White-tailed eagle – Avian Icon returns to the Forests of Austria

White-tailed eagle – Conservation Programme funded and supported by the World Wildlife Fund Austria. [singlepic id=283w=314 h=235 float=left]

The White-tailed eagle is an impressive bird of prey and the fact that it can once again be observed in Austria is a result of the dedicated hard work of many individuals. The return of the White-tailed Eagle as a breeding bird in Austria is a remarkable success story of which we as conservationists are all very proud. Although the first proven breeding attempt for many decades occurred just twelve years ago in 1999, there are now estimated to be 13-15 breeding pairs, most of which are located in the eastern lowland areas of Austria. The aim of WWF is to work towards a viable and stable population of between 20-30 breeding pairs. Beginning in 1999 the WWF initiated a conservation strategy in Austria for the White-tailed eagle consisting of two separate phases. The first phase is to ensure for the total protection of the bird by a programme of monitoring and ringing. The second phase is to mount an anti poisoning campaign – titled “ Poison Beware!”.

History

The White-tailed Eagle in Austria was first mentioned in the year 1756. From the middle of the 19th century White-tailed Eagles in Austria were heavily persecuted.  Throughout the Second World War the population recovered with new territories being established resulting in many successful nests throughout this period. Following the increase of breeding pairs during the second world war records have revealed that the White-tailed Eagle continued to breed in Austria until the end of the 1950s. The last recorded breeding attempt took place in the Danube floodplains in 1959. Subsequently, the Austrian population collapsed once more resulting from a combination of intensified persecution together with the use of pesticides such as DDT, which caused eggshell thinning and breakage. By the mid-1970s only a few wintering White-tailed Eagles remained in Austria. Around this period, however, massive protection efforts in Austria commenced in an attempt to restore the White-tailed eagle as a breeding bird once more. The use of DDT is now prohibited in Austria.  The WWF Austria have also launched a campaign to prevent the illegal hunting of protected species by convincing the Austrian Conservation Authorities to provide funding to establish public exclusion zones around nesting sites throughout the breeding season.

The disturbance of nesting White-tailed eagles remains a big problem in Austria particularly outside national parks, military training areas and in private forests where White-tailed Eagle were offering some protection during the breeding season by their owners. However, as more pairs are now beginning to breed outsite these protected areas the need for  puplic exclusion zones surrounding occupied nesting sites becomes more important if these  nests are to remain un-disturbed. That is why WWF Austria wants to convince the nature conservation authorities to provide money, so that exclusion zones can be installed.

“Poison Beware!”

A rapid increase in the illegal use of poison began to occur in Austria during the 1990’s, prompting joint collaboration between the World Wildlife Fund Austria, BirdLife Austria and the animal rights NGO “Vier Pfoten“ to initiate the project titled “Poison Beware!”. The project aims are to raise public awareness of the illegal use of  pesticides, for example Carbofuran which was being used against both mammalian and avian predators illegally. The project also seeks to improve the prosecution of those individuals who use poison, while at the same time reduce the incidents of poisoning overall in Austria by improved detection. A major reason for the WWF’s involvement in the poisoning issue, was the fact that poisoned baits pose a serious threat to endangered raptors like White-tailed and Imperial Eagle – the populations of both species had just started to recover when the poisoning wave began to emerge, causing an unacceptable number of causalities among large raptors.

From 2004 onwards the project was financially supported by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Environment and conducted in close co-operation with the Austrian Hunters Association, the police, especially the Federal Criminal Police Office and the Criminal Offices of the federal states and the Raptor and Owl Rehabilitation Centre Haringsee. This close co-operation soon yielded positive results, leading quickly to a marked decline in the numbers of reported poisoning incidents being recorded. Disappointingly even today the problem is still not resolved, just a few months ago two Eastern Imperial Eagles died of Carbofuran poisoning. Moreover the project “Poison Beware!” deals with lead intoxication and illegal shooting of protected raptors. In the last two years, at least two White-tailed Eagles are known to have died as a direct consequence of ingestion of lead after eagles very probably scavenged on animal carcasses which had been shot.  The image of the dead female WTE used to illustrate this article died after ingesting lethal levels of lead; 6,9ppm of lead was found in the liver and 12,9ppm in the kidney. During this same period four additional White-tailed eagles were known to have been shot.[singlepic id=282w=314 h=235 float=left]

The project “Poison Beware!”on the one hand focuses on raising public awareness to the illegal use of poisons to kill protected fauna, in particular raptors. Of course the public at large are also being educated to these problems, but we also direct our efforts towards particular targeted groups. Veterinarians and local communities who live and work in the regions where White-tailed eagles over-winter are all kept informed with information of how they can help protect these birds. Just as important, hunters, conservation wardens and the police all belong to this list of specialised target groups.

WWF Austria has now produced a “Poison Beware!” manual. The manual contains detailed instructions of how people finding poisoned raptors and carnivores can report these incidents to the right authorities. This manual is distributed to more than 1000 veterinarians all over eastern Austria each year, while additional information is published on a service homepage for veterinarians. A poster containing information on poisoning issues is distributed to more than 200 communities located in the wintering areas of White-tailed eagles. These posters are then placed on official community information boards within each appropriate region. Instructions on how to report poisoning incidents are also published in the journal of the Austrian Hunters Association.  Articles on White-tailed eagles and the “Poison Beware –initiative” is sometimes published in the same journal. The “Poison Beware!”-project is also presented and discussed at information meetings for regional conservation wardens. After each major poisoning incident, joint press-releases by WWF and the Hunters Association are made. When there is a poisoning incident one person from WWF and one person from the Hunters Association together with the police examine the crime site and also scrutinize the surrounding area for any evidence of further baits and causalities that had gone undetected.

Four years ago there was a spectacular case which kept everyone busy for about one year. A White-tailed Eagle was shot in Bernhardsthal in December 2007. The incident was witnessed by a jogger running near by who was instantly able to notify the police and WWF of what he had just observed. The suspected perpetrator, who was a local serving policeman and also hunting official, was quickly identified and interviewed by colleagues from the police. He admitted he had shot the bird, but maintained that the bird he had shot had been a crow. When questioned further, the hunter was unable to produce the body of the crow he claimed to have shot. The police forensics team collected blood samples from the spot where the bird had been shot as well as from the car of one of the two suspects. Following the DNA analysis of the two samples collected the results confirmed that in both cases the samples were from a White-tailed eagle.

Following a further forensic examination of the same vehicle a third blood stain was subsequently discovered and analysed for its DNA content. The analysis proved this additional sample had originated from a second White-tailed eagle which had been killed previously. The hunter was consequently charged not only for having shot both eagles but also for “endangering an animal population in a larger area” ( Section 182 of the Austrian Criminal Code). The latter paragraph contained in Austrian legislation had never been applied under such circumstances in any Austrian court of Law. Had the additional charge been successful and upheld by the court, the fine the hunter would have been asked to pay would have been far more severe. Despite a detailed and expert testimony provided by the WWF, the court decided that the killing of the eagle did not constitute an offence under Section182 of the Austrian Criminal Code; the hunter was therefore acquitted on this charge. However in respect to the admitted charge of shooting a protected species , the Hunting Association confiscated the hunting license for a period of 5 years and the court  imposed a fine of 4200 Euros (£4620). The World Wildlife Fund supported by Austrian Hunting Association, united together to ensure that the prosecution of the individual responsible for this crime resulted in a successful conviction as a warning to others.

White-tailed eagle Monitoring Programme

Our monitoring programme consists of the winter-monitoring, the regular monitoring of breeding sites, together with a comprehensive ringing programme of all nestlings. Due to topographical features, White-tailed Eagles occur almost exclusively in the eastern lowland areas of Austria. In these core areas synchronous counts of wintering eagles have been conducted since 2001. In Austria and its border areas with other countries research has shown between 100–150 White-tailed Eagles are present in mid-winter.

After decades of forced absence as a breeding species in our country, the White-tailed eagle returned as a successful breeding bird in 2001. The existing breeding population now expands across the three federal states of Styria, Burgenland and Lower Austria.[singlepic id=284w=314 h=235 float=right]

Currently, 13–15 White-tailed Eagle pairs breed in these federal territories. Breeding pairs are now located in a mixture of different habitat types, like the riparian forests located along rivers Danube and March. Other pairs nest in close to fish ponds which are surrounded by coniferous rich area in the higher elevated region of Waldviertel. However, breeding territories are always established close to rivers and pond where fish stocks are plentiful. Between 2001–2010 more than 50 young eaglets fledged from just 13 eyrie’s. The rate of successful breeding pairs (percentage of successful broods) was 69%, total nest success (number of young per breeding pair) was 1,1 chicks and brood size (number of young per successful breeding pair) was 1,7.

There have been 13 recoveries of wintering birds, almost exclusively from a north easterly direction. White-tailed Eagles from the Baltic States, Scandinavia and north-west Russia migrate to Austria regularly. Individuals of neighbouring countries like Hungary have also been recorded. To date there is no conclusive proof of any foreign bird having successfully bred in Austria. It may be that birds in eastern Austria are more likely from the Danube population, while for example breeding pairs from the Waldviertel region are more related to northern birds just across the boarder, e. g. from the Trebon area in the Czech Republic. Obviously, more data is needed.

[singlepic id=285w=314 h=235 float=left]Since 2007, Austria has participated in the International Colour-ringing Programme; In total 10 young have been ringed so far. The combination of Austria’s designated ringing colours are black above green. The other individual rings which are used to ring White-tailed eagles in Austria are uncoloured aluminium.

Outlook for the Future

The goal now is to extend our monitoring and protection project in respect to this species. The on going protection of nesting territories remains a big challenge. As Austria’s White-tailed eagle population expands, eagles are beginning to select nesting territories where their protection is at best limited or very difficult. One of the main challenges for the future security of the WTE in Austria is to find practical solutions to protecting these breeding locations. One additional important concern which must be addressed, Austrian wildlife legislation is quite weak and often difficult to implement and therefore must be strengthened.

Wind Turbines Concerns.

Last winter the first case was reported of a White-tailed Eagle which had been killed when it collided with the blades of a wind farm turbine. There is little doubt that in the future this human introduced threat is just one additional problem that needs to be taken into account to ensure the species is adequately protected. A sensible regional planning scheme could also be an important future tool to help save essential habitats and the birds that are dependent upon these special areas for their survival. Furthermore, the fight against illegal persecution as well as introducing legislation banning the use of lead in ammunition is a very important consideration.

Article author Mr. Christian Pichler, Director, National Programme for the Conservation of Large Carnivores Austria

1 comment to White-tailed eagle – Avian Icon returns to the Forests of Austria

  • Good to read some heartening news amidst the general gloom of wildlife disappearing thorough unneccesary human activity. Congratulations, Austria for your breeding eagles.,