Interview with Remo Probst about the White-tailed Eagle in Austria

Date of the interview: 06 Septempber 2010

In this interview Remo Probst, an expert on White-tailed Eagles, talks about White-tailed Eagles and their current situation in Austria.
Remo is also the editor of the recently published book Der Seeadler im Herzen Europas (The White-tailed Eagle in the heart of Europe) which is a wonderful and very interesting overview of the status of the White-tailed Ealge in Austria. A few copies are still available. More information about the book and how to order it can be found here: New book about the White-tailed Eagle in Central Europe published

Markus Jais: How many pairs of White-tailed Eagles do currently breed in Austria and where can they be found?
Remo Probst: We have about 13-15 breeding pairs. They can be found in a kind of arc from south-eastern Styria, over the Burgenland, the Donau-March-Thaya region and the Waldviertel. Furthermore, the species is breeding at the lower Inn in close vicinity to Austria.
They breed in a lot of different habitat types, like the riparian forests of the big rivers Danube and March or the pond and coniferous rich area of the higher elevated Waldviertel. However, breeding territories always include fish rich waters.

White-tailed Eagle conference 2007 in Austria.
© Archiv WWF Österreich

Markus Jais: The White-tailed Eagle was extinct in Austria. How did that happen when did it start it make a comeback?
Remo Probst: White-tailed Eagles were heavily persecuted from the middle of the 19th century and later on the use of DDT and related substances had very probably an important negative influence. Additionally, in some regions habitat availability were lowered through human activities. In the 1970ies only a few eagles wintered in Austria. However, parallel activities like fighting illegal hunting started. By 1999 we had the first proven breeding attempt and 2001 the first juvenile fledged in the “new era”.

Markus Jais: Populations of White-tailed Eagles are rising in many European countries. Is it known where the Austrian birds come from?
Remo Probst: We have ringing recoveries of wintering birds from up to northwestern Russia and, during the breeding season, individuals of neighboring countries like Hungary were reported. However, we have no definite proof of a foreign bird breeding in Austria. It may be that birds in eastern Austria are more likely of the Danube population, while for example breeders of the Waldviertel are more related to northern birds, e. g. from the Trebon area in the Czech Republic. Obviously, more data are needed.

Breeding habitat on military training area.
© Österreichisches Bundesheer / Ref. Öko. TÜP Allentsteig

Markus Jais: How important are the riparian forests and flood plains along the Danube and Morava (March in German) river and how is their conservation status?
Remo Probst: This area is as a whole the backbone of the Austrian breeding population. While the Danube riparian forest east of Vienna is well protected in the “Nationalpark Donauauen”, the regions west of Vienna and the March-Thaya-Auen are not as well protected. Especially the later area is enormously diverse and rich in raptors like Eastern Imperial Eagle and both Milvus-species (currently the only place in Austria), and therefore an improved protection status should be achieved.

Floodplains along Morava river
© T. Zuna-Kratky

Markus Jais: What is the main food of White-tailed Eagles in Austria?
Remo Probst: Like the habitats, the food is very diverse for such a small country like Austria. There are differences in the regions as well as during the circle of the year. For example, geese are year round very important in the Nationalpark Neusiedler-See Seewinkel, while fish in summer but carrion in winter dominates in the Waldviertel.

Markus Jais: Is there competition for food or nest sites with other raptors like Eastern Imperial Eagles?
Remo Probst: We have seen large aggregations of these two eagle species at carrion, with up to around 10 birds. Probably, White-tailed Eagle can outcompete the Eastern Imperial Eagle due to its larger size, however, observations are rare. Furthermore, the availability of carrion in the enormously hare rich areas of eastern Austria is often comparatively high.
Eastern Imperial Eagles tend to nest in much more open habitat types than the White-tailed Eagle and so nest competition is limited. However, I know a case in western Hungary close to the Austrian border were an artificial nest installed for Eastern Imperial Eagles was occupied by White-tailed Eagles despite being in very open agricultural landscape.

Markus Jais: What is known about the dispersal of juvenile birds?
Remo Probst: Our knowledge is limited: One bird ringed as pullus was reported the next winter ca. 20 km from the nest.

Markus Jais: How many White-tailed Eagles do spend the winter in Austria and where do they come from?
Remo Probst: In course of the WWF White-tailed Eagle project, we have made synchronized censuses in all main wintering areas since 2001. As these areas are often close to the borders we cannot speak from an Austrian wintering population, however, in our country and the border regions there are about 100 – 150 White-tailed Eagles wintering. We have recoveries from central Europe, but regularly from the northeast, namely Baltic states, eastern Scandinavia and northwestern Russia.

Markus Jais: What habitat and food do the wintering birds prefer?
Remo Probst: Wintering birds are often in the same habitats like breeding birds, however, at this time more are to be found in open agricultural areas like the Parndorfer Platte or the upper March-Thaya-Auen. There, they often feed on carrion while for example along the Danube the hunting of fish can last into the December. Interestingly, we have also several reports of eagles stealing fish from cormorants.

Markus Jais: How many birds die from illegal poisoning and other types of persecution like shooting?
Remo Probst: Since about 1990 dozens of birds were killed by Carbofuran and additional birds were killed by shooting! We are sure to know just the “tip of the iceberg”. In the WWF White-tailed Eagle project the fighting of this illegal poisoning was and is one of the main tasks to protect the species. Carbofuran was banned in 2008 and we had no case of poisoning since in the White-tailed Eagle. However, just a few days ago two Eastern Imperial Eagles died of it in Austria and, therefore, the struggle isn’t yet over!

Poisoned White-tailed Eagle
© Archiv WWF Österreich

Markus Jais: How many birds die from lead poisoning? Are there efforts to make lead ammunition illegal or are hunters encouraged to use non lead ammunition?
Remo Probst: We get more and more data showing that lead poisoning is a substantial threat for the White-tailed Eagle population in Austria. Singly in the last winter 2009/10 two cases were added. In contrast to other countries, there are (too) little efforts to fight against the use of lead in ammunition. This may also be seen in the light of other poisoned birds of prey like Golden Eagles, Bearded Vultures or summering Griffon Vultures.

Markus Jais: What other threats to White-tailed Eagles do exist in Austria?
Remo Probst: As population grows, eagles use more and more not fully or not protected areas for breeding. One of the main tasks for the future is to find practical solutions to protect these breeding places. The execution of existing laws is quite week in Austria. Furthermore, we had last winter the first case of a White-tailed Eagle killed in a wind farm and therefore also this human made threat needs to be taken into account. A sensible regional planning could be an important tool to save habitats and birds.

Markus Jais: What needs to be done so that the population can continue to increase?
Remo Probst: We need to prolong our monitoring and protection project on this species. I would see the protection of nesting places, the fight against illegal persecution as well as the ban of lead in ammunition as the most urgent tasks.

Markus Jais: How many pairs to you think could live in Austria when all suitable habitats would be colonized?
Remo Probst: Maybe 20 – 30.

Agricultural area used for foraging
© T. Zuna-Kratky

Markus Jais: Are there any conservation projects going on Austria and neighboring countries?
Remo Probst: Yes, we have the White-tailed Eagle project of WWF Austria. Formally, it’s divided into the monitoring and the “Vorsicht Gift!”-action. We have several co-operations with neighboring countries and, furthermore, I’m currently writing a White-tailed Eagle Action Plan for the whole Danube region. The later project is guided be the Nationalpark Donauauen and in cooperation with all big protection areas along the Danube, from Germany to Romania.

Markus Jais: How do you see the future of the White-tailed Eagle in Austria and neighboring countries?
Remo Probst: As a whole, I see a positive future. Many people and scientists as well are working on a good future for this and other birds of prey species. However, it is necessary that work continuous as the fate of this low productive birds can change fast.

Markus Jais: What can bird watchers do to help the White-tailed Eagle? What should they do if they find a dead – and possible poisoned – bird?
Remo Probst: Bird watchers should enjoy the observation of a White-tailed Eagle and carry their positive feelings to other people. The bigger the “Eagle-lobby” is, the easier the protection works. Photographers may always keep in mind that they may cause themselves a substantial disturbance at nesting places.
In case of finding a potentially poisoned bird it is always best to contact the police. Make clear – everywhere – that illegal killing of raptors is a serious crime.

Markus Jais: What was your most amazing experience with White-tailed Eagles?
Remo Probst: Some years ago I was sitting on a cold November day close to an adult White-tailed Eagle female which was resting high in a tree on a Danube oxbow. It was the first day that autumn the oxbow was frozen. After some two hours a cormorant flew into the oxbow and as soon it was close to the eagle it was attacked. The cormorant realized too late that it could not escape by diving into the water and was caught in mid-air! Was this the intention of the experienced raptor from the beginning?

Markus Jais: Remo, thank you very much for the interview.

More information

Horstschutzzonen für gefährdete Greifvögel (Nest protection zones for endangered raptors) In German

Gift Leitfaden (Poison Guide) 2009 from WWF Austria In German

Der Seeadler (Haliaeetus albicilla) in Österreich: Eine Revision historischer Daten (The White-tailed Eagle in Austria: A revision of historical data) In German with English summary

Der Seeadler (Haliaeetus albicilla) in Österreich: Das WWF Österreich Seeadlerprojekt (The White-tailed Eagle in Austria: The WWF White-tailed Eagle project) In German with English summary

Schutzanforderung für den Seeadler im Herzen Europas (Conservation requirements for the White-tailed Eagle in the hear of Europe) In German with English summary

Die Kleider des Seeadlers (Haliaeetus albicilla) unter dem Einfluss individueller und geografischer Variation (The plumages of the White-tailed Eagle under the influence of individual and geographic variation) In German with English summary