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'Mega rare' visitor spotted in the skies of Sutherland village

By Mike Merritt

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The short toed snake eagle was spotted flying and hunting near Lairg. Photo: Lehava Kiryat Shmona Pikiwiki Israel, CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
The short toed snake eagle was spotted flying and hunting near Lairg. Photo: Lehava Kiryat Shmona Pikiwiki Israel, CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

A short-toed snake eagle has been spotted in a Sutherland village. The very rare visitor was seen flying and hunting near Lairg on Tuesday May 24.

Rare Bird Alert said it is potentially only the second record north of the border after a previous sighting in July at an undisclosed location in the Highlands. Both sightings have yet to be accepted as official records.

There have only been a few glimpses of the "mega rare" species in the UK.

The first official UK sightings came on the Isles of Scilly in 1999 followed by Jersey in 2011 and Sussex and Dorset in 2014.

The birds are common in central and southern Europe and have a wingspan of up to 6ft (190cm).

That compares to a white-tailed sea eagle - Britain's largest bird of prey - with an 8ft wingspan and golden eagles, which have up to 7ft.

Short-toed eagles (circaetus gallicus) migrate from Africa in the spring and can live up to 30 years.

The short-toed snake eagle is found in open cultivated plains, arid stony deciduous scrub areas and foothills and semi-desert areas. It requires trees for nesting and open habitats, such as cultivations and grasslands for foraging.

They can be recognised in the field by their predominantly white underside, the upper parts being greyish brown. The chin, throat and upper breast are a pale, earthy brown. The tail has three or four bars. Additional indications are an owl-like rounded head, brightly yellow eyes and lightly barred under wing.

The short-toed snake eagle spends more time on the wing than do most members of its genus. It favours soaring over hill slopes and hilltops on updraughts, and it does much of its hunting from this position at heights of up to 500 m (1600 ft). When quartering open country it frequently hovers like a kestrel. When it soars it does so on flattish wings.

Its prey is mostly reptiles, mainly snakes, but also some lizards.

Sometimes they become entangled with larger snakes and battle on the ground. Occasionally, they prey on small mammals up to the size of a rabbit, and rarely birds and large insects.

This eagle is generally very silent. On occasions, it emits a variety of musical whistling notes. When breeding, it lays only one egg. It can live up to 17 years.

The short-toed snake eagle has suffered a steep decline in numbers and range in Europe and is now rare and still decreasing in several countries due to changes in agriculture and land use.

They belong to the family Accipitridae, which also includes many other diurnal raptors such as kites, buzzards and harriers.

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