For centuries, there's been an eagle-shaped hole in the skies over England where the majestic white-tailed eagle once soared. The enormous raptor — its wingspan stretches nearly eight feet — was hunted to extinction some 240 years ago.
"They are a missing part of England's native biodiversity and were lost entirely through human activities, particularly intense persecution," notes the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, a charitable trust dedicated to wildlife conservation and research.
But last August, hope took flight again on the tenuous wings of six baby raptors. The chicks, as The Guardian reports, were released on the Isle of Wight, in the hope they would someday reclaim their place in the skies of southern Britain.
"The return of these spectacular birds to England is a real landmark for conservation," Tony Juniper of governmental advisory board Natural England, told the newspaper.
"I very much hope that it will also provide a practical demonstration of the fact that we can actually reverse the historic decline of our depleted natural environment."
Indeed, the eagles' return is a concerted effort among government and conservation groups modeled after a similar success in Scotland. Back in the 1970s, Scotland released a handful of white-tailed eagles, also called sea eagles, and spent the next few decades watching them multiply. Today, there are an estimated 130 breeding pairs in Scotland. That's a ringing success for birds that don't breed for their first five years of life, making their expansion an extremely slow-going affair.
The six babies were taken from among that group — with a world of hope riding on those little wings.
"At the start they mostly stayed in the nest areas and slept a lot, but soon they were venturing out onto the perches, practicing balancing and moving along them," notes Isle of Wight resident Jim Willmott, one of the volunteers who helped monitor the birds for Forestry England. "Next came the jumping and wing flapping, and then when I least expected it one of them did their first ever flight. The bird looked as surprised and pleased as I did."
The Isle of Wight was selected for several reasons, according to the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation. For one thing, it's the last place in southern England they were known to live. Specifically, the last pair to breed was seen back in 1780 on the Isle of Wight's Culver Cliff. The area is also rich in potential nesting sites, boasting forests and cliffs that can keep young families buffered from the outside world.
Finally, as a base for an eagle renaissance, the Isle of Wight is geographically positioned to spread the wealth to England's southern shores and beyond.
"Establishing a population of white-tailed eagles in the south of England will link and support emerging populations of these birds in the Netherlands, France and Ireland, with the aim of restoring the species to the southern half of Europe," Roy Dennis, founder of the wildlife foundation that bears his name, told The Guardian.
As part of a five-year plan, the Isle of Wight colony will be bolstered by new bird releases annually.
And how are these birds faring today, some seven months after their arrival? They won't be of breeding age until at least 2024, but until then, they'll be under the watch of project officials, thanks to tiny transmitters attached to each bird.
They're also encouraging others to lend their eyes to the effort.
"If you are lucky enough to see a white-tailed eagle over your garden, please send us the details using our new online reporting form," notes founder Roy Dennis in his blog, which tracks the young birds' movements in more detail. "Given the way these birds readily travel over towns, villages and even cities, there is a chance of seeing one wherever you live — so keep looking up, but please do stay at home and stay safe."