A bird of prey which was persecuted to extinction in Ireland is spreading its wings again following a programme to reintroduce them into the wild.
Three white-tailed sea eagles have been spotted flying over Lough Erne in County Fermanagh in recent weeks.
The sighting has boosted hopes that a breeding pair will establish a nest in the area in the future.
Lough Erne is an important habitat for a wide variety of bird species but sea eagles remain a rare sight.
‘Flying barn door’
RSPB conservation advisor Sarah McCaffrey was conducting a survey of breeding waders – including curlew, lapwing, redshank, and snipe – when her attention was drawn skywards.
“I could hear the gulls calling and mobbing the animal and turned around and could see this big bird with massive wingspan, roughly about two metres, soaring overhead,” she said.
“I thought: ‘This is fantastic, such a majestic bird in flight and so close as well.’
“And then when she landed on the fence post and I was able to capture a picture it was just incredible, a really, really lovely experience and just proof of how important Fermanagh is for wildlife.”
The white-tailed eagle is often called a “flying barn door” because of its size but this bird is still only a juvenile.
It was identified by the Golden Eagle Trust as a bird that fledged from a nest in Connemara in County Galway in 2016.
Another female called Cealtra – that fledged from Mount Shannon in County Clare in 2015 – has also been seen on Lough Erne, and there has also been a reported sighting of a mature male called Star in the same area.
Sarah McCaffrey said: “In the past they would have been persecuted to extinction but reintroduction programmes in Scotland and the Republic have been very successful.
“There’s around 40 breeding pairs in the UK at the moment and probably about 13 pairs in the Republic so its all very encouraging.
“(They’re) beautiful majestic birds to look at and it’s fantastic to see them in the county.”
However, they still face threats to their survival.
The remains of an eagle called Ingar which was released in Killarney National Park in 2011 by the Golden Eagle Trust were found near Lisnaskea in February 2015.
A breeding female in Connemara was found dead on a nest on 13 April 2015 which confirmed poisoning of a white-tailed eagle in Ireland since the reintroduction project began in 2007.
Despite a ban on poisons to control foxes and crows, their illegal use remains a threat to birds of prey.
Sarah McCaffrey said: “We don’t actually know if Ingar was poisoned. When his remains were recovered he was so badly decomposed, so we can’t really speculate if he was poisoned.
“It’s very important to get education out there to make people aware that these birds are a benefit to our habitat.
“They feed on carrion, things that have died, and their main food source is also fish.”
Sea eagles breed at about five years of age and Ms McCaffrey is hopeful that a male and female could set up a permanent presence on Lough Erne.
“We could well have them breeding it will take a wee while for these birds to reach maturity.
“Cealtra certainly seems to like the county, she’s been present for a long time so it would be great certainly if we did (have a breeding pair) in the near future.”