Northern Ireland's Priority Species

Aquila chrysaetos – golden eagle

Aquila chrysaetos

Aquila chrysaetos (L.)
Family: Accipitridae

This huge, magnificent bird last nested in Northern Ireland at Fair Head, County Antrim in 1960, remaining in the area until 1962. Following this, occasional birds visited County Antrim, presumably from Scotland through the 1980s and 1990s. In 2001 the Golden Eagle Trust began a reintroduction programme in County Donegal using birds obtained from Scotland. These birds have now begun nesting in the “wild state”. Most birds which now visit Northern Ireland are likely to be wing-tagged or carry a radio transmitter. Untagged birds may be from birds now breeding in the wild or wanderers from Scotland. The Golden Eagle, like many large raptors, takes a number of years to reach maturity, adults are in essence uniformly dark brown with a golden cape over the head whereas immature birds display white patches at the base of the primary feathers and tail which also has a blackish terminal band. This species is on the Northern Ireland Priority list because it is a moderately declining breeder in Britain and Red Listed in Ireland because of the vulnerable small breeding population now established via the reintroduction project.

In brief

  • A scarce but now regular visitor to Northern Ireland. Birds from truly wild Scottish stock may still occur
  • Most commonly occurs in the uplands away from areas of habitation
  • Identified by large size, uniformity of plumage (adults). Soars with wings held in a shallow “V”
  • Does not breed in Northern Ireland but is classed as a declining breeder in the UK and Red listed in Ireland

Species description
Very large size compared even to Common Buzzard. In flight adults appear uniformly dark with long broad wings held in a shallow “V”. Immature birds have white patches on the wings at the base of the primaries, these decrease in size with age. The tail of young birds is white with a broad blackish terminal tail band.

Life cycle
Breeds in remote upland areas with the large nest of twigs lined with grasses, sited on a cliff ledge or in a tree. Between 1 and 3 dull white freckled eggs are laid. Incubation takes up to 45 days and fledging a further 70. In most cases only one chick is reared successfully. Following breeding adults and young birds will wander widely.

Similar species
Buzzards are commonly misidentified as Eagles but the Buzzard is much smaller and never has uniform brown plumage or white wing patches as seen in younger Golden Eagles. The White-tailed Eagle is larger than the Golden Eagle and has a very short pure white tail when adult. The wings are broader and this is further accentuated by the short tail. The White-tailed Eagle soars on flat wings or with he “hand” slightly raised.

How to see this species
Sightings remain erratic but regular sites are the North Antrim Hills and Rathlin Island. Listen to Flightline for recent reports. Alternatively visit Glenveagh National Park in County Donegal where the release programme is centred.

Current status
Rare visitor in ones and twos. Most birds will have emanated from the release programme so look out for wing tags or transmitters.

Why is this species a priority in Northern Ireland?

  • UK Amber List species because of the declining breeding population
  • Irish Red List species
  • May return to breed if the reintroduction programme is successful

Threats/Causes of decline

  • Illegal use of poisons is a major threat
  • Illegal shooting
  • Loss of open space
  • Vulnerable to power line and wind turbine strike

Conservation of this species

Current action
Large tracts of land in the areas most frequented are designated sites. If breeding reoccurred it is likely that a bespoke protection scheme would be instigated.

Proposed objectives/actions
None at present other than to monitor birds which occur through casual sightings and volunteer effort.

What you can do
Report any sightings of this species to NIBA online or at 028 91467408. Pass on wing tag information to the Golden Eagle Trust (see links below). Join RSPB or participate as a voluntary warden.

Further information

UK Birds of Conservation Concern

Birds of Conservation Concern Ireland

The Golden Eagle Trust

Press release following first breeding attempt in the wild in Donegal

RSPB Factsheet

BTO Factsheet

D’Arcy, G. (1999). Ireland’s Lost Birds. Four Courts Press.
Hutchinson, C.D. (1989). Birds in Ireland. Poyser.
Mullarney, K., Svensson, L., Zetterstrom, D. & Grant, P.J. (2009). 2nd Edition. Collins Bird Guide. Harper Collins, London.
Ruttledge, R.F. (1966). Ireland’s Birds. Witherby.

Text written by:
Allen & Mellon