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White-tailed eagle chicks ready to make historic flight

ANY day now, two rather plump white-tailed eagle fledglings still with "feathers all stubby and brown" will take one last ungainly step to the furthest branch of an ash tree on an island on Lough Derg and take flight for the first time.

It will be a historic moment – the first white-tailed eagles hatched in Ireland in 110 years flying free – and tangible evidence that the ambitious conservation project to reintroduce the raptors to the Irish landscape has borne fruit.

And it will also be a triumph for the eagle chicks who have had to deal with a fly-away mother and a dad who has shown a marked reluctance to actually tend to his two offspring.

Mother left the nest and hasn't returned since shortly after a CCTV camera designed to protect them was set up some distance away from the nest on the island not far from Mountshannon, Co Clare. The camera was enough to spook the bird and she hasn't returned since but has been seen some distance away in good health.

Father is still hanging around, swooping spectacularly on the waters of Lough Derg taking wild brown trout that stray too near the surface in his powerful talons.

But he has stopped going to the nest and instead drops the freshly caught fish nearby.

So it has been up to the people from the Golden Eagle Trust who have been keeping the chicks fed – mostly with freshly caught mackerel.

Because there is no water available in the fork in the ash tree where the chicks were born, they are reliant on this fish not just for sustenance but also fluids, so the offerings have to be sea fresh.

Now there is a delicate balancing act to be achieved, according to Dr Allan Mee, the White-tailed Eagle Project manager: keeping the birds sustained while at the same time ensuring they are hungry enough to actually take the big leap into the unknown and fly off with dad to find their own food. They also have to be light enough to take wing.

These past few days, there has been a significant gathering of people at Mountshannon, watching the birds exercising their muscles in preparation for flight, but the warm spell hasn't encouraged them. A bit more wind would help them get airborne on their maiden flight.

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The parents were taken as chicks a few years ago from the Isle of Fraya off the west coast of Norway by the Golden Eagle Trust to provide stock for the reintroduction project. They were released in Co Kerry, and so have been claimed as "Kerry eagles" by Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan, who is an enthusiastic supporter of the raptor project. But the eagles flew across to Lough Derg, which is a rich fishing ground.

They laid eggs last year but those failed to hatch. This year there was joy when the nest-building, which started in January, led to the hatching of two healthy chicks, though their sex is as yet unknown.

"To get our first two chicks hatched into the wild will be fantastic," said Dr Mee.

He said that when the two adults responded badly to the nest camera, the Golden Eagle Trust was worried.

"We supply them with whole fish every few days. Hopefully when they fledge they will have the male right there and so when they leave the nest he will guide them around. He is actually catching more fish than he needs for himself," Dr Mee told the Sunday Independent.

Over the years of the reintroduction, 2007 to 2011, 100 birds were released. Of these, 27 were killed, 12 from poisoning. At the moment there are 20 birds who have formed 10 pairs, seven in Kerry, one pair in Cork, one pair in Clare and a further pair in Galway.

That means the prospects of further hatchings in Ireland next year are good.

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