How eagles who took a wrong turning made 1999 a vintage year for the British twitcher

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It was the year of the eagles: majestic birds of prey visiting Britain for the first time were among the highlights of 1999 for bird-watchers.

It was the year of the eagles: majestic birds of prey visiting Britain for the first time were among the highlights of 1999 for bird-watchers.

A booted eagle and a short-toed eagle, neither of which had been seen before in the UK, turned up in the South-west in the autumn, attracting huge numbers of twitchers. Both are migratory hunters that winter in Africa, then journey to Europe over the Straits of Gibraltar - but breed no farther north than central France. Last year, both eagles seem to have migrated in the wrong direction.

The booted eagle appeared near Land's End in the last week of October. The short-toed eagle, a juvenile of a species whose main diet is snakes, was seen in the Scilly Isles for five days at the beginning of October, when thousands of twitchers made a successful trip to see it. "We've always expected we would get a booted eagle over here one day, but the short-toed eagle took everyone by surprise," said Mike Everett of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. "To get both in one autumn was absolutely fantastic."

Birders were also treated to the spectacle of several white-tailed eagles arriving on the East coast. Populations of this huge fish-eating eagle are now recovering along northern European coastlines after being severely depleted by pesticides in the Fifties and Sixties. They are visiting Britain in the winter in increasing numbers. Scotland has its own small but growing population, following the introduction of the species in the Inner Hebrides 15 years ago. Last year, 11 pairs bred, six successfully, raising 11 young between them.

Britain's most remarkable bird-breeding success, however, was with little egrets, snowy white members of the heron family. The birds have been gradually spreading north through France and in 1996 a pair bred for the first time in Britain on Brownsea Island, in Poole Harbour, Dorset.

In 1997, five pairs bred; in 1998, ten pairs; and last year the colony had increased to 14 pairs, which raised 22 young. There are thought to be other pairs breeding on estuaries in the South-west, and it is clear that little egrets are going to become well-established British birds. Other new species seen for the first time in Britain last year included two American birds, a short-billed dowticher (a wader), seen in Aberdeenshire and then on Teesside in September, and an American black tern seen in Somerset in September. With the two eagles, these take the official list of British birds from 554 to 558.

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