In Austria, the Eagles Have Landed – Again

Under the watchful eye of the WWF’s Christian Pichler, the number of Seeadler is now growing slowly but surely

Björn, an expert from the World Wildlife Fund, tags a baby eagle | Photo: Christian Cummins

I’m in the March-Thaya wetlands on the Austro-Slovakian border. It’s the closest thing to the Heart of Borneo that I’m likely to find in Central Europe – and not just because of the giant mosquitoes that are treating me like a walking lunch buffet. These verdant swamp lands constitute arguably Austria’s most valuable and underappreciated nursery for biodiversity. And that’s why I’m at the foot of a white tree, a full 20 meters tall, looking up at a tangled-nest the size of a living-room sofa.

This is the home of Austria’s largest bird, the highly endangered White-Tailed Eagle.

The beautiful, big-beaked eagles, called Seeadler (lake eagle) in German, were considered extinct in Austria for over 5 decades. Their natural habitat had been decimated by human development; they had been poisoned, both accidently and intentionally, and even shot down by idiots with guns. But in 2001, a pair returned to breed and, under the watchful eye of Christian Pichler, who leads a WWF project to protect the species, the number of eagles is rising slowly but surely. Today I’m accompanying Christian on one of the most important days in the year for the project.

Usually, we’d leave the nesting area well alone because white-tailed eagles are acutely shy. But today a WWF expert, Björn, is going to climb up to the nest, and see if there are any young eagles inside. They would be a few weeks old now and robust enough to tolerate human contact, yet still too young to fly away. If Björn finds any adolescents, he’ll fit them with identification tags so that the conservationists can track their movement and development.

But fitting a ring on an eagle is easier said than done. The thin tree is already swaying slightly in the breeze and its lower reaches are totally devoid of branches. Faced with this challenge, Björn is staring up at the nest armed with an orange harness and a harpoon. He looks more like a green Last Action Hero than Sir David Attenborough. He aims the harpoon carefully and he fires a long rope over a hook high up in the tree, then checking that it is secure, he begins hauling himself painstakingly up towards the foliage above.

In the sky above the forest, we can see the Eagle parents, with wingspans of 2 meters, circling above, peering down on this bizarre orange-clad intruder. Björn is making slow progress, and it’s a nervous wait below on the ground as we swat away at the mosquitoes. White-tailed eagles have a low reproductive rate with the females laying only 1-2 eggs per year; and last year not a single bird was born in this area. After about 20 minutes, the WWF climber is scrambling up among the branches and foliage and then he half disappears into the nest. “There’s one up here!” he calls down, and re-emerges with a freshly-tagged adolescent bird looking fairly disgruntled in his arms.

So it’s been a good day for the Austrian white-tailed eagle – even if the man-handled youngster probably would not agree. But a careful tracking of the breed is vital for the eagle’s long-term survival. The reality of a “Protection Area” is sill only relative in Austria, sadly. Unbelievably, eagles are still shot down, although the WWF is at least partly consoled that a hunter has finally been prosecuted and fined for killing an eagle. They also die when they feed on carrion that has been poisoned by hunters. They die of lead poisoning when they eat carrion of animals that were shot with lead ammunition. And finally they fall victim to wind turbines, colliding with the deceptively fast arms of the swooshing blades.

Christian Pichler believes that alongside education campaigns and legal action against rogue hunters, the security of Austria’s white-tailed eagles lies in guaranteeing their habitat along the March-Thaya rivers. These 160 square kilometers of wetlands – dubbed the jungle of Central Europe – are home to 200 highly-endangered species. The dark swamps might not be as saleable on the tourist brochures as, say, the airy peaks of the Hohe Tauern.

But, make no mistake, this is some of Austria’s richest natural heritage.

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