In early March 99 a pale morph Booted Eagle had been found in Southern Ireland and over the next few months it was seen on and off including a trip into Northern Ireland. It was the first to be recorded in Britain and Ireland, somewhat of a surprise given that its main breeding areas in Spain are only 500 miles away.
Several British Birders made the trip but were often disappointed as the eagle would regularly disappear for a few days at a time. The photographs showed that the bird had fairly heavy wear to the flight feathers and tail, some feathers even appearing to be snapped. This was considered strange for a species which is usually in pristine condition. The arrival date was also considered very early even for a Booted Eagle. These factors coupled with the revelation that Booted Eagles had been kept in captivity in Ireland to 1991 at least led several people to suggest that the bird could have escaped from captivity.
Other rumours suggested that the bird had first been seen in mid February and that the eagle may have arrived the previous autumn or maybe in January coinciding with a winter arrival of Cattle Egrets. In September a pale morph Booted Eagle was also seen briefly in Kent and then on Sunday 31st October another pale morph was located near Drift Reservoir in Cornwall.
The week leading up to the Cornish Booted Eagle I had been planning to go to Lea Valley with Roger Howell for the Paddyfield Warbler. Unfortunately, the warbler was last seen on the Thursday. The eagle was still present the following Thursday and so I spoke to Roger, he had provisionally arranged to go with Ian Lewis in Ian’s car. Terry Elborn and Ewan Brodie were also interested but Nick Hopper couldn’t go. James and Stan had already seen the eagle on the Sunday. Terry decided not to go and so a car load of 4 was arranged.
The eagle was still present in the Drift Reservoir area on Friday afternoon and so I set my alarm for 4.25am. I was picked up by Roger and Ewan outside the Acorn pub at 4.50am and we had left Ian’s house shortly after 5am. It made a pleasant change not doing the driving and I was fairly fresh when we arrived at the small car park at Drift at about 9.20am.
The car park and the surrounding narrow lanes were packed with birders and their cars. The favoured site for the Eagle was actually Tremethick Cross, about 1 mile away but viewing would be more difficult there and it was likely that the bird would venture within range of the reservoir.
After 20 minutes watching from the car park I suggested that we moved further up the road where the views were more panoramic. I joined Richard Baatsen and asked him how things were going, he replied that it would be better if he hadn’t just missed the first sighting of the eagle disappearing behind the nearby wood. Thinking that they’d kept that pretty quiet I quickly assembled my tripod and waited for the bird to reappear. Within minutes there were cries of there it is!
Sure enough a very striking Buzzard sized bird appeared over the tree tops, it was being mobbed by several crows. From below the primaries and secondaries were black (other than a pale wedge on the inner primaries) and the remaining underparts were strikingly pale.
The upperparts were just as attractive, the overall dark appearance being relieved by very obvious pale patches on the upper wing coverts (rather like Red Kite) large pale patches on the scapulars and mantle and a pale bar across the lower rump. The whole appearance was strongly pied.
The bird remained in view for 10 minutes or more usually drifting low down so that its colours could be seen clearly against the grass-field background. Occasionally it would almost land in the trees and it was constantly mobbed. Structurally it seemed longer winged than a Common Buzzard. Gradually it came closer, probably to within 150 yards and at 60x magnification gave some excellent views. Ian Lewington who was stood next to me seemed to be getting some pretty good video footage.
As it approached it began to gain height and then disappeared out of view behind us. We knew we wouldn’t get any better views and so we made our way back to the car. We had seen the bird at about 9.45am and apart from another sighting at 11am it wasn’t seen again that day. Consequently we saw many disgruntled birders during our stay in Cornwall, including Nigel Symes. I arrived home at about 7.20pm.
Several months later the eagle was accepted only on to category D of the British List and thus not countable. The main reasons given were 1. Damage to wings and tail may suggest captive origin. 2. Arrival date in Ireland in early March was perhaps a month too early. 3. Some Booted Eagles are kept in captivity.