird, though three foxes in a field near the heronry took our attention for a few moments.   We were standing together when Jono Leadley phoned from Mepal Bridge to ask John if he had seen anything.   At that moment John shouted ‘Look above your head’ whereupon Jono looked up and saw it.   The eagle was flying over the bridge towards us with a number of Corvids giving chase.   It drifted slightly across the washes in the strong SW wind at approximately 120 feet up and passed by us giving tremendous views.   It turned and dropped, its huge legs hanging down, behind some trees and out of sight, which must have been nearly opposite Common Wash hide.   Gwen was phoned but unfortunately missed it.   I tried to ring Mark Peck but unfortunately his phone number was unavailable.   Later we found out that he was in Cambridge all day – the eagle had probably passed right over his house at Sutton Gault!   I phoned Monica to say I had seen it and was coming home for something to eat.   Meanwhile James had almost got to Common Wash hide.   After a quick lunch we gave Colin Kirtland a call at 14.30 (apparently he was at Pymore already looking at it).   I then phoned Richard Allison – he said it was still just south of the railway bridge.

We got there just as Chris Martin having seen it was returning to his van.   He said it had just left and was flying up the washes back towards Norfolk.   We gave chase but got caught behind a small horse trailer and a slow car.   The horse trailer turned off, but we were forced to stay behind the car to the Welney causeway where we could see the eagle over the Wildfowl centre hide, but disappearing into the distance.   It continued on over the pylons towards Denver.   We could see John Kemp watching it at the Centre together with Paul and Ian who I had seen earlier.   We came home just in time for me to clean the car again for it was in a far worse state than before I had started cleaning it in the morning!

Note: - We had tried to see this bird in Norfolk on the afternoon of 12 January and tried again on the 16 January 2005 when we were lucky enough to refind it near Houghton Park.   Large number of gulls and corvids suddenly rose into the air as a very large bird flew through the trees, after a few minutes about 12 Mallard appeared making a hasty retreat and then the air was filled with gulls and corvids again, then the Eagle appeared over the top of the trees circling and flying around, it appeared once again then moved off.

There were probably 40 cars and occupants on the minor road trying to get a view of this magnificent bird.



Some reminisces of those birders who sent in emails to the Cambirds newsgroup

January 20th 2005. From John Oates.

The White-tailed Eagle left it's perch at c2.45 pm and was last seen heading north.   There have been subsequent reports from Norfolk.   After the 10.30 sighting it was next seen just before 1 pm when it was flying northeast over Jono Leadley at Mepal Bridge!   It was then seen flying past Purls Bridge (by Jono) and was relocated perched in a tree near the railway bridge by Richard Allison.   The biggest Cambs listers (Bruce Martin and Owen Marks) saw it - they don't miss much!   It looks like a juv to me - but I know they can be hard to age....  The highlights of a dawn start at the railway bridge were 9 Little Egrets, 500+ Blackwits and lots of swans.   But no Tundra Bean Geese.


January 20th 2005. From David Griffiths.

I've just got home from work and was blissfully ignorant of the eagle until now - does anyone know how far south along the Washes it got? Please not Earith :-(

I know that when JO and JL saw it at Mepal, it was around the road bridge, and may have come from Sutton Gault area (that would have been a goodie for the house list Mark!) - although it was missing for 2.5 hrs before that, so who knows!


January 20th 2005. From Mark Hawkes (regretting ever committing to friends!)

For the first time in many years, I made little effort to go for this, a 'Cambs mega'.   I had commitments to help a friend (I even had the day booked off in advance for once!), and half-way to Ouse Washes, decided my commitment to my friend should come first, so turned home again!   The irony - not only will I do the write-up for this bird in the systematic list for the Bulletin in a couple of months, but I will have to endure the same torture all over again next year, when I write the raptors section for the Cambs Bird Report!   It better come back this way soon.


January 20th 2005. From Ian Barton.

Just to add to the details already provided.   Paul Harrington and Ian Clayton spotted the eagle as it was approaching the centre; I was lucky enough to be close at hand to join the fun.   I watched the bird till it was well SW of the centre.   During this time I alerted 2 others and sent a duff email, with no direction, about it. nbsp; The bird was seen again at Welches Dam, as it travelled back NE, and gave me even better views as it circled around over the washes in front of Kingfisher Hide.   I also think it looked like a juvenile (bins only), very similar to a bird Kathleen and I saw at Burnham Overy Staithe on 28-10-97.


January 20th 2005. From Jono Leadley

To add my twopenneth on this fantastic bird, I was on the way to an event that the Wildlife Trust was holding at Welches Dam and thought I would stop in at Mepal Bridge to see if the eagle was around.   When I arrived at about 1 pm, I spotted John Oates Landrover, so gave him a ring to see if they had any luck.   He sounded a little disconsolate, as they had not had any sign of it.   He said they could see me by the bridge through their bins from their position further up the flood bank. Suddenly John's voice became slightly panicky, and he started babbling "look above you, look above you!".   I thought he was joking, but on looking up was staggered to see the eagle literally twenty metres above my head, flapping lazily up the river, with an entourage of crows!   I have seen a number of sea eagles, but I still find them breathtaking, especially at close range.   After these incredible views, the bird headed up and over John's head before disappearing to the NE.   Its progress could be tracked by the large flocks of birds getting up off the Washes in panic!   We drove round to Welches Dam, but as we got to Purls Bridge, there was the eagle, circling around over the wash!   It began heading north, and we watched it until it was out of view.   A truly memorable half hour of Cambs birding.   Thank Nokia for mobile phones and thanks John!


January 20th 2005. From Lee Evans

It was actually John Kemp, another WWT employee, Geoff Goater and myself that was watching the juvenile White-tailed Sea Eagle when it was last seen yesterday.   We watched it fly the entire length of the Welney Washes then veer off north-eastwards towards Downham Market.   I then kept on it as it disappeared to a dot (still being chased by many corvids) in Norfolk at 3.06 pm.


January 22nd 2005. From Mark Hawkes

Having connected with the impressive White-tailed Eagle today, I would just like to thank several observers for phone calls during the morning, including Jim Lawrence, Richard Patient and Owen Marks.   Hopefully now most Cambs birders will have connected with it, although it was only in the county for 2 hours today, having spent the afternoon (and yesterday afternoon) in Norfolk.   I last saw it flying north over Manea village heading back towards Welney (as we followed it by vehicle out of the county!) at 10.30 - could it be that we already have a 'cover' bird for the 2005 bird report?


January 23rd 2005. From Jim Lawrence

Finding the Eagle back in Cambs yesterday morning was a remarkable stroke of luck and the beginning of a memorable red letter day's birding where every bird we aimed to see fell in to place.   Duncan Coates and I set off for the Ouse Washes at dawn and made our way to Pymore Railway Bridge as this has a commanding view over the washes and was the location I knew Jono Leadley had seen the Eagle from on Thursday.   At 08:40, with the sun on our backs we looked out over the washes, more expectant of seeing the flock of Tundra Beans than the Eagle, which had last been seen at Welney at 4 pm the evening before.   Two Common Stonechats were active on the embankment beside me.   Duncan & I started scanning through the many duck and I casually asked him if he'd found any geese yet.   His coolest of cool responses was "no, but how would a White-tailed Eagle do"?   It was sitting directly in front of us on the mud!   Suppressing expletives - I immediately phoned the news out to the RBA Pager network and John Oates and then called Mark Hawkes and James Hanlon who I knew were each on route.   I ran back to the car to grab my cameras and, almost immediately, the first of a steady stream of Cambs birders started arriving, led by Simon Stirrup.   I scrambled to assemble my cameras on the bank and grabbed just a couple of images before the Eagle took flight and loped slowly off to the far side of the wash and perched in a distant tree just north of Stephen's Hide (the northern most hide) at the RSPB Welches Dam Reserve.   It remained here for about 25 minutes before flying south down the wash towards Welches Dam.   During this time about 25 birders joined us and 'connected.'    Throughout this time I seemed hardly off the phone - either updating news of its latest position or receiving 'incoming' from anxious Cambs listers trying to home in on Pymore Bridge.   At about 09:10 Mark H arrived and we watched the Eagle fly on down south to the Dam and then back north again.   As it passed the hides nearer the RSPB Centre we could see birders were present so they must have had stunning close flight views as it flew by.   We watched the Eagle until it flew over the bank and was lost to sight behind the bank.   At this point Mark received a call from Richard Patient to say it had just flown over the Ship Inn at Manea and had dropped down out of sight.    Richard soon relocated the bird perched in a conifer so we updated the pager again and all made our way round to Welches Dam to try our luck there.   On arrival we met up with about 50 relieved birders including Richard P, Stuart Elsom and James Hanlon who were watching the Eagle distantly.   It soon took flight again and slowly headed off north back to Norfolk at around 10:20.   So all in all yesterday, it was available in Cambs again for just an hour and forty minutes.


January 24th 2005. From Richard Patient.

Re the sighting over the AI yesterday.   Thought I ought to type a few words to give some background to this sighting following the earlier queries. On 23rd Jan I decided to drive up to the Peterborough area for a spot of birding. Having left the A1 I was driving along the A47 from the second roundabout towards Peterborough when I noticed a vast raptor flying towards me from the northeast. It was one of those all too rare occasions that there was no traffic behind me (thankfully!) and that there was also a convenient turning that I could pull into on the left.  Having seen c100 Sea Eagles in the past (every single one a gem and including this very bird the previous day at the Ouse Washes) and no other raptor larger than about Buzzard-size in nearly 30 years of local birding, it did not take a genius to realise what was flying towards me! I had stunning bins views for the couple of minutes or so that it was in view as it continued towards me, circled a couple of times but steadily made its way southwest, and I last saw it as it flapped ponderously over the A1 and passed over into Northants at Wansford. I spoke briefly to a friend from Northants yesterday, who informs me that the last record there was back in 1902, so even longer ago than the Cambs record previous to this individual! It will be most interesting to see where it pops up next. Certainly it is the kind of bird, which does not easily escape attention, so a farmer or dog walker may well be the next to see it.


January 26th 2005. From Steve Dudley

I hear that a White-tailed Eagle has been seen in Shropshire today - heading north. I think we can stop looking locally unless it retraces its steps.


January 26th 2005. From Brian Stone

This was at Venus Pool near Telford, which is a remarkably straight line (roughly west) plotted through its last known positions and would have taken it over Leicester, Tamworth and Cannock. It presumably headed more or less straight through on Sunday.