Until recently, anyone wanting to catch a glimpse of a sea eagle had to travel to the Hebrides and parts of Scotland’s west coast, where the birds have gradually been reintroduced since the Seventies.
But a new scheme to reintroduce the raptors – the world’s fourth-biggest bird of prey – to the east coast has been so successful that they have taken to swooping over urban areas, causing awe, fear and alarm along the way.
One has been spotted flying over the car park of an Asda supermarket in Dunfermline, its 8ft wingspan and white tail clearly visible to shoppers. Another took to sitting beside a railway until it was frightened off by a passing train.
"One caller phoned to say she had seen a condor, and another described it as being like a flying barn door," said Claire Smith, an RSPB officer who helps to manage the project."
Since 15 sea eagle chicks arrived from Norway in June, details of their reintroduction to the east coast of Scotland have been secret. For two months the chicks were held in cages in an undisclosed location in north Fife, where they were fed venison, rabbit and fish to build up their strength before being released in August.
Since then there have been 250 sightings – compared with only a few dozen each year on the west coast – from Fraserburgh in Aberdeenshire to Montrose in Angus to Stirling and Berwick-upon-Tweed.
The eagles are capable of flying up to 150 miles a day, but can survive on little more than 10oz of food – about 300g – the equivalent of a small rabbit.
The scheme, managed by the RSPB in partnership with Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry Commission Scotland, will be closely watched by those who believe it could be a blueprint for reintroducing birds of prey near urban areas across Britain. Up to 80 sea eagles will be released in east Scotland over the next five years.
One farmer has said that a sea eagle has been taking his poultry, although post-mortem examinations ruled out the possibility of a raptor. Another said that 50 of his mallards are missing; the RSPB is investigating.
A spokeswoman for the National Farmers’ Union Scotland said yesterday: "This is going to cause concern for farmers when lambing time comes and the lambs are small."
Smith said: "We can’t categorically say there won’t be a problem because we can’t account at all times for every bird, but we’re not anticipating one."